Our national homework assignment—Beginning to envision a just and inclusive society

Dr. Jeffrey Haggray

April 1, 2020

America has been brought to a standstill by COVID-19 and the authorities are telling us, “Stay Home!” The rapid spread of COVID-19 has stalled the engines of our society. Systems of transportation, industry, education, business, entertainment, sports, hospitality, and even religious gatherings have come to a screeching halt, while activities in healthcare, crisis management, public safety and government are stretched beyond their capacity to serve the tens of thousands of people who have been exposed to the deadly coronavirus.

While the majority of Americans are staying at home due to the national emergency, I propose that we all make time to reflect on the countless vulnerable people who have been surviving on the edges of our political and economic system for years now, and whose dire circumstances are being exposed by this pandemic. While some will say that now is no time to look back, I respectfully disagree. Overcoming both our present and future predicaments require that we understand how we arrived at this point of vulnerability. Then, through a form of humanitarian contact tracing we can determine where our suffering neighbors are located and begin to get needed aid to them, while also strengthening our core to resist against future suffering. 

Hindsight is 20/20. How did we arrive at this point of vulnerability? At the start of this year, many people were pointing out that 2020 would be the year for seeing everything clearly. Little did we know that 2020 would bring so many painful realities in our nation into such sharp focus.  What is COVID-19 revealing about the health of our nation?

For many years now, public theologians, proclaimers of the gospel, justice advocates, faith-based and community-based organizers, health and human service advocates, educators, compassionate public servants, and many others have repeatedly sounded the alarms, crying out for righteousness in the public square, demanding a cessation to business as usual, begging government officials at the national, state, and local levels to do justice, pursue kindness, and serve the people with greater humility before God. Through my own work with Public Witness and Advocacy for the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, and serving on the boards of Bread for the World and Church World Service, while participating with other faith leaders, I have joined numerous efforts calling attention to the suffering of vulnerable people, while watching basic protections for everyday people be removed from them.

During this COVID-19 crisis our nation and world are overwhelmed with the painful realities of sickness and death. However, we must acknowledge that undeserved suffering and death in America did not start with COVID-19. Countless vulnerable and voiceless Americans, many of them among the working poor, have been fighting to survive in our economy for years, and their plight has been seldom discussed in the halls of government, in houses of worship, in corporate America, and in our entertainment-driven culture. 

The list is far too long to itemize here, but no humanitarian reset is possible unless we name the suffering which includes: persons wasting away needlessly and unjustly in America’s prisons and jails; migrants detained in cages and cells along our southern borders; uninsured persons lacking access to lifesaving healthcare; persons with mental and physical disabilities and addictions dying on our city streets; victims of human trafficking suffering from forced labor and sexual imprisonment; persons striving daily against food scarcity across America; impoverished public schools lacking the basic resources and supplies needed to provide quality education to our nation’s children, thereby undermining their intellectual development; digital deserts where underserved populations lack access to vital technology and Wi-Fi; elderly and sick persons—many of them malnourished—barely surviving in isolation without the community support that makes for a healthy life; extreme poverty across our nation that relegates countless people to a wretched existence of despair, addiction, hopelessness, and often homelessness. This is only a partial list of the long-term suffering experienced by millions of persons in the so-called wealthiest nation on earth.

Many of these same vulnerabilities were exposed prior to the spread of COVID-19 by large-scale natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Maria, and during mass social protests in underserved communities in the aftermath of state-sanctioned violence and brutality, and by numerous documentaries and campaigns calling attention to the plight of America’s poor.  Moreover, conditions among all the above populations have worsened dramatically under the current White House in recent years. We would be derelict of ethical responsibility to ignore that reality now. America’s rich have grown richer while conditions affecting the poor have grown worse. Speaking on MSNBC recently, Dr. Eddie Glaude of Princeton University pointed out that the current national emergency prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic “exposes the fault lines in America” caused by extreme capitalism.

The White House and the Congress are now taking emergency measures to slow the spread of the disease and to shore up the healthcare industry, while also injecting more money into the economy to prevent a complete financial meltdown. Nevertheless, for many years now there has been a systematic unraveling of America’s safety net on the part of governmental leaders in all branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—and at all levels including federal, state, and local.

