A year with challenges unlike any other year before
Carmen Joy Imes
By Carmen Joy Imes
I think it’s safe to say that when 2020 is over, the world will breathe a collective sigh of relief. (Well, those who survive it will, which is clearly not enough of us.) Just when we think we’re nearing the end of one crisis, another begins. We’re only halfway through the year, but it’s been brutal. Absolutely brutal.
Several memes on Facebook have illustrated the general sentiment:
2020: The Movie
Written by Steven King
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Where can I get a refund for 2020? I’m not satisfied.
Others have given 2020 a 1-star rating, saying they wouldn’t recommend it.
But as hard as it has been, I’m beginning to think this was exactly what we needed. I don’t mean that in a masochistic way. I don’t enjoy suffering. I also don’t think God planned the CoronaVirus or the Australian bush fires or the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery as a way of testing us. But God has gifts to give us that can only come wrapped in suffering. Chief among them this year is the gift of sight.
As we turned the corner into 2020, I braced myself for the inevitable rush of clever plays on 2020: 20/20 vision, seeing clearly, hindsight, etc. I’ve noticed surprisingly few. But now that we’re nearly halfway through the year, it’s time.
2020 is revealing things about ourselves and our society that we needed to see.
We are connected. Now more than ever, we can see that our entire world is interlaced. Beating the CoronaVirus has required the cooperation of every country on the planet. Planes, trains, and automobiles knit us so tightly together that we cannot face our greatest challenges without a coordinated effort. With borders closed, events cancelled, and gatherings prohibited, we’re feeling acutely how much connecting we actually do.
We need to be together. The wonders of technology have not erased our need for handshakes, hugs, and proximity to each other. We are embodied. We are designed to relate to each other as three-dimensional beings who share the same airspace and the same vibes. Singing along to pre-recorded worship doesn’t cut it. Zoom doesn’t cut it. Relating only on screen further polarizes us because we have fewer social cues by which we can “read the room” and build bridges of understanding. It seems we have less wiggle room for disagreement online than we do in person.
We are divided. We talk past each other more than we talk to each other. Social media becomes either an echo chamber in which we “like” those who sound like us or a boxing ring where we duke it out and nobody wins. Constructive dialogue seems rare. Given that this is an election year in the United States, our divisions are likely to feel even more acute in a few months. When a politician speaks, members of the opposing party tend to hear something quite different from what members of the politician’s own party hear. Both sides respond with “See?!” as if the statement proves their point and vindicates their views. For the nation to survive this season, we’ll need new ways to get at the underlying values that drive public rhetoric.
We do not all experience the same world. The pandemic disproportionately affects communities that lack infrastructure, such as the Navajo Nation. Stay at home orders cause undue hardship for some and feel like a staycation to others. Some of us have jobs that can be done from home. Others have lost jobs or lost wages. Some of us have safe homes. Some of us are in more danger at home than out in the world. Some of us see the police force as our allies and others of us experience repeated profiling and lack confidence that law enforcement will act lawfully.
Most of our work is not as “essential” as we thought. Many of us have discovered that without our work, the world will keep on turning. Some of us who thought that slowing down was impossible have been forced to do so. Perhaps we will begin to take ourselves less seriously. We’ve also gained a new appreciation for essential workers in our communities: grocery store checkers and truck drivers, nurses and mechanics, garbage collectors and cleaning crews. Hopefully this new appreciation will translate into increased respect.
Some things are more important and more urgent than we realized. Just a few short weeks ago the angst of our nation spilled into the streets to confront long-standing inequities felt keenly by the black community. More than ever before in my memory, white pastors and white-led organizations have spoken up and showed up to march alongside our black and brown brothers and sisters. My Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds are dominated by conversations about race. I expect they will be for some time. Organizations of all kinds are issuing statements and discussing the way forward. These conversations are not easy. The potential for misunderstanding is high. People of color among us are understandably skeptical of white hashtag activism, wondering whether it will translate into any lasting change.
You’ve likely heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed by the Nazi regime for his plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He penned some incredibly profound insights on Christian community in his book, Life Together. They have never been more relevant. He warns:
It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.
Until now, I had never been prevented from gathering with other believers. 2020 has shown me what a gift it is to meet together, and what a loss it is when such meetings are not allowed.
But there’s more. Bonhoeffer spent formative time in the black church in the United States before returning to Germany to shepherd the church that actively resisted Hitler’s regime. Bonhoeffer knows community. He knows a church divided by politics and a world on fire. He engaged in civil disobedience. And he knows what it costs.
He has some startlingly relevant things to say about how Christian community can survive a crisis like the ones we’re facing in our day. Do you feel that your sense of security and peace have been shattered in 2020? Bonhoeffer calls this grace.
By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. (27, emphasis added)
Bonhoeffer would celebrate the wake-up call that is 2020. He would press into the ugliness until it surrendered the promise it holds. For Bonhoeffer, a return to the way things were would destroy the possibility of true Christian community. He goes on to say,
A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. . . . He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. (27, emphasis added)
Now is the time for us to surrender our illusions and embrace the gift of sight. The world may have felt secure and predicable in 2019, but it wasn’t. Society may have felt to you like it was functioning equitably, but it wasn’t. 2020 is revealing things about ourselves and our society that we needed to see.
We are seeing what’s wrong with the way things are. We are discovering weak spots in our supply chain and in our cleaning protocol. We are realizing that our sense of security was misplaced, that there is much work to do. We are discovering fissures in our foundations. And we will need to persevere through the crisis instead of trying to go back if we want to build something better. We will need each other going forward – all of us – if we are to experience the rich fullness of Christian community.