Acts 2:14a, 36-41 † Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 † 1 Peter 1:17-23 † Luke 24:13-35
For over 1400 days—nearly four years—between 1992 and 1996, the city of Sarajevo was under siege. One study of the survivors found that many had developed a super-heightened sense of spatial awareness—a skill for evading bullets or bombs, a skill that they carried with them throughout their lives.
“People, during times of prolonged, radical change, end up changing,” said the study’s author[i] in an article this week that takes an early run at how we might be changed on the other side of this pandemic. It makes sense. We are an adaptable species. We grow and change according to requirements on the ground, in the environment, or just at home in these times.
Not surprisingly, studies from previous outbreaks—SARS, Ebola and swine flu—showed almost universal spikes in anxiety, depression and anger. But they also found that people acted to regain a sense of autonomy and control. People worked on their diet. They read more news. They made art. Who knows, maybe they made masks.
You may remember those Sarajevo roses we showed you some months ago in the “before times.”
These colorful resin memorials were made from scars in the concrete caused by mortar shell explosions during the siege. From trauma came art that preserved and transformed a memory in a way that a new future became possible.
We end up changing as a result of our traumatic experiences. Usually, it turns out, for the better. The one-two punch of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic was followed by the roaring 20s, after all.
World War II was followed by a period of prosperity and solidarity, the rise of a middle class—not for all, but for much of the world.
In the U.S. you had the G.I. Bill, better health care, and eventually, the Civil Rights movement. Post war periods were eras of growth and renewal.[ii]
Here’s another hopeful take on it from the article:
The greatest psychological shift amid widespread crisis may be toward what is termed “prosocial behavior”—checking in on neighbors, caring for the needy, cooking for friends.[iii]
This shouldn’t be a surprise, of course. We’ve always known the importance of communities and the power of generosity within them. Even early humans in hostile environments thrived when they cooperated. And now, it seems, our survival instincts are re-emerging. And perhaps our sense of what makes for a good life—precisely the things that religion asks about: what is worth dying for, and living for? I think that’s what these disciples on the road were remembering as they made their way to Emmaus and their hearts were burning within them.
I found myself picking up the social researcher Hillary Cottam’s 2018 book Radical Help again this week. Cottam, in her section on Good Work describes her research group’s engagement with Britain’s welfare to work assistance program. She names what many of us know, even if we haven’t thought of it in quite this way: “In this century,” she writes, “the links between work and a good life have been broken. For millions, work equates to drudgery and poverty.”
While many of us may see this as rather self-evident, the why of it is harder to get at. There are a set of assumptions we live with that are more hidden, so they remain beyond our control to address them. We need to ferret them out, name them, remember them, enact them so that, like the disciples, our eyes might be open to what we’ve known—perhaps always known—and remembered of what makes for the good life, for the well-being of humanity and the whole creation, for salvation, shalom, for the Kingdom or the governance of God—use whichever of these phrases you prefer for they all are ways to name something similar.
Cottam and her research team managed this, I think, by turning the question around to ask a practical research question: “Can work be reconnected in a meaningful way to the good life?”[iv]
She offers as an example the economist William Beveridge. Just as the Model T, the first mass-produced product, was rolling off the production line, Beveridge challenged the economic orthodoxy of the day. He argued that unemployment was not a problem of laziness, wage levels or immigration.
The familiar ring of this critique in our modern ears is instructive. Beveridge challenged his peers and the assumptions that persist to this day. It’s not a problem with the people who can’t find employment. It’s a structural problem. The challenge was how to connect labor to the new technological revolution.
Eventually the solution came: the welfare state. If you let the phrase stand on its own, it is quite stunning, isn’t it? A state whose people fare well, in which there is broad goodness and well-being, a link between our work and a good life. But today this phrase has been so maligned that it is linked to the very set of assumptions Beveridge challenged: that people, that laziness, that immigration and outsiders are the problem. At its worst, such rhetoric has fueled our culture of white supremacy.
Back then it was understood as a virtuous cycle, according to Cottam. The welfare state, and employment services in particular connected the demands and challenges of a new industrial economy geared around the mass production of consumer goods:
Health services and universal education allowed for the required workforce. Employment services and cash benefits eased the path for those in between work or unable to participate in the new economy, while decent unionized wages ensured mass demand for the goods produced, so creating a virtuous circle. [v]
Of course, technology and broader social change are always connected. When we see these interconnections, we can move beyond an obsession with individuals either as villains or saviors, and instead understand wider patterns of change and on the other side of this moment devise systemic solutions that better support the human family in navigating these deep shifts.
That’s what Cottam and her colleagues did in England. They saw in the old, once effective systems, a modern gravitational pull toward a dehumanizing mass production model that was ebbing away confidence and forcing people into low-paying, meaningless work and a class of persistently impoverished people. They recognized instead the profound connection between good work and our sense of purpose and capability. They rediscovered the pre-industrial value of craftsmanship for generating a thriving population.
So they changed the system. They identified three core elements of a new approach. First, the fundamental importance of finding personal motivation, uncovering the dream people bring to their lives.
Second, they saw we need relationships. Networking is, after all, how most jobs are found. Left alone, though, networks trend toward the deepening of inequality and exclusivity. Those with influential networks and access tend to live near, work with, and socialize with others in the same position. One social scientist calls this “opportunity hoarding.” So they designed ways of curating connections to new experiences, new skills, additional support that are essential to pursuing the vocations that help us and our communities to thrive.
Finally, they saw that the process was iterative. That opportunities would lead to more opportunities, and expectations needed to be shaped accordingly.
Now, I’m not trying to suggest that on the road to Emmaus Jesus opened the eyes of those two disciples to a new welfare to work program. What I am saying, though, is that the life Jesus offered then, as now, is one of purpose. I am saying that flourishing lives are rooted in love and work.
I am saying that the work of this gospel has everything to do with making us well in this real world, pandemic and all, and that these moments of prolonged radical change are moments of the Spirit, moments in which Jesus walks beside us, recalling for us in word and enacted memory the truths which must be rediscovered in every age and in every moment for the good life God created us for—so that we might be saved.
Beloved church, we have work to do. This moment is thick with possibility for newness. Let us give ourselves to it. Jesus is here, standing right in front of us. Do you see him? Are not your hearts burning within you?
Give yourself to what is worth not just dying for, but living for. Thanks be to God.
[i] Max Fisher. “What Will Our New Normal Feel Like? Hints Are Beginning to Emerge,” in the New York Times, April 21, 2020. Retrieved on April 21, 2020 from https://nyti.ms/3eOPeIG.
[ii] See “The Next Year (or Two) of the Pandemic”, The Daily Podcast from the New York Times, April 20, 2020. Retrieved on April 25, 2020 from https://nyti.ms/2xKbgLJ.
[iii] Max Fisher. “What Will Our New Normal Feel Like? Hints Are Beginning to Emerge,” in the New York Times, April 21, 2020. Retrieved on April 21, 2020 from https://nyti.ms/3eOPeIG.
[iv] Cottam, Hilary. Radical Help. Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
St. Andrew Sermons