Dear Readers, I’ve turned to video to cover topics that I think are important but that I can best present in an informal and patently speculative way. Today’s video is about living through a paradigm shift, which occurs when a society must abandon the concepts and practices that formerly governed its culture. Do you think, as I do, that, in the wake of the insurrection and the pandemic, a new set of values and interests will come to prevail in the American mind? Let me know.
My husband and I were on a Zoom visit with our children last night. Our kids are spread across the United States. Our daughter lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and their son. Our older son, who is the middle child, and his wife live in Los Angeles. Our youngest and his wife and their two sons live in Orlando. We live in a rural area in the north Florida panhandle. Our home is in a sparsely populated area on a beautiful piece of land, nine acres in size. In other words, we, unlike our children and grandsons, do not live on top of our neighbors. We haven’t had to isolate as much as our kids, but I realized last night that we are significantly more isolated than they, during this time that I early on termed “the current unpleasantness.”
Our kids were discussing how, now that the pandemic is past the two-month mark of social distancing, they are beginning to expand their small family-unit groupings into wider “bubbles” of trusted friends who have also been isolating and whom they consider “safe” to associate with. The Californians’ expanded circle is not haphazardly arranged. Their bubble has specific quarantine rules that all members must observe to belong to the group. Our household has not expanded beyond ourselves and our two dogs. The majority of people with whom we socialize are among the CDC-identified vulnerable population and are uncomfortable spending time with those with whom they don’t reside.
It was interesting to listen to the kids talk about how so many features of life that we all took for granted when they were growing up are now unknowns, things like summer vacations, playing with friends, outdoor get-togethers, eating out, and going back to school in the fall. At least now they feel freer to associate with a wider, though tiny and carefully controlled, community. I was happy for them and proud of their ability to calmly navigate their separate ways through this unprecedented time.
Also happening out there, in the wider country, are protests—peaceful expressions of frustration which too often transition into violent expositions of rage— along with out-and-out riots more bent upon destruction than facilitating change. These actions are occurring because, once again, a white police officer killed a black man during an arrest. This particular incident took place in Minneapolis. Yet again, race is dividing the United States. I don’t know all the facts in this case, but I am certain that the facts don’t matter as much to the protesters and rioters as the truth that this type of situation has occurred too often. Tragedies such as this are less about race than about power and control. They are about having and not having. They are about fear of others and fear of outsiders—suspicion and the lack of trust between varied groups of people.
Police, in theory at least, are supposed to protect the interests of the innocent. Their very presence is designed to deter crime and injustice. But in poor communities, law enforcement has become the “predator” class. This perception automatically groups others as “prey.” It’s not a good dynamic for fostering trust and/or cooperation. I suspect this fact has exacerbated the present situation: that the very community most hurt by the viral pandemic is the same one protesting ruthless treatment at the hands of police.
All of us have become too pent-up inside. We don’t have our usual outlets of sports and our myriad outside activities. Our kids cannot go to school. Most of us can’t even gather to worship. We are told to stay home, and I believe too many people are tired of being restricted. I suspect that the numbers of those who are simply sick of what they cannot do vastly outnumber the ones who have contracted the novel corona virus.
People are more isolated from one another, suspicious of one another everywhere. The mask-wearers of the pandemic consider those who don’t cover their faces to be selfish, inconsiderate, and dangerous. People outside of our self-imposed bubbles of protection are unsafe and untrusted. People who still have employment during this time of social and economic shutdown are divided from those whose jobs have been furloughed. I suspect that too many of those waiting for their salaries to reappear will discover that they don’t, and they will become victims of yet another financial downturn.
Too many of these people will join the ranks of the invisible masses whom the employed don’t know how to help and will eventually fail to notice over time. Like the homeless, the undocumented, the ones who slip between the ever widening cracks of society, they will become more and more those whose situation is so difficult a problem to solve that society forgets about them, not out of lack of compassion but out of the guilt of helplessness. The invisible won’t be fortunate enough to find refuge inside the safe bubbles that shelter our loved ones. I fear that fear will eventually pit the prey against the prey in an ill-fated attempt to protect themselves against a predator who seems impenetrable.
All this is challenging my hope. It’s running up against my desire to believe that we are all beloved children of the same God who breathed life into being. It’s Pentecost today. Our priest reminded me this morning that God sent all of us an Advocate, in the form of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost marks the epoch when our risen Lord appeared to a gathering of his apostles and disciples and imbued them with the Holy Spirit by breathing on them.
How are communities going to allow themselves to feel protected when they fear those sent to keep them from harm? How are we to believe that we are all in this together when we are expected to isolate ourselves from everyone else? How are we supposed to be advocates for each other when we live in terror that someone whom we are afraid to trust might breathe on us? And how can we expect people to trust an authority who repressed the desperate pleas of one who whispered, “I can’t breathe”?
Linda Tysall Ricke
31 May 2020
Guest contributor Linda Tysall Ricke holds a Master’s Certificate in Spiritual Direction
and writes about faith and politics from her home in rural Florida.
The humanitarian sensibility is the capacity to be moved by suffering we are not experiencing ourselves. It is especially remarkable when the suffering that moves us is remote, not present to our senses, but requires an imaginative empathic response. The desire to relieve distant suffering or right abstract wrongs is an outgrowth of the humanitarian sensibility. It is an active and extended form of charity.
