Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Last week, I wrote that the pandemic has broken our pre-pandemic story lines, and we as a church, a (US) society, and the world have not yet figured out what new story lines will absorb our focus as the pandemic is no longer the overwhelming story that frames all others. I would like to suggest a framing story that puts together a number of pieces of news that have come out of the context of the pandemic but are not necessarily about the pandemic itself.
After the onset of pandemic, and in large part because of the pandemic, people are done enduring wrongs. They have new energy to protest that which they see as unjust and are not putting up with the same problems they tolerated before. This unwillingness to continue to endure wrongs is manifesting itself on individual and societal levels in a variety of realms: political, economic, and social.
In some ways, the Black Lives Matter movement was the first sign that people were unwilling to continue to endure previously existing wrongs. Police violence against Black bodies had existed for years, including some high-profile cases over the past decade. But none of those cases galvanized an international movement until George Floyd's death during the pandemic. In part, this issue caught on last June because people had more time and attention since they were at home due to the pandemic. But in part, concern about Black deaths from police violence was amplified by the information about disproportionate Black deaths because of the pandemic, data that became available prior to Black Lives Matter. These pandemic racial disparities helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence.
Such movements of protest against the powers that be have played out again and again around the world since the Black Lives Matter movement began. Last fall, protests swept Belarus. Most recently, there have been unprecedented protests in Cuba, Columbia, South Africa, and Eswatini, all of them directed against the government. In each of these cases, long-simmering resentments of government malfeasance have combined with complaints of mishandling of the pandemic to touch off mass protests. Even at this year's Olympics, athletes have felt freer than ever before to protest a variety of wrongs.
The point is not whether or not any of these protests have yet been successful in ending the wrongs protested or changing political systems. The point is that they are a sign that people are no longer willing to endure wrongs that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it's because the pandemic has amplified those issues, has put them in a new light, or has just added one more significant item to a list of complaints.
The unwillingness to put up with wrongs is evident in the cumulative effects of personal decisions in the United States. This trend is most apparent in the labor market, where many workers previously employed in low-wage jobs, especially jobs that had other harmful aspects, have not been willing to resume those jobs after the pandemic, leaving those sectors short on workers. There's still debate over whether other factors - the hourly rate of these jobs or government financial assistance - have also impacted such decisions. But it's clear that thousands of people who had jobs they were not happy about pre-pandemic decided that it was not worth returning to those jobs post-pandemic, either because they had gained new perspective on employment and/or because the jobs had become more onerous.
While this does not rise to the level of social injustice, there has even been chatter on social media and in think pieces about what social customs people are not willing to go back to, whether that is in terms of dress, who people interact with, or the sorts of interactions and social conventions deemed acceptable. After having a break from what were unpleasant or offensive pre-pandemic social interactions, many have decided that they are not willing to resume such interactions post-pandemic.
I think there are a variety of reasons leading people to put new energy into changing pre-pandemic wrongs. The pandemic has created a situation of fluidity, where the future must be renegotiated and cannot merely continue as before. Renegotiation is an opportunity to try for something better, to try to avoid what wasn't working before, whether that's in one's relationship with their government, their employer, or their friends and family.
In addition, for many, the pandemic destroyed trust in those that were supposed to keep them and their loved ones safe. Whether it was a government or an employer that people thought was going to take care of them, those expectations were repeatedly dashed, as people were laid off and governments struggled to contain the virus while also imposing restrictions some saw as excessive.
Finally, the pandemic has given many new perspectives on what's important in life. Even for those who did not get sick, the pandemic was a brush with death of sorts. Confronting the reality of one's own mortality tends to make people rethink their priorities. Many have decided to prioritize trying to change the world for the better and trying to right the wrongs around them.
For the church, especially the church in mission, this new unwillingness to endure wrong is both an opportunity and a challenge.
It is an opportunity because new energy to right the wrongs of the world represents new energy among Christians to work for the kingdom of God and new potential partners outside of the church in that work. Many Christians pray for a movement of the Spirit. It is not difficult to interpret a movement towards justice as just that. If the church can join in what God is doing in the world in this pandemic-altered moment, then there is a huge missional potential.
Yet, there is also a threat or a challenge to the church. For some, the things that they are no longer willing to endure are connected to the church. These range from a new unwillingness to tolerate casual and systemic racism in the white church to unwillingness to put up with awkward or unpleasant social interactions that are part of in-person church events to unwillingness to excuse the failures of church leadership, locally or denominationally. The church deceives itself if it thinks there is no wrong in it, and leaders will be surprised when people are done enduring those wrongs associated with church.
Yet, if leaders in the church recognize people being done with enduring wrongs as a way in which the Spirit may be speaking to the church, then they can be prepared to capitalize on the opportunities and rise to the challenges of this moment. They can look for ways to join in the work of the kingdom and respond with humility and a willingness to change when confronted with protests against the church itself. Such a response requires courage and a willingness to change. Yet the world has changed, and we cannot continue to live as if it has not.