Something shifted in May 2020. Suddenly, everyone was seeing racial injustice. Everyone was listening to the conversation about racial inequality. Over the course of that summer, as copies of How to Be an Antiracist and So You Want to Talk About Race flew off bookstore shelves, suddenly it seemed as if everyone in America was trying to get caught up to speed.
More specifically, it was White Americans who were playing catch up. Unjust killings of Black, Indigenous, and people of color have been occurring in America for hundreds of years. For hundreds of years, Americans have responded with protests and uprisings. What shifted after the killing of George Floyd was a new interest on the part of majority-White communities. In my city of Portland, Oregon, which Atlantic has dubbed “the Whitest City in America,” protests focused around the idea that Black lives matter continued nightly all that summer and into the fall. At the mostly-White school where I taught, White teachers formed an antiracist book group. I found myself, as a White mom, marching down the street of our little mostly-White suburb for my White children’s first protest.
But racism wasn’t the only issue on the table in 2020, of course. We were also living in the midst of a global pandemic. Schools and businesses had been shut down for months. Stores were running out of toilet paper. People were learning to wear face masks and keep social distance. Some lost their lives; others lost loved ones.
Why did the Black Lives Matter movement—especially, White Americans’ involvement in that movement—gain traction in the midst of a pandemic?
Maybe we were just bored. Sick of staying in our houses all day. Maybe our emotions were supercharged and we needed an outlet. Or maybe our collective consciences were pricked. Maybe we looked at the disparate effects Covid was having on communities of color and concluded that racism hadn’t been eradicated in the 1960s, after all. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the pandemic summer of 2020 marked the first time many White Americans confronted the reality of the White supremacy that is still with us.
National sins and outbreaks of disease also appear side by side in the Bible. In the Old Testament, when God wanted to get a people’s attention and call them to repentance, He often used plagues. I am not at all suggesting that God sent Covid to judge America for its sins. What I am suggesting is that it would be a mistake to squander the opportunity for reflection that Covid brought us. When we face disasters of unprecedented scope, they naturally cause us to look both inward and upward. America took a collective timeout in March of 2020. By May of that year, we were ready to face the truth about ourselves a little more squarely.
Now, however, more than two years on, White concern for both the pandemic and racial injustice is flagging. There’s been an extraordinary backlash in both arenas: Conspiracy theories about the pandemic abound. Moral panic over the supposed threat of Critical Race Theory runs hot. In the midst of all that, our attention has wandered. The marches have ended; the book groups have disbanded. If the heady first steps White Americans took in 2020 could be compared to a hurricane, we seem to have reached the languid, inactive eye of the storm.
In the New Testament, we meet a member of the Trinity who does not send diseases; he heals them. Jesus Christ’s first-century mission followed the pattern laid out in Psalm 103: He forgave people’s sins, and he healed their diseases. Jesus was careful to clarify, when he healed a man who had been born blind, that the disability had not resulted from either the man’s sin or his parents’. Yet Jesus recognized that the fallenness of the world affects both our bodies and our souls. And wherever he went, he addressed both needs. Forgiving sins. And healing diseases.
Often, the physical healing was all people thought they needed. One group was so desperate to get their paralyzed friend into the crowded house where Jesus was teaching that they cut a hole through the roof. As the ropes creaked and his mat swung above the waiting heads, the paralyzed man probably only hoped that Jesus could get his legs working again. Once the mat touched the floor, the words Jesus actually spoke might have sounded a touch disappointing. “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
Although it was the physical need that brought the man through that roof that day, Jesus could see that the man’s spiritual healing took top priority. Forgiveness first. Healing second. Only when both of those needs had been taken care of did Jesus say, “Get up! Pick up your mat, and walk.”
If we White people have stalled out in our efforts to address racial injustice in America, perhaps it’s because we’ve gotten the order wrong. Maybe we’re trying to get up and walk before we’ve even been forgiven, much less healed.
It was the Covid pandemic that got our attention. Then, it was the killing of George Floyd that opened our eyes to our collective sin. Are we still lying here paralyzed? May we know the forgiving, healing power only Jesus brings. May we allow Jesus to make us ready to get up and walk into whatever is waiting on the other side of the eye of the storm.
By Sarah Sanderson