The humanitarian sensibility is not innate–it is a product of culture, and not found in all societies, but where it is present it has profound consequences, both in the present and historically. We can see it operating to various degrees in the Syrian refugee crisis, just as we can discern its utter absence in the perpetrators whose violence has led millions to flee Syria and its environs. Historically, the humanitarian sensibility has powered innumerable movements, including the drive to abolish slavery in the Western world, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The humanitarian impulse, though not peculiar to the West, is a living expression of Biblical precepts and the natural rights tradition on which democratic government rests. It carries the Biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ to its farthest possibility, leading Westerners to battle hunger and disease afflicting other continents, to give to Haitian disaster relief, to correct cleft palates and blindness wherever they are found, and to support female rights and rights activists like Malala Yousafzai. The drive to minister to the world is noble, but it is not universally shared. And in the US, we can see the limits of that sensibility, as when our government turned away children from Latin America, who came here seeking refuge from the violence and exploitation of the drug trade.
Image: from this source.
The emblem of the beseeching slave with the question “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
first gained circulation in the 1780s as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England.
The design was rendered in many forms,
on coins, in ceramic by Josiah Wedgwood, and as a woodcut, as here.
This powerful graphic appealed to viewers to look beyond differences of race and condition
to acknowledge the common humanity that linked free people with the enslaved.
This particular woodcut appeared on an American broadside to illustrate
John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1837 poem, ‘Our Countrymen in Chains.’
Illinois citizens are expected to sit tight as the cost of meeting state and local pension obligations brings their government ever nearer to bankruptcy. Everyday, we hear of a new head-ache: how our property-taxes are likely to begin sky-rocketing, or how short-term borrowing to pay pensions will soon destroy Chicago’s bond rating, and how people are leaving the state to avoid being stuck with the costs when the looming disaster of all-out bankruptcy finally arrives. Yet no matter how painful to the citizenry, our government must rake together the money for public-pension obligations that are burgeoning.
All because a section of the Illinois constitution stipulates that, no matter what, one class of Illinois citizens can count on protections that no others can: the benefits of belonging to a state pension system must not be diminished or impaired. In the service of this constitutional provision, the state may be driven into bankruptcy and the rest of the population held forever accountable for promises that by-gone politicians irresponsibly made. The needs of ordinary citizens are being choked off so that those of lawmakers and public workers may be fulfilled.
The power of the legislature to pass laws conferring benefits on themselves and other public workers is difficult to limit. The pension ‘system’ in Illinois is an irrational bricolage of myriad laws passed over the decades. The Chicago Tribune has described it as a “convoluted mess of provisions riddled with giveaways, funding flaws, excessive borrowing, and pension holidays.” The pension code is organic in the sense that’s easy to add to, but any benefit, once added, is virtually impossible to take away.
Consequently, the state’s pension system is an unholy mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. It pays pensions to convicted felons like Jon Burge and to brazen scoundrels who had the luck to head up our towns and public universities. It pays millions of dollars in benefits to cagey officials who correctly perceived the advantages of ‘double-dipping.’ The fact that citizens are powerless to curb the excesses of the pension system feeds hostility to it, to the detriment of many decent and deserving public employees.
Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.
As matters stand, the pension provision has become the yardstick against which any pension-reform legislation must be fearfully measured. Sensible legislation has been struck down while legality of this patently odious and inegalitarian provision has gone challenged. Illinois citizens should stand up and challenge the constitutionality of the pension provision itself. A requirement that leads to such unfair and destructive outcomes is an affront to the larger purpose of government. Does it really trump every other principle of constitutional law?
Given the urgency of Illinois’s fiscal condition, this question should be engaging the state’s best legal minds.
Remember that vast chain of derided properties that the US postal service owns? Have you recently driven or walked past a post office? I bet that you have.
With some 32,000 post offices in virtually every inhabited corner of the country, the postal service offers a nexus for interacting with the public that few other federal entities can rival. For this reason, in the past US post offices have sometimes been made to serve double duty. Until recently, the IRS used the post offices to make printed tax forms available to taxpayers. The Selective Service has used the post office for decades for draft registration. Post offices house passport services on behalf of the State Department. Historically, the post office has been the communications hub connecting the government at Washington with the people at large. The local, face-to-face character of the post office makes it ideal for placing an initiative within reach of the people.
Now, the Department of Health and Human Services could use the post offices to facilitate Americans’ enrollment in ACA-compliant health-insurance policies listed on the federal insurance exchange. Even if the HealthCare.gov website were fixed overnight, most citizens could still use help figuring out how to apply—how to negotiate the website—their eligibility for subsidies—that sort of thing. Given all the concern about the under-utilization of post offices as federal property, pressing them into service at this juncture would be a crowd-pleaser—one justified on grounds of efficiency, too. Teams of HHS and IRS personnel (or even volunteers from Americorps) could be enlisted to staff these physical exchanges, where citizens could learn about the policies and sign up for them, with the aid of old-fashioned paper forms, if need be. The New York Times recently reported on the success of one such face-to-face state-level system in Kentucky.
I sincerely hope that the Administration will think more creatively about how to bring Obamacare’s promises to the public without more delay. Given the vast resources of the government, there is no single right way, but many ingenious strategies that will advance the nation toward attaining health-care coverage for all.