By Tommy Airey
“The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”—Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
In the rapidly shifting week between last Tuesday night when the NBA announced that rim-protector Rudy Gobert (right) tested positive for Covid-19 and Monday when the current occupier of the White House horrifically changed his language and started calling the pandemic “the Chinese Virus,” the contrast between free-market Capitalism and free-range Christianity was unpixilating in my soul. To clarify, most so-called “Christian” offerings are factory farmed, unquestionably committed to free-market fundamentalist policies—and the rugged individualistic postures they cultivate.
20 years ago, Richard Horsley identified consumer capitalism as the official religion of the United States, offering salvation through the acquisition of products. The problem for so-called “Christians” is that capitalism–especially its current condition called neoliberalism–is tragically incompatible with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who defined love as a life of sacrifice for our friends, neighbors and enemies. In other words, he critiqued the profit motive and self-interest. His prophet motive was self-donating love. He triangulated the exclusive requirements of conservatives and the inclusive offerings of liberals with an expansive vision of love that prodded his followers to flee the fold to find God in the lame, the lepers, good Samaritans and Syro-Phoenician women.
What’s all this got to do with a pandemic? Just about everything. Most of what I heard last week from the media and folks on Facebook who suddenly became experts on viruses boiled down to my safety and security. Dig a little deeper though and our new lifestyle glossary—social distancing, self-isolating and flattening the curve—has everything to do with protecting everyone else, especially the elderly, immune-deficient and those with little or no access to health care.
After I drove my mom from the Pacific Northwest back home to Southern California, I wanted to see old teachers, former coaches and beloved mentors. I couldn’t. Not because I had to protect myself from them. I had to protect them from myself. My capitalist-conditioned soul was caught in a Covid-19 riptide. All of a sudden, my life had limits! Was I going to stop at In-n-Out for a grilled cheese animal style? No. Was I going to go to the gym? No. Was I going to run on the beach? Yes. It was deserted.
Limits and capitalism do not go together. But limits and love do. Real love requires that we think through all our decisions on the basis of how they will affect other people. Our segregated society, working through the suburbs, social media algorithms and so much more, has malformed who we imagine “other people” actually are. Capitalism is built on myths and false assumptions and subsidized by hidden realities. Almost everything we enjoy has been produced by mechanisms of exclusion, exploitation and extraction that middle-class white folks, trained up in niceness and civility, are taught to never notice or name. Because we are possessed by a spirit that makes us unable to speak.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a free-range Christian working from the prophet motive. He identified the American Virus as three intersecting strands that he called “the giant triplets of evil.” Racism, materialism and militarism. The triplets form the basis of an economic system designed to benefit the investment portfolios and consumer appetites of white people through exclusion, exploitation and extraction all over the globe. When Dr. King dared to diagnose, those living in denial demonized him. They called it a hoax. They called him unpatriotic. They called him much more. “They” included just about every white person on the continent. When it comes to the giant triplets of evil, this is still the case.
If you don’t believe me, participate in this thought experiment. Imagine preaching at a white middle class factory-farmed church, either conservative or liberal, and inviting members of the congregation to get liberated from the ways they make idols out of race, the profit motive and the U.S. military. I guarantee that you would get the same response that Jesus received when he preached this at his home congregation in Nazareth. The text says that “they got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
50 years after Dr. King delivered the diagnosis, the American Virus has spread and so have its symptoms. Gun violence. Depression. Suicide. Cancer. Addiction. Debt. Houselessness. Climate catastrophe. And much more. Those who have paid the biggest price are those who Jesus called “the least of these”—the most vulnerable to exclusion, exploitation and extraction in every era. The Indigenous. Black people. Immigrants. The Earth. So what happens when the American Virus comes for white middle-class factory farmed Christians? They start demanding socialism. That’s right. When their lives, job security, mortgage payments, retirement portfolios and God-given right to move around the world freely are threatened, white folks pull out their best Eugene Debs impressions. They demand trillion dollar financial aid packages and free testing. To hell with what we’ve been told about “big government.” Help!
For decades, perceiving that privatizing energy, water, transportation, health, education, roads and prisons would actually keep them safe, secure and successful, white factory-farmed Christians rarely questioned the neoliberal hype. As Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn lamented in Caring For Souls in a Neoliberal Age (2016), “The horror of this age is that we are not horrified.” However, white folks are now waking up to the horror that Trump rejected millions of kits from the World Health Organization, while contracting out corona virus testing to corporations. Indeed, when it comes to testing, neoliberalism privileges the few over the elderly and ill too. Faith in the free market is how the entire Utah Jazz organization got 58 tests completed in 10 hours while most states had access to 50 tests a day with a 2-3 day delay on results.
As Covid-19 presses cancel on schools, restaurants, jobs, gyms, sporting events, concerts and church services, we have an opportunity to learn the ancient lessons of manna and mercy that God taught Israel in the post-imperial wilderness. Love has zero interest in blaming and shaming. She places all the focus on the principalities and powers that have been possessing us. These kinds of demons can only come out through prayer.
We will be convulsed in the coming weeks. Many of us will get infected, but everyone will be affected in profound ways. Our Covid-19 epiphany is that Dr. King was right: We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. In the process of protecting each other, may we experiment in ways that honor the presence of this pandemic, but also animate a spirit of love, power and self-discipline. This will be a profound chapter in our lives. Let’s keep checking in on one another. Let’s keep calling out capitalism too. Love is depending on it.
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and once-upon-a-time Evangelical pastor.
He and his wife, Lindsay, are blending a vocation of “soul accompaniment:” one part
pastoral-counseling, one part spiritual-directing, one part advocating-for-the-most-
marginalized. Tommy is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.Net, book review editor for Geez Magazine and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).