When we first decided to stay in our homes in order to protect each other from the unmitigated spread of Covid19, there was a sense of solidarity, a sense each and every one of us carried some of the responsibility of keeping each other safe. We were—briefly--like a big, global family. There were, of course, outliers (the toddlers of the family) who didn’t quite seem to understand the basic principles behind the stay-at-home orders, but for the most part, that came across as whiny and lacking self-discipline or as a lack of understanding and access to reliable information.
Two months later, the atmosphere has changed, but, given that over 88,000 people have died of Covid19 as of May 15, not in the way that I would have predicted. Two months ago, 88,000 deaths and counting would have scared the shit out of almost everyone. We’re still losing 1,500 Americans every day to the virus, but the prevailing attitude is not one of fear and caution but of belligerence.
Before I go further, I should acknowledge that I am speaking from a position of safety and privilege. Yes, I am working many hours a day in front of a computer doing a fairly frustrating, nebulous task. But I am doing it from a comfortable home in which each of the four of us who live here can be in a separate room. We each have devices that connect to the internet, which falters surprisingly infrequently given its heavy use. We have enough food. We have paychecks and health insurance. We are fine.
That said, most of the people in my immediate daily circle who are complaining about being “done” with this for a variety of reasons also live in comfortable homes with internet and food and one or two paychecks. People are just growing anxious about the uncertainty, about the inconvenience, about the stress of seeing the same people constantly for two months. We miss our luxuries, our routines, our friends and our families. I get that.
What I do NOT get is that we seem to have shifted from a society that was collectively alarmed at the prospect of 100,000 deaths (almost a certainty at this point) and resolute in its determination to keep that number as low as possible to a society that is angry that it is being asked to save each other’s lives. People are showing anger that in order to get back the things they miss—opening the shops, visiting friends and family, getting back to the business of daily life—they will have to wear masks. They are furious that the government suggests that we could return to a more normal and productive version of society if people agree to be tested for a potentially lethal illness, have their movements tracked and then agree not to spread a potentially deadly disease if they have been exposed to it. People are waving guns at the people trying to make sure as many of us live through this as possible. It’s weird. They’re posting false news articles about the government stealing children away from parents and about masks causing carbon-dioxide poisoning. They’re taking assault rifles into government buildings. They’re hero-worshipping those who actively flaunt recommendations for NOT KILLING people. Why? Because they are being asked to stand six feet away from each other and wear masks to save others’ lives, and they are disgusted with this mandate to really try not to kill each other. THAT I do not understand.
In thinking about this shift in attitude, I suddenly thought about the story of Cain and Abel and Cain’s question to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Essentially, that’s what people are asking now, the Biblical question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Is it MY job to keep HIM safe?
The context of this question in its original story, though, provides the answer. When Cain asks this question of God, it isn’t a lament. It’s a response to God asking him about Abel, which was an invitation to confess and beg forgiveness. It’s a response uttered even though Cain knew he’d killed Abel. He knew God knew he’d killed Abel, and he knew God knew he knew God knew. In essence, it was a ridiculous, peevish, childish, selfish, unGodly thing to say. Not only does the context imply that yes, at the very least you ARE responsible for not killing your brother, it points out that even asking the question is a decidedly jerky move.
We could, of course, follow the line of questions and answers into the New Testament. Well, who is my neighbor that I’m supposed to “love?” I’m sure Jesus doesn’t roll his eyes any more than God does in the Old Testament, but his answer also makes clear that the question itself is absurd. Answer: even the people you don’t like, even your “enemies.” Everyone. You don’t get to only love the people you already love. And then there’s the rich young man who asks what else he can do, thinking he’s done it all, but walks away sad when Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give the profits to the poor, and follow Jesus. The answer is always going to be to wear a face covering if that will save someone else’s life.
We can hide behind our cries of “freedom” and “rights” and “not my problem,” but somehow I’m pretty sure that if I can see that these lines are petty, childish cries of “but I shouldn’t have to not kill my brother! You’re violating my freedom to kill my brother!” then God isn’t fooled either, as God never has been.