A Spiritual Pandemic

Lansing, April 30
Lansing, Michigan (April 30, 2020)

By Tommy Airey

*Note: I submitted this op-ed to The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Oregonian. None of them printed it. So I submit it to you.

The white Christians marching with their flags and firearms on state capitals and main streets make it clear: they have neither a care nor a clue about how COVID-19 is disproportionately killing non-white populations. While they protest, Black residents in Detroit shelter-in with water taps shut-off, Indigenous peoples attempt to contain outbreaks on reservations with limited access to health care and Immigrants around the country work the front-lines at unsafe meat processing plants mandated to stay open by an executive order. Unfortunately, the spectacle of the fascist few takes the focus off the rest of us white folk—the silent, enabling masses—also careless and clueless. The coronavirus may be novel, but the overwhelming disregard for Black and Brown life is not.

“We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen,” Jesus the prophetic peasant lamented to the privileged priest Nicodemus, “yet you do not receive our testimony.” This blast from John’s Gospel is a wake-up call for white America in this indefinite season of crises cascading around coronavirus, capitalism and climate catastrophe. For centuries, white America has failed to receive the testimonies of Black, Indigenous and Immigrant communities. Most recently, these “affected communities” have been pelted by white supremacist policies better known as NAFTA, Welfare Reform, Urban Renewal, The War on Drugs, The War on Terror, Bank Bailouts and various forms of Disaster Relief.

While these programs have overwhelmingly benefited the bottom line of white bank accounts and stock portfolios, the souls of white folk have paid a heavy price in the process. Put simply, white America’s been hit by a spiritual pandemic and it’s failed to flatten the curve. Symptoms include emotional fragility, defensiveness, obliviousness, insecurity, rigidity and awkward displays of rage. We have been stripped of empathy and stamped with entitlement. Capacities for emotional expressiveness and open-heartedness have diminished, leading to increased incidents of addiction, mental illness, suicide, domestic abuse and mass shootings. Conspiracy theories and delusions of grandeur abound. And yet, white America has never taken this soul sickness seriously.

The origins of this spiritual pandemic in North America are rooted in a white Christianity that, since 1492, justified the theft of Indigenous land and the enslavement of African peoples. It was sanctified by an angry, exclusive God offering eternal salvation to a privileged few. The cult of the white colonial Jesus—in Evangelical, Catholic and mainline Protestant forms—has been infused by a counterfeit spirituality. It swivels between supremacy and shame. It breaks our intimate, beloved connection to Earth, Ancestors and every living Being. Deep down, white people believe we are only good enough when we are better than everyone else.

The souls of white folk are on a ventilator. But there is a vaccine. It is injected through the voices of the most vulnerable. We can recover from whiteness only when we begin to receive the testimony of Black, Indigenous and Immigrant peoples. When we listen and learn and follow and grieve. When we finally come to see in their faces the divine image of Love itself. Only then, will white folk begin to find healing from this spiritual disease. Only then will we break rank from a culture of whiteness that clings to a myth of America’s greatness—perpetually scaffolded by silence and niceness.

As we shelter-in, white Christian America cannot afford to wait around for “a return to normal.” We are long past due for a spiritual revolution rooted in a robust belief in the real-life stories coming from the cracks and corners of American empire. The pandemic is daily exposing these hidden realities. All we have to do is start paying attention. Jesus made it clear that after the wealthy and powerful crucified him, he’d rise up in the hungry, thirsty, immigrant, sick, unhoused and imprisoned. When we make “essential” those whom he called “the least of these,” we will reclaim the divine belovedness that binds us together in a common destiny. If we do, we can make America—and our souls—what they were meant to be.

Tommy Airey is a former high school teacher and Evangelical pastor. He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).

5 thoughts on “A Spiritual Pandemic

  1. Powerful and true. Especially your vision of the risen Christ in the last paragraph! So rare to read such an interpretation of the resurrection, even though it’s squarely based on scripture. I bought your book recently and I’m eager to read it. Thank you. Keep writing please.

  2. Oscar (Oz) Cole-Arnal

    Hey Tommy,

    You reached the heart of our prophetic Gospel on this entry–like Luke’s “so-called” “Sermon on the Plain” or “Mary’s Song” in Luke 1: “GOOD NEWS for the POOR” is ‘BAD NEWS” for the RICH” (or at least perceived that way by those who want to build bigger & better barns). When I read (although I want to say “hear”) your words “This blast from John’s Gospel is a wake-up call for white America” (& here I add “white Canada”) in this indefinite season of crisis cascading around coronavirus, capitalism and climate catastrophe. For centuries, white America has refused to receive the testimonies of Black, Indigenous and Immigrant communities. Most recently these ‘affected communities’ have been pelted by white supremacist policies better known as NAFTA, Welfare Reform, Urban Renewal, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, Bank Bailouts and various forms of Disaster Relief.” In true prophetic style you root these evils within socio-economic-political-historical “principaltities and powers,” from Columbus to the present. You are so right, dear Bro, when you say “The souls of white folk are on a ventilator. But there is a vaccine,” which is solidarity with those upon whose backs we have built our perverse imperial system of “Pax Americana.” As well, you indicate, we must join their Exodus of confrontation & danger & march under their banner of justice & equity or die the very bland death of our “Whiteness.”

    Thank you again, dear Bro,
    Oz

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