The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
The Best We Can Be
The pandemic. It is really bad, and it will get even worse.
At the top of the list: Hospitals in New York City are overwhelmed, and other regions fear a building surge of hospitalizations and deaths. The US economy lost over 700,000 jobs in March, unemployment offices can't keep up, and those living paycheck-to-paycheck face impossible choices.
It is a frightening, complicated, disorienting situation. Getting through in the best possible shape demands involvement, commitment, and maybe even sacrifice from all of us -- individuals to corporations to all levels of government.
My short word of advice, which applies all across that range, is "be the best we can be." In four sections below, we'll see that being the best is not as simple as you might think. (Because some of these aren't simple, today's Notes is longer than usual. The numbered sections will make it easier to read through.)
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1. Let me start on the simple end. Grocery stores, I hear, are still short on many food items. (I can't speak from experience -- I haven't been to the store in over two weeks.) The lack of options is frustrating for some of us, but a major problem for others.
Participants in WIC -- a government nutritional assistance program for women, infants and children -- can only buy certain food items with their benefits. "If a store runs out of WIC-approved options, they will go home empty-handed," was the appeal from an advocacy group. For those of us who have more options, we're being asked to leave the WIC-designated brands on the shelf. (There are tags on the shelves indicating which items qualify.) That's a fairly simple thing that most of us can do to provide help and options for those with fewer choices.
2. The next ask is harder -- and is a decision that many of you have made already. The huge relief bill, passed by Congress just a week ago, will send payments of $1,200 per adult directly to most families. That money is urgently needed by many, and not needed at all by many others. I've heard from several of you, "We don't need it, and we'll be donating the money to help those in real need." Yes -- if you are able to pass along some or all of that stimulus grant, do it. I'm sure that most communities will be highlighting charities and social service agencies that can receive funds, process applicants, and pass along the help.
The need for those donations has an urgency that's just coming to light. The IRS will be distributing much of the money through direct deposit to banks. If a recent tax return from your family listed a bank account, they'll use that to get the funds out quickly. But if they don't have that information, a paper check will be sent, and some of those checks may not be delivered until August. I'm betting that those most in need of the relief money are over-represented in the group that will be long-delayed in getting a check. Your donation now will be life-saving.
In recent Notes, I've written about the ethical norms of solidarity (the common good) and sufficiency (enough). Being the best we can be means that those with enough can serve the common good by "paying forward" that government money.
3. The need to "be the best we can be" expands beyond personal choices. It gets harder when dealing with systemic problems like landlords and renters. An email that I received on Monday from the advocacy group Demand Progress said, "Rent is due tomorrow. But millions of families across the country aren't going to be able to pay it. ... We need a nation-wide freeze on rent and mortgage payments until the coronavirus pandemic is over." That's a really dramatic demand.
News reports point out that not all landlords are big corporate operations with relatively deep pockets. A substantial percentage, in Denver at least, are small businesses with no more than five units. Those small-scale landlords have their own mortgages and taxes and insurance to pay, and many of them are on the financial edge, too. A broad freeze on rent payments has steep costs for them.
What is "the best we can be" in this kind of situation? It is the wide-spread decision across the country that local officials won't be enforcing evictions and foreclosures. It is action by financial institutions to offer deferrals on loan payments and fees to those directly impacted by the pandemic. (I've received mailings about those options from the bank used by Eco-Justice Ministries, and the credit union used by our family.)
A Denver news commentator talked about the start-of-the-month rent crisis. He urged renters to talk to their landlords and explain their needs, and he called on landlords to be as flexible as possible in making arrangements. And he said to renters, "If you can make your rent payment this month, do it, because when you pay your rent, it will provide help to somebody else who can't pay." Being the best we can be involves local governments, big banks, landlords large and small, and individual renters.
4. And now comes the really hard one. In this time of unprecedented crisis, we all need to go to exceptional lengths to be civil and gracious and to genuinely seek the common good. And that's especially true in the political realm.
Two years ago -- one week before the inauguration of President Trump -- my Eco-Justice Notes was titled, "Rejecting the Party Spirit". The wording comes from Paul's letter to the Galatians (5:20, RSV); other translations talk about "factions." As Mr. Trump was about to come into office, I named the problem of unyielding political sides and bitter divisions. When those take hold -- and they certainly have through the last two years -- there's a demonization of the other, and a complete erosion of trust.
In this time of crisis, that polarization is especially dangerous. We simply cannot be working for the common good if there's also a strong agenda of demolishing the other side. I'll name two examples, so that I'll upset almost everybody!
