2021 was supposed to be completely different from 2020. Most people had hoped that once midnight struck on New Years Eve of 2020, we could turn the page on a year of incredible trauma, and enter a fresh start with the brand new year. There were, to be sure, remarkably positive signs and movements in 2021 in our nation, around the world, and closer to home, in my family.
On a national level, life-saving vaccines were produced and made available to every person in our country to limit the spread of the coronavirus and it’s variants and to equip our immune systems to learn how to fight the virus if we did become infected, allowing us to experience less severe illness if in fact that happened. It has been estimated that had there been no vaccination effort this year, the US might have experienced over 1 million more deaths and 10 million more hospitalizations. Another positive in our nation were the creation of two new therapeutics (Covid pills) that recently came on the market to limit severe illness in those recently infected with Covid. As the vaccination effort expanded in record time under the Biden administration, and with more and more people getting vaccinated, this allowed businesses to open up to full or near full capacity around the United States. A third positive movement of 2021 that had an impact nationally and internationally were the summer long Black Lives Matter protests, fueled by the murder of a Minneapolis black man, George Floyd, confronting racially motivated crimes against people of color at the hands of law enforcement that have plagued both American and European societies for generations. The guilty verdicts in the Derek Chauvin trial and the Bryan & McMichael’s trial provided signs of hope for people of color everywhere, and they made a firm statement that people in power, whether law enforcement or vigilantes with guns and a vendetta, cannot (and should not) get away with murder simply because they are police officers and/or because they are white.
Closer to home
Naomi and I have continued to deepen our relationship and love for one another as we continue navigating the tricky waters of life in a pandemic. This has often translated into doing a lot more online, which also meant taking opportunity to get out of the house as much as possible. By March of 2020, both of us had transitioned into working remotely from home. And while I eventually returned to school to teach in-person by March of 2021, I was recently transferred back to an online teaching format supporting students in quarantine this fall and winter. And since Naomi continues to work remotely due to the rise of the Delta and Omicron variants in the summer and fall, we are both once again working from home. As many couples reading this know too well, working from home with your spouse (whom you love dearly) can be tricky, but we’ve chosen to make it work. In order to do this, we had to adapt to the new normal. We created new routines (like how and when we eat together) and set up new boundaries (like not interrupting when we are in online meetings) as much as possible to help create a conducive work-home life. We also take walks around our neighborhood as often as possible to experience the fresh air and move our bodies. While we’ve sometimes done things begrudgingly (we are human), we continue discovering it’s better to consider each other’s needs as just important as ourselves.
Another fun and meaningful addition to our lives over the last two years has been our participation in a church that is located in St. Paul, Minnesota. Because we live in Washington, every church gathering is online. Eventually, we joined one of the online groups from the church and meet weekly on Zoom to discuss faith and life. Last fall, we made a trip out to St. Paul and finally met everyone in person. While there, we were guests at a wedding reception for one of the couples in the group, visited someone’s home, and joined everyone for lunch and church on Sunday. These people have become some of our dearest friends. In addition to visiting the group, we also took the opportunity to visit the George Floyd Memorial in front of Cup Foods in Minneapolis (about twenty minutes from St. Paul). It was a sobering time of reflection and tears while inspiring us to work for societal change with regards to racial equality and equity.
Of course, these positive signs and movements were met with incredibly negative and destructive ones because so much of the trauma of 2020 spilt over into 2021. Just six days into the new year, a violent mob of hundreds of people ransacked the US Capitol, brutally assaulted Capitol Police Officers, while some in the crowd intended to kill leading members of Congress, including the President of the Senate (Mike Pence) and the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi). An old fashioned wood frame with a noose was seen on the Capitol grounds the afternoon of the attack. The day of violence was inspired by the persistent conspiracy theory that the November 2020 election had been stolen and that the former president was the rightful winner. While it’s entirely understandable to be frustrated, even angered, if a person came to believe the election had been stolen, the actual evidence for this claim is nowhere to be found and has for many months now been unequivocally disproven, including over 60 court cases heard by both conservative and liberal judges (even judges appointed by former President Trump) with no evidence suggesting widespread voter fraud. None.
Conspiracy theories also continued to abound about the coronavirus pandemic, including a myth about masks not working to keep the coronavirus (which is an airborne virus) from infecting people and another myth that Covid vaccinations actually give people Covid. The great tragedy of course is that these myths inspired by conspiracies have, no doubt, costed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in both 2020 and 2021. The rise in conspiracy theories has led many political, economic, academic and spiritual leaders to wonder how to curb or counter the massive amount of disinformation and misinformation that has been promoted and spread in so many of our communities and families. The greatest fallout has been the enormous loss of life, but equally important, our families, churches and our nation remain sharply divided. Tragically, some of the most ardent spreaders of misinformation and disinformation about Covid, the 2020 election and the January 6th assault on the US Capitol were people within the Christian community, many of whom identify as evangelicals (the very church community I was raised in). Even people within my and my wife’s immediate family and extended family promote the most disturbing theories about the pandemic and the events following the 2020 election.
Families, churches and nations
Which leads me to ask the following questions: Where do we go from here? How can we be honest about the tragedies of the pandemic era when our own families, churches and communities have fostered so many lies that caused very real harm to people’s lives?