Meanwhile, America has spent trillions of dollars on wars, weaponry, and military activities under the banner of international, national, and homeland security across the globe, which is of no consolation to us now as hospitals, doctors, and other healthcare workers are sacrificing their lives without adequate equipment or protections on the front lines of the deadliest war to invade our homeland in 100 years. While our government has unwisely sacrificed billions in needed tax revenues to increase profits to the wealthiest Americans and to satiate unharnessed capitalist greed, the safety net for millions of other Americans has been torn asunder.

20/20 vision for a more just future. These long days and weeks spent at home allow us time for a national homework assignment. I encourage everyone, from church leaders to government officials, from business leaders to non-profit leaders, and from every industry whether corporate, travel, hospitality, entertainment, sports, private, public, or religious to work on the following question: What would a public policy reset look like across America—at the federal, state, and local levels—with regard to caring for the most vulnerable people in our land, whether they are citizens or undocumented? Reset is defined here as starting over from the beginning to envision a just and inclusive society.

Given the many painful realities that are now exposed concerning the poor state of our internal health as a nation, how might we envision, redesign, implement and sustain a nationwide safety net to protect vulnerable and underserved Americans from life’s severest storms, that assures everyone access to a living wage, safe food, clean water, housing, healthcare, education, protection from unjust incrimination, freedom from abuse, degradation and injustice, and so much more?

Visioning through the lens of Easter. President Donald Trump recently instigated a public debate about whether to attend church on this coming Easter Sunday. Mr. Trump is not concerned about the faithful attending their houses of worship during the Passover and Resurrection observances. His priorities are established in the public record, namely money and the economy. Mr. Trump wants to see the “stay at home” restrictions lifted across America in order to get the economy moving again because having claimed repeatedly that the stock market, the economy and the employment numbers reflect his successful leadership as President, he knows that any flat-lining in those categories will signal his failure as president. I urge Christians to resist the temptation to enter Trump’s foolish debate regarding whether to gather in churches at the height of this pandemic. Only the “Tempter” says to us, “If you truly are the people of God, then endanger your lives to COVID-19 and watch me raise up the economy within days.”  

Followers of Jesus should use this standstill in our nation to raise questions that must come prior to returning to business as usual. For we know from past experience that if the White House, the Congress, the Courts, State Houses, Wall Street, the business community, the Church, and all other impacted communities return to the “old normal” without first raising fundamental questions regarding the welfare of millions of people whose extreme existential vulnerabilities are now exposed in the areas of income inequality, lack of wage protection, access to food, housing, healthcare, technology access, etc., then we will surely miss the silver lining that is potentially located behind this dark and dreadful storm.

Followers of Jesus should use this standstill in our nation to raise questions that must come prior to returning to business as usual; questions regarding the welfare of millions of people whose extreme existential vulnerabilities are now exposed in the areas of income inequality, lack of wage protection, access to food, housing, healthcare and technology access.

Looking ahead to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, let us remember that the Holy Week observances mark the shameful suffering of an innocent person caused by dishonest dealings, false reporting, and injustice. The resurrection celebration emerges only slowly, though brilliantly, in the aftermath of undeserved suffering and death. Our Lord’s resurrection was discovered by frightened and vulnerable followers when an angel of the Lord asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5-6).  Christians survive in this world on the hope that life eventually overcomes death after long periods of undeserved suffering. 

As discussions were looming a few days ago concerning the need to shelter in place, work from home, provide paid leave, and pass legislation for emergency relief, a social media post went viral concerning how some in America could have been providing relief to persons in distress all along. The writer stated, “Children could’ve gotten laptops and free wifi this whole time…Abandoned federal buildings could’ve been used for homeless people…Bill payments could’ve been furloughed this whole time…Evictions could’ve been delayed this whole time…Humanity could’ve been humane this whole time.”

I challenge every proclaimer of the gospel to not only preach via virtual media on Easter Sunday, but to take ten minutes while we have the undivided attention of our listeners to declare that righteousness exalts a nation, but the failure to do justice toward the least of these will tear a nation down. 

Declare that our God is the resurrection and the life, and if we will re-organize our nation’s values around the needs of the poor in spirit, of those who mourn, of the meek, of those who hunger and thirst for justice, of the merciful, of the pure in heart, of the peacemakers, and of those who are falsely persecuted; and if we will respond to the call of Christ to be the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:1-14), then God will guide us in changing our condition.  Call upon the faithful to humble ourselves and pray, to repent and turn from injustice toward the weak, to care for the most vulnerable among us, knowing that God has promised to hear from heaven, to forgive injustice, and to heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Dr. Jeffrey Haggray is executive director of American Baptist Home Mission Societies and Judson Press.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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