As I write this on May 25th, across the world, the number of Covid-19 deaths has reached 346,761. In the US, the toll fast approaches 100,000.
The human mind cannot convert numbers into stories. We cannot stare at data points and see the image of God.
Yesterday, on the front page of the New York Times, these words appeared:
“A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition.
One. Hundred. Thousand.”
What followed was a list of 1,000 names of the dead. Beside each name and age, the word “from” then the name of a city or town, and a state, followed by a simple phrase.
He squeezed in every moment he could with his only grandchild
proud single mother of three
known for serenading friends with Tony Bennett songs
shared his produce with food pantries and his neighbors
strong advocate for healthcare policy
stopped working to look after his aging parents
His greatest accomplishment was his relationship with his wife.
known as Big Momma to all who loved her
inspiring math teacher
One thousand phrases, each pointing to the image of God. Just a single, simple line, breathing into our fatigued and overwhelmed imaginations, the holy mystery of Imago Dei.
Today, alongside military families, many thousands more Americans woke to grieve and remember, many of them alone.
Also today, the president’s chief economic advisor said this into a television camera, “Our capital stock hasn’t been destroyed, our human capital stock is ready to get back to work.” The noise generated by his unacceptable remarks was immediate. Emergency Medicine doctor, Rob Davidson tweeted, #HumanCapitalStock “This phrase needs to be remembered and repeated…I’ve been blessed to care for humans for 2 decades, and I see the indescribable act of being human as so much more.”
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich weighed in on the push to re-open. Any rush to “open the economy” is really about forcing working class and poor people back into harm’s way while the rich and affluent can safely work from home.
In New York City, the five ZIP codes with the highest rates of positive tests for the coronavirus have an average per capita income of *under* $30,000 – while residents in the five zip codes with the lowest rates have an average income of over $100,000. (Robert Reich)
From nursing home staffworkers to farmworkers to busdrivers and meatpackers, the jobs deemed “essential” during the coronavirus pandemic are disproportionately held by women, immigrants, and people of color. (NBC NEWS)
What can we know about the essential workers who have been putting their lives at risk?
In the US, here is some of what we know so far about other groups of essential workers who died from Covid-19.
employees in meatpacking and food processing plants— 48
Amazon warehouse employees— eight
grocery store clerks— at least 41
Many essential workers earn well below a living wage. The hourly wage for grocery store clerks and cashiers ranges between $7.25 and $10.00. In meatpacking plants, the median annual income is $28,000. The calculated living wage for a family of three across the US ranges between $45k and $68k.
I know many decent, self-described apolitical and conflict-averse people who get quickly turned off by the sight of angry faces waving protest signs about the 99%. It doesn’t help that these images are often repackaged into memes with captions designed to discredit and distract from their urgent message. What should turn us off is the gross immorality of our current economic system, not the anger of those whose patience with this sanctioned oppression has run its course.
Those whose interests are served by the wealth gap are experts at drawing away public scrutiny from themselves. They are well-practiced at redirecting that frustration downward. “Those people are taking your jobs.” We scrutinize each other instead of those who fail to lead us. Instead of working with our communities and becoming involved with efforts to bring change at the national level to fix our broken systems, we mistrust each other and withdraw into our trenches.
It is possible that most people, regardless of political party or religious beliefs, would agree that a living wage is important. It is also likely those same people are not so naive as to expect human greed to regulate itself. They probably have no argument with the many economists who point out that an expanded middle class leads to economic growth. Yet they are reluctant to involve themselves in an organized push for socioeconomic reforms that . Why?
It does not seem inherently radical to say, “All people should be treated with dignity.” Yet, we seem unable to talk across party lines about what this should look like on practical and policy levels. Why?
I have a theory. There is a dominant narrative that lumps together all justice reforms under the scare-banner of socialism (never with the modifier “democratic”). If you care about the poor and about protections for workers, then surely you must have a shrine to Karl Marx in your living room.
My belief that human beings are not disposable comes from my Christian faith. Jesus taught that all people, rich and poor alike, are made in the image of God.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. championed for an economic bill of rights as part of the Poor People’s Campaign. This is not the work he is commonly lauded for today. King was derided as a socialist by those who sought to undercut his platform. This “othering” still happens to many people when they speak up about the wealth gap. One could understandably conclude that showing public concern about the rights of poor people is a short trip to being labeled unAmerican.
Hurdle. I worship a God who put on flesh and dwelt among us as the son of a Jewish carpenter, who washed his disciples’ feet, taught that love of neighbor should equal love of self, asked what good it is for a person to gain the whole world yet lose their soul, and said it is harder for the rich to enter heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Hardly a good champion for unchecked greed.
So in order to forget that my neighbor is made in the image of God, I need to first believe that God looks most like me. Solution. Trade in the Jesus of Scripture and upgrade to Christianity 2.0. Instead of sacrificing my own comfort or convenience, I can instead serve an idol that will not challenge me to give up anything.
History seems to repeat itself along the following lines: Fighting for the welfare of your neighbor will make you seem to some a fool. You may lose status, become dismissable, painted as just an angry activist, or naive idealist. Love for neighbor requires humility. Often, it requires sacrifice. Some of that sacrifice will be social.