COVID-19

A Need for Sackcloth

Sackcloth, especially when accompanied by sitting in ashes, has a rich history in the Scriptures and the life of the early church. In today’s world it is considered as beyond medieval in terms of its relevance, and barbaric in terms of a punishment. In fact, though, it was less punishment than it was repentance.

Sackcloth and ashes were used as very public displays of one’s sins and a sign of contrition—a promise not to sin again once the time of repentance was finished. Perhaps we should consider bringing back the practice. And do so on a very public scale.

The Covid 19 pandemic has unmasked a number of deep-seated issues festering within us all. On the surface some seem selfish and even infantile. Such as the suggestion that wearing a mask impinges on our freedom.

Others appeal more fundamentally to the Constitution, with the suggestion that restricting religious services somehow violates the First Amendment. That position is sometimes coupled with the absurdity that God will protect worshippers from falling ill to the power of the virus. In reality, a number of ministers who claimed that protection and continued to lead worship services have themselves died from Covid 19. Not intending to sound insensitive, there might be some poetic justice in that.

One would hope that a rational Supreme Court would see through the fallacy of that First Amendment argument to the more fundamental principle of life. But that hope was dashed by Justices who are less rational than we thought. What is most disconcerting, from a Christian point of view, is the twisted logic that religious freedom supersedes the government’s power to protect its citizens during a pandemic. Take Washington, D.C.

I have long been an admirer of Archbishop Wilton Gregory. When Pope Francis appointed him to head the Archdiocese I thought it was an excellent choice, as was the decision to elevate Gregory to the College of Cardinals. This is a man whom I have always considered to be a faithful advocate of the Gospel, both in word and deed.

However, he recently joined the chorus of misguided religious leaders by filing a lawsuit against the District of Columbia’s restrictions on houses of worship. He even argued his case in an op-ed piece printed in the Washington Post. Others have already demonstrated the weaknesses of the Cardinal’s position, particularly his comparison of religious services to retail establishments and liquor stores. Shoppers do not gather together for an hour shouting and singing God’s praises as they select their bread and wine.

Indeed Cardinal Gregory is correct to emphasize the importance of worship to believers, as well as the significance of the Christmas season. Yet Easter, being the core of the Christian Kerygma, is far more important. Yet the church survived the restrictions in place last spring. Still, there is a deeper concern at issue here. And it is to be found in the Gospel itself.

In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46) we are presented with the measurement of one’s worthiness to enter into the Kingdom. It has nothing to do with church attendance or, for that matter, with prayer. The sole criteria is how we treat one another, specifically those in need. Don’t get me wrong. Worship is important. But when it jeopardizes the health of the community—especially during a pandemic—it takes a back seat to restrictions. Does anyone really believe that God cares more about us worshipping him than he does about us protecting each other? The passage cited above would suggest exactly the opposite: “What you did to the least of these you did to me.” Cardinal Gregory would never suggest, in word, that we expose each other to Covid 19. But his lawsuit does exactly that—in deed.

There is an obvious contingency at work here. It is known as a super spreader event. Gathering people together during a pandemic, inside a closed building, to sing and pray aloud, exposes not only the worshippers, but the broader community to Covid 19. Couple that with what Jesus says, and we can conclude that the contingency is clearly sinful.

Perhaps the Cardinal would consider another way to proclaim the Good News. More powerful than lawsuits or op-ed articles in the local paper, would be acknowledging super spreader events and the sinfulness of encouraging them. A week or ten days of wearing sackcloth and ashes in the nation’s capitol might awaken in all Catholics a commitment to the Good News. Who knows? It might even even have an effect on Congress.
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The Soul of a Nation

Former vice president Joe Biden did not decide to run for president in reaction to policy differences with Donald Trump. Those differences always exist, sometimes even within the same political party. Biden chose to run because he saw the destructive things Trump was doing to the core principles of the United States; the damage he was inflicting on the country’s standing and reputation in the world.

There are innumerable examples, stacked one upon another, making it nearly impossible to grade them from bad to worse to worst. But arguably the two most significant were Trump’s equivocating on the issue of racial hatred, (the now famous “There were good people on both sides” statement), and the ripping of toddlers from their parents and then imprisoning these little children in cages. The latter example can only come from a man who has no soul. And if a nation allows that action to continue, the only conclusion is that the country is equally soul-less.

Enter Joe Biden. He began his campaign by declaring that this is a fight for the soul of the nation. He knows that we are, that we must be, better than this. Better than what Trump has made of us. He knows that America cannot survive if it continues to wallow in the gutters into which Trump has dragged us.

There are, of course, people who disagree with Biden’s policy proposals and are hesitant to vote for him. After forty-seven years in politics he is accustomed to that. He expects it. But Biden also knows that the country needs an opposition party. It is not healthy for a democracy to run by a single party. That is what we expect from countries like China, Russia and a host of other autocracies, very few of which even pretend to be democratic.

An opposition party need not agree or capitulate on every issue. The two parties must balance each other. They must compromise. They must work together for the common good. And that requires a soul.

Today Trump has remade the Republican party in his own image. And in virtually every act as president, he has demonstrated that he has no soul. That may also be the reason he has no remorse for anything he has ever done. Recall that prior to his election Trump said he had never asked God for forgiveness. That admission set up a new paradigm for irony. For these days when Americans go to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship, they are greeted by a God of remorse. A God who asks the people’s forgiveness for having created Donald Trump.

Joe Biden is not deterred. He still seeks to restore the fundamental values, the basic goodness that has defined America. He knows that there have always been failures. Our history is checkered at best. We have enslaved and unjustly imprisoned our people. We have denied many groups a myriad of rights. Even today there are continuing attempts to restrict or flat out deny the right to vote—the most fundamental principle of democracy. But before Trump, we had never been a country without a soul.

One fading example of America’s goodness can be seen in the way we rally around the underdog; the way we had been accustomed to setting aside our differences when someone suffers or is in need.

When Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, Americans of all persuasions supported him. People of faith prayed for him. Some Americans thought that this deadly diseased would enable him to empathize with the millions of other Americans who have contracted the virus; that he would understand and express sympathy for the more than 210,000 who have died. Maybe Americans are not so much good, as they are naïve.

Trump emerged from the hospital, neither human nor humbled. He puffed himself up like the rooster who thinks his crowing makes the sun rise. In Trump’s case he thinks his arrogance will cause COVID to retreat. He is not only soulless. He is heartless.

I still think Joe Biden is on to something. I still think that our country can reclaim its soul. But I also think that there is room in that soul for one negative. I would never suggest we pray that Trump dies. But maybe we don’t have to pray that he survives.
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