“After the Pandemic” Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt
When I saw that the worship theme for the month of January was “imagination” it made sense to devote one of the five Sundays to imagining what life will be like after the pandemic. It’s been said that things will go back to normal after the pandemic in much the same way they went back to normal after 9/11. In other words, they won’t ever go back exactly to the way they once were. And I think the same can be said about Wednesday’s attempted coup at the Capitol.
[British burn the capitol]
Wednesday was the first time the US Capitol has been overrun since 1814 when the British attacked and burned it down during the War of 1812. To my knowledge it was also the very first time a sitting president has encouraged citizens to take up arms to prevent the peaceful transition of power to the president elect. For many of us the scenes on our screens that afternoon and evening were upsetting, unsettling, maybe even surreal. But one thing they were not was unimaginable.
What happened on Wednesday in the Capitol was all too imaginable.
The forces that led this mob to stage this domestic terrorist attack have been escalating for more than four years. The police in the district were not caught unawares. The mob was organized strategically by people around the country on public social media sites for all to see. What happened Wednesday was all too imaginable.
Likewise, the virus’ staggering death toll and our government’s failure to protect public health has been all too imaginable. Scientists and researchers have been predicting a coronavirus pandemic for years, and the government did nothing to prepare for it. Our healthcare system has been designed for the purpose of making profit by commodifying human bodies, just as our government has been designed not to protect the well-being of all but the ability of the powerful and wealthy to make profit. In a country that worships the almighty dollar above all else, it is upsetting but not surprising to see both big business and government officials prioritize making money over the health and safety of the people.
During and after Wednesday’s events I’ve heard many say that “this isn’t who we are.” That an armed effort to thwart the results of an election Trump and his supporters couldn’t manage to win despite voter intimidation and suppression isn’t somehow exactly who American has been for a long time.
[Amanda Boston screenshot]
As Dr. Amanda Boston tweeted “[Wednesday] was a microcosm of US history: black and allied movements showing the promise of a fully realized democracy, followed up by extremely predictable white backlash, and ending with the ruling elites feigning innocence.”
This is exactly who we are as a nation, just as much as we are John Lewis marching across Edmund Pettus Bridge for freedom. 4000 people died on Wednesday from COVID-19 while many parents continued their campaign to pressure the Montgomery County Public School Board of Education members to open schools next month even though virus cases and deaths continue to rise. This is exactly who we are as a nation, just as much as we are, just as much as we are the doctors and nurses, janitors and food servers bravely working overtime in our nation’s hospitals.
This may not be who you are, who I am, but this is who *we* are as a country. I’m not really sure what to do with the fact that I am in community with people whose beliefs and actions I not only disagree with but abhor and believe are in and of themselves criminal offenses. I’m not sure what to do with that. But I know that in some sense, in some places and times and spaces, this is the way the world has always been. We are not wrestling and struggling with unique challenges. They are specific to our time and place, but they are not altogether different from the challenges human communities have always had.
I also know that just because the challenges are big, and just because it will take a lot of work to address them, our challenges are not inevitable. They are not our destiny. They are not written in stone. Any number of things could change our collective path forward. Forces not yet conceived of could shape a better future for us all. Imagine for a moment if a positive force could shape humanity’s future as profoundly as the virus has shaped this year of misery and white supremacy has shaped the last four hundred years of American empire?
[Time travel pic]
In science fiction books and movies and TV shows when people travel through time they are always worried about impacting the timeline. In Back to the Future Marty McFly travels back in time to make sure his parents fall in love or else he will cease to exist. The Terminator series is all about machines from the future going back in time to eliminate human leaders of the resistance. In Star Trek there is even a temporal prime directive to prevent people from changing the timeline.
So much imaginative energy has been spent worrying about how our actions in the past might impact the future in some outsized way with just a word, just one conversation or exchange or action. So, why don’t we feel the same way about our actions in the here and now? If we could change the trajectory of the world by going back in time, we can change it today. We may not be able to perceive exactly how, the journey toward the future we dream about may not unfold on a straightforward path, but the power of our efforts is mighty, and we must trust it if we are to reconstruct a better world while the one we are in falls apart all around us.
As the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has said, “hope doesn’t just accept the way things are. It dares to hope and believe that something can be different, and then works to make that happen.” And in order to hope and believe that something can be different, we have to be able to imagine it first.
We have lost so much. We have lost so many. There are some things that will never, can never, should never go back to the way they were. But in death there is resurrection. After even the longest winters spring eventually comes bringing newness of life where once there was nothing but frozen decay. The old world is dying, and it is painful. But even amid the rot and the ashes, a new world is taking root, new possibilities are coming into bud.
In his now well-known book The Prophetic Imagination biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes
The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.
In this way, imagination itself is resistance. Imagination itself is healing. Imagination itself is ministry. The question is not who are we? The question is who are we called to be? The question is not how do we fix all of society’s problems. The question is how are we called to be community together?
My friends, now is not the time to limit our thinking to what the empire tells us is moderate, pragmatic, realistic. Now is not the time to stifle our dreaming with worries about *how* we will accomplish the work ahead of us. Now is the time for us all to dedicate our sacred focus to why this other, better world is absolutely urgently necessary. Now is the time for us to engage in the ministry of imagination, and to imagine what a world where all have enough, where the Earth is a who not a what, where profit serves the common good, where diversity is celebrated and difference cherished looks like.
For every single dream that has ever been realized began in someone’s imagination.