By Liz Theoharis
March 18, 2020
As the current public health emergency deepens, it is revealing and worsening broader economic and social emergencies that we have been confronted with for many years. These are emergencies caused by the lack of health care, affordable housing, living wages, labor rights, voting rights, and environmental protection, by war, police violence, the criminal justice system, and policy violence of all kinds.
For years, the poor and dispossessed, people of faith and conscience, teachers and organizers, have been ringing the alarm on these emergencies, offering solutions, and taking direct action to solve them. In response, those in positions of political, economic, and moral authority have committed a crime denounced by prophets throughout the ages:
They have treated the wounds of My people like they were not serious,(Jeremiah 6:14)
Saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
Even in the midst of the current pandemic, the Trump administration, his enablers, and many others in positions of power wasted precious time worrying more about the perception of the crisis than its reality and continue to prioritize private profits and financial markets over all of our well-being.
Echoing Jeremiah’s accusation of those who cry peace when there is no peace, the prophet Ezekiel compares this to covering a flimsy wall with plaster:
In In My fury I will let loose hurricane winds; in My anger a driving rain shall descend, and great hailstones in destructive fury. I will throw down the wall that you daubed with plaster, and I will raze it to the ground so that its foundation is exposed; and when it falls, you shall perish in its midst then you shall know that I am the LORD.(Ezekiel 13:13-14)
This is the truth of disasters in the Bible, including plagues: They tear down the flimsy, whitewashed walls of false narratives to expose the foundations of injustice. Before a plague, God always sends prophets, often sick and impoverished themselves, to tell the powerful to reject wickedness, stop oppressing the poor and the vulnerable, and turn toward justice. But when the vision and action of prophets are not enough – when the powerful double down on inequality, violence, exploitation, and deceit – God speaks and acts through plague to force us to see the truth of sinful injustice in our society, remove oppressors from power, and repent.
What is the plague of COVID-19 revealing to us?
Over the last few weeks, we have seen our government refuse to take measures that could have limited the spread of the coronavirus and increased the availability of testing. We have seen a $1.5 trillion infusion straight into Wall Street and its investors from the federal reserve, and a bipartisan bill that excludes 80 percent of the workforce from paid sick leave. Now, we see school districts across the country scrambling to feed hundreds of thousands of children whose families are too poor to put food on the table. We see homeless families being told to shelter in place when they cannot practice the social distancing we’re all called to do. We see elderly people who are forced to travel for hours and wait in cramped lines to keep their “check-in” appointments with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We see a health care system on the brink after decades of budget cuts, privatization, and a focus of profits over patients and public health. We see, in stark reality, the truth that 140 million people in America are either already poor or one health care crisis or missed paycheck away from poverty, nearly half of the U.S. population.
In short order, we have also witnessed the prophetic leadership of directly impacted people all over the country: people coming together to demand and win moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs, create meal programs and other services for families, and fight for larger steps to be taken to protect incarcerated people, immigrants, children, and us all. Amid the shroud of crisis, people are taking great risks to help each other survive, like the homeless families who’ve taken over vacant government-owned houses in Los Angeles to protect themselves and the city at large from exposure, and those working to treat the sick, deliver food, care for children, and check in on the elderly.
We must take extreme measures to respond to this crisis. But the lesson from our sacred traditions is that these measures, where they align with the basic demands of justice, cannot be temporary. Plague in the Bible is not a storm weathered before a return to normalcy. It’s a call to come together in new ways in order to survive, hold the powerful responsible for their unjust policies and the lies they’ve told to cover up injustice, and rebuild on foundations of love and justice.
We must address the current crisis with the urgent attention of building a beloved community for all time. This means enacting universal health care, living wages, debt relief, and housing rights for all. It includes holding those in power accountable, demanding that the rich and powerful do not profit from this pandemic. Our society can indeed abolish systemic racism, end poverty, turn militarism and our war economy into a peace economy, and protect the earth. If we follow the prophet’s call to transform distorted narratives that demean and degrade, we can bring about a revolution of moral values that proclaims all life sacred. So, let us make it so.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Liz is the author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Eerdmans , 2017). She is co-author of Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing (Beacon), 2018). Liz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.