The coronavirus pandemic and American society’s response have had a dramatic effect on everyday life. Lockdown orders have put many Americans in an anxious panic and yet many are not feeling the hurt of the Wuhan virus itself. No doubt, some areas of the country are hurting badly, and the death count continues to rise. But by and large, more have been touched by the fear of the virus than the virus itself.
Fear leads to distrust, isolation, and despair. The ancient Athenian historian Thucydides, recounting the plague that hit Athens in 430 B.C., famously described the change in attitude among his fellow Athenians. At the height of the plague, “if people were afraid and unwilling to go near to others, they died in isolation, and many houses lost all their occupants through the lack of anyone to care for them.” Not that anyone could blame those who wanted to avoid the disease: “The most terrifying aspect of the whole affliction was the despair which resulted when someone realized that he had the disease: people immediately lost hope, and so through their attitude of mind were much more likely to let themselves go and not hold out.”
Distrust and despair make the world smaller. They cut people off from neighbors and friends and they rob man of seeing himself in the light of permanent, lasting purposes. These are spiritual maladies, just as infectious and just as deadly as any physical virus. Our societal recovery from coronavirus will require public health measures and an economic jolt. But even more it will also require organizations that fight distrust and despair.
American society needs faith-based organizations to accomplish this as it works to recover from coronavirus. Below are a few examples of and suggestions for how faith-based civil society organizations can help America recover.
First, faith-based charitable organizations can help feed the poor and the needy. For example, the Knights of Columbus and the pro-life Native American group Life Is Sacred are adapting to the age of social distancing and lockdowns by delivering food to Native communities in New Mexico and Hawaii. New Mexico has had an acute outbreak on the Navajo Nation reservation. The Gallup Catholic diocese, which covers much of the Navajo Nation, is one of the poorest in the country but many of its members have worked overtime to deliver food to the Navajo and nearby Acoma reservations. Similar efforts could be started in the coming months around the country.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Food Society in New York City has helped both frontline healthcare workers and local restaurant businesses by hiring restaurants with significantly depleted business to deliver meals to hospitals. New York City staples Russ and Daughters, Katz’s Delicatessen, Happy Cooking Hospitality, and others have committed to delivering over 50,000 meals.
Second, houses of worship can continue to encourage prayer to counter despair. Making petition to God through prayer is a guardian against despair because the one praying anticipates that he will be heard. Contrary to this, despair is, in the words of the German philosopher Josef Pieper, “the anticipation of unfulfillment,” the active condition of sensing that one’s prayer is directed in vain and one’s being is purposeless. Frequent and robust encouragement of prayer breeds hope.
Within Jewish communities, social distancing has prompted worshippers to ask intricate questions about whether, for example, gathering and praying over a virtual Zoom call is permitted under the law. The many situations that have arisen which require guidance demonstrate the importance of people and organizations that define the conditions for prayer. This need will continue to be acute as worshippers shift back to normal practice after the lockdowns.
Third, when the coronavirus pandemic lifts, faith communities should celebrate the virus’s departure and invite neighbors and friends to join. Prayers should be lifted to the skies and festivals held in thanksgiving. If people of faith are required to love their neighbors by fasting now, let them not forego loving them by feasting together later. Through festivity, communities of faithful affirm the goodness of creation and express the joy of belonging to the created order. Faith-based charitable organizations might even consider becoming patrons of feasts catered by restaurants looking for a jolt of business after the pandemic.
In conclusion, combatting distrust, despair, and isolation during the coronavirus pandemic will mean looking to America’s faith-based organizations for help feeding the poor and needy, for encouragement in prayer which engenders hope, and for remembering that human beings will once again feast together with joy.
Ian Lindquist is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
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