COVID is a nasty little beast only now becoming itself as a global phenomenon. Bill Gates says it is like being in a world war except that all of humanity is on the same side (here). I don’t think that helps as it make the virus seem like is as mean as people whipped up into stupid war frenzy. It is just doing the things that virus do without malice. We need to act like people, too, except the grown-up kind who do the things that people do to look out for each other.
More ugly COVID shocks and surprises lay ahead as the other deep pools of suffering, stigma and exclusion become the new epicenters. Refugee camps, prisons and vast favelas of Africa, Latin America and India will experience a whole new dimension of suffering about the time the nail salons are opening up in the US.
Last week Grand Rounds for our FaithHealth Division was titled “Testing Positive for Faith amid the COVID pandemic.” Dean Johnny Hill of Shaw Divinity School led the conversation with Dr. Brian Davis who has recently joined the Division after two decades in leadership roles in the NC Baptist Convention.
If you google the phrase “testing positive for faith” you’ll be on an odd ride into the edges of the kind of faith that prays when they should be washing their hands, that mocks the God who has given us science as an answer to prayer. You can buy a stupid T-shirt. But don’t let some odd people run off with an excellent metaphor. How would one test for faith in these early years of the 21st century?
COVID teaches us that one can be infected without showing symptoms. Likewise, it is dangerous to judge faith to fit your idea of the proper symptoms. The CDC adds to its list of symptoms to watch for, now up to 19. Although older people seem more likely to have a serious case of faith, it does show up in the younger groups, just not as likely to create a whole change in life. Just as COVID is still becoming itself, so it faith in these months.
We have been told–and come to believe–that the 21st century is marked by a dramatic chasm between large groups of people who declare they want none of organized religion at all and those who “believe.” The “nones” focus on decency and kindness without the sermonic overload. The outer fringe of believers leave reason, science and democratic norms behind.
Like Gates’ war analogy, this one sounds right, but is simplistically wrong. It is unhelpfully superficial way to see the complex mélange of identities in even the smallest modern village. COVID shows us that the divide between communities of faith and the many facets of scientific roles has evaporated. At Baptist hospital we rarely pray in public, even at governance and leadership meetings out of sensitivity to the diversity in a modern academic medical center. But in the early days of when COVID came to our halls, one of our doctors asked if we couldn’t get the chaplains to pray more than once a week; how about every day? With the exception of a few politicized TV wingnuts, congregations listen to Dr. Fauci with as much trust as they would any Bishop. We stay home and we follow the guidance of science as to how to show our faith with an array of creative ways of looking out for our neighbors as ourselves.
In Winston-Salem one of our most faithful pediatricians designed a facemask more comfortable and thus more likely be worn. Bill Satterwhite worked with a sock company in Mt Airy (the model for Mayberry) to get them into production to mask the city. Standing six feet apart, but locked as one, the effort is blending faith networks of all persuasions, business, government, philanthropy and, of course public health and healthcare. The people doing the bold project are all more than one of those identities, testing positive for faith AND science, smart business, democracy and decency. The flexible spine is called Love Out Loud, but mostly works quietly to build the relationships that can carry the freight in times like this. None of them has to think very hard about how to do this collaborative interdisciplinary interfaith inter-everything activity. Nobody has to speak slowly so the faith people can grasp the idea of viral risk. And nobody has to teach the business people and engineers ethics as if they didn’t have mothers. Some of the masks are for sale (the first batch offered sold out within 45 minutes). But most are given away by employers to their staff and many thousands through the non-profit and faith networks.
Normal grown-ups know how to act appropriately and with efficiency. COVID probably thought it was competing against the venal idiots doing the TV press conferences. It turns out the virus has to tangle with more normal grown-ups than anyone thought existed. We were asymptomatic! But infected with faith and science so we can do smart things together.
Of course, to see that, you have to ignore a lot of stupidity from roles you’d expect intelligence. Walk away from the TV and see if the fog of false division is lifting just as you’d hope. We’re very deep in the hole with deep wounds to heal, mostly from long before this virus came out of the bat caves.
JB Phillips translates one of the letters attributed to Paul as “faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see.” (Hebrews 11:1). He continues, “And it is after all only by faith that our minds accept as fact the whole scheme of time and space was created by God.” Science helps us see the scheme and what it is possible to hope for. We can see beyond the horizon of the current chaos to what could yet be.
Public health science is profoundly relational; six feet, showing respect with masks and clean hands. The arts of public justice and mercy require clean hearts and no less science.
Many of the same people responding to COVID were beginning to work on the intractable and pernicious challenge of early childhood. Some of that is very hard, but most is about as obvious as washing one’s hands. But instead of social distance, we need kind-hearted engagement with the mom’s, men and kids otherwise guaranteed to stay poor another generation. Before COVID, we were meeting, but secretly going through the motions because we didn’t really believe things could be different. The actions planned were entirely precedented. Way more kids would lose more years of their lives to inaction than they ever would from COVID.
COVID shows us that we could make the choices to lead toward life. We can contact trace every kid born in the county, know their name and help their mom and the ones that love them.
We’ve already spent more trillions for COVID than we thought it would cost to give this generation a shot in hell at a decent life. We know now that we could turn around and go another way. It would just take a lot of faith and science to do so.
But a lot of grown-ups are testing positive these days.