On March 26, 8 days ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced "a temporary policy regarding EPA enforcement of environmental legal obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic." The Hill ran a story that day headlined, "EPA suspends enforcement of environmental laws amid coronavirus." Even more vividly, an email I received this morning from Friends of Earth Action raised an alarm, "while people are faced with an unprecedented public health threat, the EPA is making it easier for polluters to poison communities. Trump's EPA is exploiting this crisis to make polluters richer."
In response to those kinds of messages, the EPA's Office of Public Engagement (I'm on their press release mailing list) sent out a very unusual statement on Tuesday. "We strongly encourage the press to actually read EPA's Temporary Policy before repeating reckless propaganda about it." I did read the 7-page policy statement, and while there are ways that irresponsible businesses could take advantage of it, the policy provides some reasonable and necessary provisions for this time when businesses and utilities may be short-staffed, restricted in travel, and having difficulty filing paperwork.
Extreme factionalism assumes that everything done by the Trump administration is corrupt and evil. Frequent readers of Notes will know that I disagree with almost all of the administration's policies. But, to be the best we can be in these times, we need to set aside those knee-jerk reactions, and be willing to acknowledge when a government policy is appropriate and helpful in addressing this unique crisis.
On the other side, the Trump administration and his re-election campaign need to stop politicizing everything about the pandemic crisis. The daily briefings from the White House are thinly veiled campaign events. Mr. Trump has said he'd cut off communication with governors who didn't support all his policies. Word came out a couple of days ago that "President Donald Trump's re-election campaign urged surrogates in a call Wednesday to capitalize on the coronavirus pandemic to attack his rival Joe Biden and other Democrats as 'the opposition' in Trump's war against the outbreak."
The clear and constant focus of the US government needs to be on the good of the country. When everything coming from the White House is politicized and focused on Mr. Trump personally, the national good is not being served.
Being the best we can be demands that all of us back off from our political factionalism, and that we work together to meet this crisis.
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We are in a very hard and dangerous situation. It will get harder, and it will go on longer than we like.
On every level -- as individuals, as local communities, with banks and corporations, at all levels of government -- we need to be compassionate, and grounded in deep values, and flexible. To make it through this crisis, we all need to be the best we can be, and to hold others to the expectation that they have to be their best, too.
Shifting gears: On the Christian calendar, this Sunday is Palm Sunday. That leads into Holy Week and Easter. It will be strange and challenging to go through this week of profound meaning and beloved ritual when the best we can do for community comes through a computer screen. Let me offer a couple of quick thoughts for pastors and church members to ponder.
For Palm Sunday, we won't have the experience of waving palm fronds in a memorialization of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. (For many years, some of us have been using green ribbons instead.) For this year, with silent church sanctuaries, let's remember the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke (19:40) that, if the disciples were silent that day, "the stones would shout out." We may not get to sing the usual songs of praise, but the acclamation goes on even when there is silence in the church building. Maybe put a stone beside your computer monitor this Sunday.
For Easter, too, the pews will not be packed. How do we make sense of the greatest festival of the church year when we cannot gather together? The Episcopal bishop of Colorado wrote to her diocese, "I am reminded that when the first Easter happened, the disciples were holed up, hiding in fear for their lives and Resurrection happened!" We share in a different kind of Easter experience when we're alone and afraid.
I think, too, of the message given to the women who arrived at the empty tomb that Sunday morning: "He is not here; for he has been raised." (Matt 28:6) This year, when we think of the empty church where we've often gone to find Christ, there can be good news in the proclamation, "He is not here." This year, let's look for the risen Christ outside of our church buildings and outside of our congregational communities. The inability to go to church that day provides an option to proclaim an even bigger message of resurrection and faith.
Finally (!), I want to extend an invitation for some of you to join an on-line class that I'll be teaching this Sunday, April 5, at 11:30 AM (Mountain time). At the invitation of First Plymouth Congregational UCC, in Englewood, CO, I'll be leading a session on "Flattening the Curves: Shared Lessons from Coronavirus and Climate Justice." With both the pandemic and the climate emergency, there's a need for for dramatic action to keep below catastrophic thresholds. What are the lessons and insights from each crisis that can inform our work for the healing of creation?
There's a limit on how many guests can be included in the GoToMeeting session. If you'd like to listen in, please send me an email, and I'll get back to you with a link.
May we all work to be the best that we can be in the days and months ahead. And may our churches find new meaning and purpose as we go through a Holy Week without big gatherings.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
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