The End of Exile – June 6, 2021

The experience of the pandemic was one of, if not the most, significant global event to reshape our society in recent history.  It is an event which has done more to attack our sense of complacency than any since at least September 11, 2001.  While the events of that date helped us to recognize that the horrors which occur in other countries can happen in our own as well, COVID hit each of us more personally.  In my own life, nothing has occurred on a global or national level which has brought a greater sense of disruption, fear, and despair.  Facing the real possibility of losing those I love most, not knowing when or if life would ever return to normal, gave me a new sense of urgency to embrace the moment.  And it opened my eyes in a profound way to the pain and suffering of others.

The pandemic is likely to mark those growing up in this time like World War II defined its generation.  It has affected milestones such as graduations, weddings, job searches, entering college.  The social distancing we have experienced may lead to continued trends toward remote work, lead to increased reliance on social media rather than personal contact.  Rather than asking whether we should have a meeting over zoom, our tendency may move to asking whether there is a reason to meet in person.  People who would have never taken the time to learn technology have been forced to and have become comfortable with it in a way they may never have before.

But perhaps one of the most important lessons we have taken from living through the pandemic is the interdependency which exists among us.  Like no other time, our ability and the ability of those we love to remain healthy depended to a large extent on the willingness of others to play their part – to wear a mask, to stay home if they are sick, to socially distance.  Unlike the events of World War II or September 11, the enemy was directly outside our doors.  We could not pretend the war was not happening, leaving the war to someone else to fight.

Because of this, perhaps the events we have lived through will reshape the way that we view patriotism.  That it will no longer be seen simply through a military lens, but in terms of protecting and enhancing the life and health of our communities.  Perhaps it has given us a broader spectrum of people to say “Thank you for your service.”  Not just those who have served in a branch of the armed forces, but those who work in health care settings, those who kept the supply chains moving, those who continued to remove our garbage.

At one point I hoped this fight against a common enemy might make our society less polarized.  That now that we had a common enemy to fight, some of the vitriol which characterizes our politics would diminish as we cooperate to survive through a time of trauma.  Our relationships and our attitudes are often more susceptible to change in the aftermath of a destabilizing and life-changing event.  But I wonder now if the pandemic has created a new polarization – between those who are vaccinated and those who will not be.  Rather than bringing people across political divides, this may give a new expression for these divides.  Pew research conducted on the effects of the pandemic found that many people shared this view, with 26% pointing out ways in which politics and society have degraded over the past year.

Anti-vaxxer sentiment is nothing new.  When the smallpox vaccine began to be distributed in the 1700s, rumors spread recipients could take on characteristics of cows because the vaccine was derived from cow pox.  Today, COVID vaccine rumors have fallen into two primary categories – anecdotal “cause-and-effect” rumors allege people died because they recently received the vaccine and conspiracy theories that assert the vaccine causes a wide range of side effects, including infertility or genetic mutations.  And the number of people who buy in to these theories is surprising.  More than half of Americans believe the vaccine is not as safe as it is said to be and almost a third of Americans believe they can get the virus from the vaccine itself.

If we seek to alleviate some of the discord which exists with those who hold these beliefs, it is necessary to understand how deeply held these anti-vaccination sentiments are held.  I recently read some research on the similarities between cults and those who oppose being vaccinated.  A cult can be defined by a non-conforming ideology with beliefs which are unacceptable to mainstream society.  Cults come to be viewed as sinister or wrong, much as anti-vaxxers can be viewed by those who have been vaccinated, leading to discourse that is dismissive and derogatory.  And these negative attitudes can lead to an us-versus-them viewpoint, leading to further radicalization and commitment to their views.  If we hope to use this moment to unite rather than further divide, we many need to reconsider how we interact with those who hold these views.  Rather than dismissing, perhaps we could seek to understand the beliefs that inform their position.

We must also recognize the difference between vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxxers.  Vaccine hesitancy has less to do with conspiracy theories and more to do with a mistrust of the government and scientific institutions.  Vaccine hesitancy should be understood in the context historically marginalized and oppressed groups.  Groups who experienced disproportionately negative health and economic consequences as the pandemic raged are now expected to trust those same power structures which failed to provide adequate resources and protection during the pandemic.  The failure to address these concerns through community engagement can further prevent vaccine use.

The pandemic will also likely heighten the socioeconomic disparities which exist within society.  The wealthiest fifth of Americans have made much greater income gains than those below them in the income hierarchy in recent decades. Because they are more likely to be married and highly educated, they are also more likely to be able to telecommute, educate their children from home without disrupting their work, and maintain steady incomes throughout the pandemic.  Eighty percent of Americans don’t have this luxury.  Many have struggled with job losses combined with family burdens.  They were less likely to be able to work from home, more likely to be employed in service sector jobs – jobs which put them at greater risk of contracting the virus.  Their children may have suffered more educationally because parents did not have the time or opportunity to teach from home and many lacked access to high-speed internet which would allow for remote education.

If we hope to use this moment to address the deep divisions and inequality which exists among us, perhaps we should reframe the way we view this time.  The exile was one of the most defining events in the life of the Israelites, and the story that most closely parallels for me what we have endured as a society.  The Babylonian exile began when a rebellion was crushed and the king and leading members of Judean society were taken by Babylon.  As a result of further unrest, deportations continued in the next centuries until thousands of Judeans had been removed from what was familiar.

Despite the trauma of the exile, the Judeans were able to make meaning of their experience, to use it as an impetus for renewal, a basis for rebuilding what had been lost, to bring change consistent with their hope for the future.  Upon their return after the exile, they rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, renewed the rites associated with worship there.  They rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem. The book of Nehemiah is devoted to this story of communal work in the rebuilding effort.  This time marked the beginning of the development of Judaism.  A renewed interest in legal traditions arose, a desire for the practice of meaningful ritual.  There was commitment to the written word, with many believing that the priestly editing of the Torah happened during this time.  A priestly class was instituted, the precursor to the rabbinic movement.

Like the Israelites, being removed from what is familiar may allow us to recognize what it was we appreciated, to commit to rebuilding what we have lost, or to build something new that we did not recognize we needed.  Upon our return from exile, we also have rebuilding to do as a society.  But rather than rebuilding walls, we may have a new desire to tear them down.  We have seen some of the walls of racial injustice begin to crack.  Locked in our homes, we were faced with the effects of the pandemics of policing and poverty in ways we could not escape.  The murder of George Floyd for a crime of poverty showed us the ways in which we as a nation address issues of economic insecurity through the criminal justice system rather than more enduring solutions.

Rather than rebuilding our old temple, perhaps we have begun to recognize that all of the meaning we find will not come from one source.  That our old rituals and the “law” under which we lived no longer serve us.  That as a community which identifies as progressive Christians, we can be a voice pointing in a new direction, to the rebuilding of a stronger society like Nehemiah and Ezra after their time in exile.  That in a moment like no other in our history as a society, we can create a land better than the one we left behind.