Wednesday, August 4, 2021

After the Pandemic, People Are Done Enduring Wrongs

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.


  1. David,

    Thanks for your essays on recovery from the Pandemic. You have identified significant challenges facing society and specifically the church in restoring a relevant mission and ministry in the new emerging future. One challenge underlies all that you have mentioned and is nicely summarized in this week’s Epistle lectionary reading. “Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Ephesians 4:25

    We Americans find our democracy in an epistemological crisis. It began before the dreadful Covid advanced with a presidency that successfully made the lie into an alternative reality for large segments of the population. Denying science, trolling authorities, fostering falsehoods, exploiting racial differences and even undermining constitutional law have not only rendered our body politic dysfunction but has become a way of life among those the writer to Ephesians reminds us are our “neighbors.” It not only imperiled the spectacular achievement of the rollout of a life saving vaccine from achieving herd immunity, but has compromised the proven strategies of public health for mitigating the impact of pandemics certain to follow.

    Yes, churches will be adjusting to members’ changing expectations for their gathering and serving functions, but will they comprehend the gravity of the conflict dividing our corporate and social life requiring “putting away falsehoods” and restoring relations between “neighbors” by rebuilding truthful foundations?

    1. And with the epistemological crisis over what is truth comes an ontological crisis of why are we doing what we are doing in the first place.

      The cracks in our society that have grown into chasms are made up of a mixture of age old flaws like slavery along with new stresses like digitalization. Identity, Sexualization and Trust are caught up in the tsunami of the fluid changes that Dr. Scott talks about.
      The church is facing an existential opportunity / challenge to engage its very roots as a spiritual movement.

      Our consumerism/greed oriented world has led us into deep isolation and separation from one another. And the church has embraced the values of always doing something rather than being something.

      Dr. John Cobb has stated: "The liberal church is dying." (See Cobb Institute video on the book "Salvation.") The Evangelical church is following suit in a decline as well. Even the comments by Dr. Scott include "to work for the Kingdom of God" without addressing that the basic motivation to do that is being challenged. More and more people are walking away from that "call to action."

      As pointed out by Dr. Scott, the Christian Movement in the U.S.A. faces not just of the crises of pandemic, but issues like racism, slavery. In addition, we are dealing with the age-old gods of, consumerism, greed and identity. Plus we are facing the newer tectonic forces of digitalization, medical care, child care, elder care and the role of education.

      Beneath all this is a fracturing of trust not only in knowledge, but basic trust in all our institutions that bring us together into a working society (including the church.)

      We, the church, have lost our deepest reason for being. It is no longer articulated by our members and our leaders.

      We have become a group of people who are concerned with "doing good" and accomplishing things. We have lost the basic meaning and reason of living, we do not have forgivingness as a lifestyle, we fail to contemplate our attitudes and how to change them (metanoia) and we've lost the contentment of trustingly/faithfully working with God for God's will.

  2. We need to add the #metoo / sexual abuse awareness as part of the pre-covid mix. I was surprised this was not mentioned in the article above. And also the fury that is directed at the schools and anti-vaxers. Perhaps the mounting deaths of unvaccinated children (a flash point that is currently building) will be an opportunity to bring us together a little bit.

    1. Thanks, Terry. While I was writing the piece, I had the #MeToo movement in mind as a prime example of people being done enduring wrong pre-COVID, but I forgot to include it in the final draft. I should have.