This week, a story from The New York Times reports:
The United States is enduring its most severe increase in traffic deaths since the 1940s. By 2019, the annual death rate from crashes was near its lowest level since cars became a mass item in the 1920s.
But then came the Covid-19 pandemic.
Crashes — and deaths — began surging in the summer of 2020, surprising traffic experts who had hoped that relatively empty roads would cause accidents to decline. Instead, an increase in aggressive driving more than made up for the decline in driving.
This grim trend is another way that two years of isolation and disruption have damaged life. People are frustrated and angry, and those feelings are fueling increases in violent crime, customer abuse of workers, student misbehavior in school and vehicle crashes.
Violent crime. Customer abuse of workers. Student misbehavior. Vehicle crashes. Those are four very different categories of human interaction.
Let’s add a fifth: rage from the pew.
There is an anger and frustration in society that is finding its way to targets like schools and churches. Pastors (and church boards) are reporting that, as one board member said, “we are getting a dollar’s worth of vitriol for a two-cent misstep.” With politics squarely upstream of faith in most congregations, the slow boil of our civic life is hitting congregational leaders hard.
What if this painful situation is, in fact, the beginning of new, post-pandemic leadership for you and your congregation? Someone – or some group – needs to step into this harsh landscape of division and model a different, healing way forward. At our best, faith communities are well-equipped for this hard task.
Speaking to Yascha Mounk on a recent Persuasion podcast, Jonathan Sumption (Lord Sumption, a British judge, author and historian) remarked:
Democracies depend on two things. They depend on an institutional framework, and they depend on a cultural background. It isn’t usually the institutional framework that fails. That’s still there.
What fails is the cultural background, which is the desire of people to make it work, the desire of people to respect plurality of opinion, and to accept that sometimes they can’t get their way, however important the issue and however right they think they are. In most countries which have lost their democratic status, the institutions are still there, there are still elections of a sort, there are still parliaments—but they are largely meaningless because the culture that sustained them disappeared.
How well right now does your congregation nurture “the desire of people to respect plurality of opinion?” How effectively do you help people to “accept that sometimes they can’t get their way, however important the issue and however right they think they are?” If we are intent on following Jesus together – in worship, service, and love of neighbor – then modeling these behaviors is the work of a faith community, not parroting the divisions that are prominent in the rest of our civic life. If the church of Jesus Christ is not one of the agents in our society right now to help actively heal our torn social fabric, why not? And who would we suggest instead?
We bring to this task the abundant promises of God. That is no small thing up against so massive a challenge. In the last chapter of Philippians, we read:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through God who gives me strength.
In the urgency of this moment in our common life, faith communities do not need to wonder what their mission should be. It is right in front of us in the divisions of our society, and the lack of civility or shared responsibility in our life together.
To this urgent task the followers of Jesus come. Assured that “the Lord is near.” Knowing that “the peace of God transcends all understanding.” Led by the promise: “I can do all this through God who gives me strength.”
In her poem, “The Miracle of Morning,” inaugural poet Amanda Gorman has written:
The question isn’t if we can weather this unknown,
But how we will weather this unknown together
To which faith communities all over – including, hopefully yours, can say “Amen!”
What signs of anger and frustration are visible right now, in your community? How about in your congregation?
What can your congregation do to help heal the torn social fabric? To nurture plurality of opinion? What will it cost your congregation to do this work?
What scriptures will you bring to this task?