Writing on Religion | Foundations for rebuilding
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As I write this on Thursday night, the national death toll from COVID-19 is racing toward 90,000. The unemployment rate is 14.7 percent, the highest rates since the Great Depression.

Calamities tend to devastate those already sick, poor and vulnerable. COVID-19 has been no different. It has devastated elderly populations in nursing homes and immigrants working in close quarters in Midwestern meat processing plants.

Of course, the economic devastation — more than 36 million people losing their jobs — has spread pain far and wide. A woman on Wednesday at an area food pantry I volunteer with typified this.

"I hate coming here," she said. "But I lost my job and my stimulus check hasn't come yet. So here I am."

Opportunity for renewal?

I've wondered if these catastrophic times will lead to a changed mindset in America. Could we as a people emerge less self-obsessed, more concerned with the well-being of others; less materialistic and more spiritual?

Yet, even though I am an active Christian I am hesitant to extend my hopes beyond "more spiritual" to "more religious." Too much depends on what you mean by religion. Take Christianity, for instance. Do you mean primarily invoking divine help in following the rules and becoming prosperous and comfortable? Or do you mean taking risks to follow Jesus and serve the poor and vulnerable, with a willingness to give up some comfort for the sake of a better world?

Our nation was already very polarized even before COVID-19. Christianity means very different things to different people. Does it include the concern for the natural world and climate of St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis? Or does it rather leave climate totally in God's hands and dismiss overwhelming evidence of human impact on the environment? Are the poor blessed, as Jesus said, or are poor people lazy, with bad habits deserving of punishment?

Finally, does Christianity in the United States mean unfettered capitalism, a military budget greater than the next seven countries combined, and a white majority population? This may be a common liberal caricature of politically conservative Christianity today, but there is evidence that this is more than merely a cheap shot. The ongoing harsh treatment of our fellow Christians fleeing persecution and seeking entry at our southern border makes one pause.

I'm frequently struck by how often non-believers expect Christians to live up to the teachings of the one they claim to follow. Where is the love? they ask. Where is the forgiveness? Where is the generosity? Where is the non-violence?

From a practical, on-the-ground standpoint, the future of organized religion in this polarized and traumatized nation seems as uncertain as everything else.

The center cannot hold. We need a new mindset, shared convictions about our common life together we can embrace as a people, a shored up foundation for our civilization, built from insights old and new.

Religious people with religious convictions and many centuries of wisdom and sanctity in their traditions could help inform this rebuilding. But for some it will take joining the discussion with an unaccustomed humility.

Most ancient text

Last summer I read a short book of essays by the acclaimed Israeli author Amos Oz. Published in 2018, "Dear Zealots," addresses fanaticism and division in his homeland similar to that in the United States. Oz, who died in late 2018, also examines hotly contested issues of national and cultural identity.

"What is the heart of Judaism?" he asks. "What is the deepest and most distinct core of Jewish heritage?"

Oz points to the Hebrew inscription on a 6 inch by 6 inch pottery shard found in 2008 during archaeological excavation at a place called Khirbet Qeiyafa. This historic find is the earliest known Hebrew writing. It dates from the 10th century BCE and indicates the Kingdom of Israel already existed at that time.

Here is what the inscriptions says: "You shall not do it, but worship God. Judge the slave and the widow. Judge the orphan and the stranger. Plead for the infant, plead for the poor and the widow. Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king. Protect the poor and the slave. Support the stranger."

A press release from the University of Haifa about the inscription notes the inscription is similar in content to biblical scriptures such as Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3 and Exodus 23:3, "but it is clear that it is not copied from any biblical text."

Writes Oz, "The inscription's fundamental idea is repeated many times in the Torah, in the words of the prophets, and in Jewish heritage But this Hebrew inscription is likely the most ancient one. More ancient than the wisdom of ancient Greece. Older than Rome and all its glory."

He adds, "More than three thousand years ago there was a culture here that saw fit to demand from the strong that they respect the weak. It demanded not only charity (tzedaka) but also justice (tzedek) — two words in Hebrew, unlike in other languages, are closely connected. It demanded this justice not only from rulers, but from every human being."

I did not know about this inscription until I read it in "Dear Zealots." It excited me because this find runs so contrary to the dismissal of "social justice" by so many Christians as at best a peripheral concern. Actually, it is ancient, it is biblical, and it is central.

Such solid nuggets of our spiritual heritage could be part of a new foundation for our life together. Religious faith, whether adhered to in all of its elements, or just scoured for practical wisdom, offers us many such life-giving insights.

Mark Rondeau is the Banner's night editor and religion editor. He can be reached at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com


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