Easter 3 and COVID 19
Since the pandemic took hold in Australia the Prime Minister has been rightly praised, because his actions appear free of the oppressive, toxic and damaging influence of his party’s right wing. This is despite rumblings from usual suspects from Sky News and shock jocks about individual rights, which in their view are trampled by actions of social responsibility. Instead of being influenced, even bound, by this combative and divisive rump, he has profitably engaged with his ‘national cabinet’ of Premiers and Chief Ministers. Will it last, and most particularly will it last into the recovery phase when we will need to be free of ideology in order to reset Australia’s policy dials for the future?
I would like to reflect on this question through the Easter narrative of the disciples meeting Jesus’ risen presence on the road to Emmaus and their inability to recognise him until he performed a deeply social and community building act.
Unfortunately, in our individualised culture we have lost the significance of bread breaking. Bread, in this culture, was never cut, it was torn or broken. It was never eaten alone. Bread represents the life of the community. You cannot symbolically put a knife into shared life. When bread is broken and shared, community bonds are reaffirmed and deepened. Mutuality in a shared life is implicit in the invitation to a stranger to share the bread. It is an unthinkable crime not to share bread with a stranger. My sister Val who lives amongst the Afar in Ethiopia lives this culture. At mealtime, there are no individual servings, each dips their injera bread into a common bowl. Over the years Margaret and I have shared a meal like this with many marginalised communities around the globe, starting with the Karen of Myanmar, but more consistently with the Palestinians. Their story, their joys and sorrows, have become ours. For this reason we feel bound to them to this day.
One of the unexpected blessings of the COVID 19 lockdown has been rediscovering community. We have contacted folk by phone with whom in ‘normal’ life we might have waited for Christmas, or a birthday, before communicating. In turn we have been rung by many who have given us so much joy. I am regularly rung by a teenage grandson, which is the nicest thing.
Engaging with others is what we are born to do. We are not born to live in isolation. It is when we are forced into isolation, as we are now, that we become acutely conscious of our need to engage. But there is more to it than simply engaging with family and friends.
The world from which we have become temporarily isolated has become increasingly tribal. Increasing numbers of world leaders are arch nationalists, who in cherishing the distinctiveness of their own nation stand in judgement over others. Under God we are all distinctive. We are distinctive as individuals and we are distinctive as groups. But our distinctiveness turns in on itself unless it engages with the contrasting distinctiveness of others.
Followers of Jesus have two contrasting responsibilities. First, we are to nurture and nourish our distinctiveness, a key component of which is our faith – it is the gift we have to offer. We dare not enter the space of another without offering a gift. But to be distinctive without engaging is to remain outside another’s space in judgement. In recent weeks we have heard horrible stories of people who found it ok to abuse or even spit on nurses, shop assistants and even police; presumably on the grounds that these folk have unwittingly stood in the way of their presumed entitlement. On the other hand we have seen wonderful videos of people combining to sing from their balconies, or post hilarious utubes of their exercise routine. Yesterday Margaret and I joined neighbours in our driveway at 6.00am, ensuring that the spirit of ANZAC was alive and well in our little cul-de-sac. All residents were present.
There are various reasons why countries have suffered more, or less, than others through the COVID 19 pandemic. These reasons will be analysed in great deal in the months and years ahead. I would like to make a contrasting observation between the experience of the US and the experience of Australia. In the US, the gap between rich and poor is far more culturally and racially entrenched than it is in Australia. The poor are always more vulnerable when crisis of any kind strikes, fewer choices are available to them. The US does not have a universal health scheme. But there is one other reason which flies in the face of the fundamental Easter truth I am conveying. Given the US is outwardly the most Christian country in the world, one might well ask, what Bible have they been reading. The issue is this. Dealing with the pandemic requires a high level of social responsibility and willingness to forego individual freedoms: a wonderful hallmark of Australia’s response. But in the US there is a significant, but not universal, culture of believing any social responsibility that requires relinquishment of individual rights to be in breach of the constitution. The President has encouraged this view.
It is this arrogant assumption to individual (or national) rights that has caused right wing ideologists and libertarians the world over to prevent the globe from policy development which might build sustainability, security and wellbeing into the future. If returning to ‘normal’ means this minority view can or will always veto good policy, then the lessons of GOVID 19 will not have been learned, and we are, of all generations, to be condemned and pitied.
While we have embraced many features of the American way of life, fortunately we have not embraced this, despite the right wing’s desire that we might. The right is not the centre, and must never become so. We are criticised from without, and from within, for not having a Bill of Rights. There is every reason why we could/should have a Bill of Rights. But a Bill of Rights must always be set within the context of a citizen’s covenant of responsibility.
The policy settings for the future must bridge the poverty wealth gap and encourage job creation that does not simply build wealth, but which builds occupations that enhance social wellbeing. The policy settings of the future must reflect appropriate social responsibility on a global scale.
Finally, for the Christian community, to believe in the resurrection is also to believe in the Communion of Saints, that unseen band of witnesses to whom we all belong. The fellowship of broken bread gifts us with membership of the body of Christ. We are marked on our foreheads as members of this fellowship, in which we have no rights, we do not need any, for it is all gift; but we do have responsibilities, to care for one another as Christ in God cares for us.