There is not an easy answer to this. On the one hand, we can’t pretend nothing has happened. That’s simply being disingenuous. More than that, it’s refusing to stand up for the thousands of vulnerable people (many of whom were elderly and retired folks) who died needlessly because they assumed the disinformation and misinformation they were hearing about the pandemic was the truth.
I get that it’s extremely difficult and challenging when divisions over disagreements surrounding the pandemic or the 2020 election involve your own family or church community. While every family and every church has to figure out ways to cope with the differences on their terms, not saying anything and not doing anything simply enables people in power to get away with (quite literally) murder.
With both of our immediate families, there has been plenty of disagreement over matters surrounding the pandemic and the 2020 election. We have spent numerous conversations attempting to hash out the truth with them, listening and arguing over what is fact and what is fiction or myth. Since we’ve already openly shared our views with them, and have not convinced anyone to change their minds, we have come to a point where it is no longer helpful to talk about it. So, out of the abundance of keeping our family relationships in tact, we’ve chosen that on whichever topics we disagree or lead to argumentation, those topics are simply off limits to talk about as a rule. We’ve also agreed that if we or they desire to share some newsworthy information in the future that may be potentially controversial, we will first ask permission instead of sharing videos or links on autopilot. If the other person does not wish to receive the information, we don’t send it.
For other families across the country, where conflict is much more explosive, they’ve chosen to have a relationship time-out because any meaningful relationship has not been possible, at least not right now. They’ve recognized it’s better and healthier to not connect with those in their family who have become toxic and/or abusive. Unfortunately, this had to happen between us and some of our relatives as well. Hopefully, God willing, it is only temporary.
Still, for some families each of the above options haven’t worked no matter how hard they’ve tried. Because of this, they’ve chosen to end relationships indefinitely, especially when conspiracy theories have lead people within their family toward violent extremism, racism or harming others. That is a valid option, and, while truly unfortunate and heartbreaking, has to happen in this increasingly hostile politically charged environment.
As a nation, of course, this is also a bit messy. On one level, if our divided families, churches and nation are to heal and move forward, authentic acknowledgement of the grave injustices of the last two years of the pandemic must happen. It is the only meaningful way to create the space for accountability, restoration and healing. As followers of Jesus, we must move from acknowledging to advocating for those who are vulnerable (or, as Jesus called them, “the least of these”). That means speaking truth to power when appropriate. That means (for some of us) supporting a move toward holding spiritual leaders and elected officials accountable–particularly those who have caused great harm by spreading falsehoods over the last two years.
To be clear, for the follower of Jesus accountability does not, nor should it, mean enacting vengeance. By vengeance, I mean ensuring the harshest and cruelest punishment possible to meet or exceed the perceived or actual injustice that has been done. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is not the way of Jesus. In other words, Jesus did not endorse violence nor did he get things done by enacting violence on others. That being the case, nor should those who claim to follow him do violent things toward others. At the same time, vengeance does not mean the absence of accountability. So what could meaningful accountability look like?
It could take many forms, but let’s consider a few. For example, accountability might mean that a church board, congregation or denomination releases a pastor from his, her or their position because of the harm the pastor has caused their church by promoting Covid misinformation and disinformation. After all, Covid misinformation and disinformation has literally cost the lives of people within their church congregations. Accountability might also mean that Christians refuse making scientists scapegoats any longer, but instead humbly listen to and seriously consider their advice which is based on years of medical research and practice. In the realm of political action, accountability could also mean refusing to elect politicians who consistently spread lies and conspiracies.
Likely the highest source of disinformation and misinformation over the last two years has been networks like FOX, OAN and Newsmax. That being said, accountability might mean supporting a grassroots effort to shed light on the fact that the founders and owners of FOX, OAN and Newsmax (Rupert Murdoch and Fox News Media, Robert Herring Sr. and Herring Networks, Christopher Ruddy and Newsmax Media) continued to hire and keep on air people masquerading as news anchors, reporters and analysts whose Covid disinformation literally cost the lives of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people.
Or perhaps, God willing, it will mean that our former president will be held accountable for misleading the American people about what he knew early on in the pandemic about how deadly the novel coronavirus was but kept it to himself, for continually lying and spreading disinformation about how to deal with it and overcome the virus, and spent much of his energy in 2020 downplaying the pandemic and its effects in order to gain political points with his base to win the November election. Perhaps this accountability will translate into never being allowed to run for office again, financial consequences for his business and/or prison time.
Desiring accountability is not a replacement of forgiveness and grace. Holding someone accountable who has caused great injustice is, in part, to advocate for those who have been wronged (the vulnerable, the innocent, the oppressed) and, in part, with the added hope that, at some future point, those who have caused injustice might come to their senses and make amends for their wrongs (even if behind bars). For followers of Jesus, this always means holding out hope and space that the good news of Jesus (and Jesus himself) can and does restore, cleanse and bring people into right relationships with each other and with God, even those who caused great harm, including enemies. Because, the good news of Jesus is not good news if it’s not good news for all of us.
As 2021 comes to a close and you approach the new year, what are some positive things that have happened in your life? In your family? What lessons have you learned? What steps can you take to make things right with others? Let’s come to this new year not expecting perfection (no one can attain that), but expecting change. Expect change in yourself first and be the change you want to see out in the world. With God’s help and grace, the change is possible.
May God help us to create space for acknowledgement, accountability, restoration, healing and change…in our families, in our churches, in our cities and in our nation.