While we sit on a still deck,
tethered to our house,
tree fronds around us rustle
at the slightest breeze.
We trust in joists, planking, paneling,
cut years ago from rooted, swaying, living trees.
We keep pulling up stakes
to seek food and companions, shelter and home.
Yet our roofs, fields, and shops
turn into hard-edged shells, till the next big storm
draws soft skins from below the nacre.
We sing, teach, paint, cook, knit, write, and dance,
at the most imperceptible move of the spirit.
The Council of the Society of Biblical Literature issued a statement under the title “Black lives matter” that protests the US President’s actions, words, and appalling use of Christian symbols:
We protest the actions by the president of the United States, who, on the evening of 1 June 2020, called for military action against US residents on US soil, had peaceful protesters tear-gassed out of his way, stood uninvited before an Episcopal parish, and waved a Bible.
We call out the president for abusing what is for many a treasured spiritual resource and symbol, and we deplore his violation of sacred space.
We call out political leaders to engage the Bible in thoughtful and responsible ways. The Bible should not be brandished as a weapon to attack humanity or to violate the dignity of the human spirit. We commit to the work of studying and exposing how the Bible has been and continues to be used in this way.
Most obscene and blasphemous today was the use made by the president of the Bible. In search of a photo-op, he walked from the White House to St John, the nearby episcopal church of presidents. Part of the church—the crypt?—had been burned by demonstrators on Saturday night. This short walk required that the White House’s surrounding blocks be cleaned of any demonstrator by federal agents and military police. Once there, he lifted the holy book above his head, somewhat as it is done by excited evangelical preachers, with the boarded church in the background. What did the ad-men of his entourage think? It was a strange gesture for all kinds of reasons, the major one of which is that the hope for justice and peace, a most common cry in the demonstrations, is a central point of the Bible, especially in Isaiah. We have ample evidence that Trump doesn’t care about that idea, and that his idea of justice is vengeance. So then, was he calling for brimstone and apocalyptic punishment (domination) to rain down upon what he keeps defining as terrorists? Or even claiming the divine right to use all necessary power to quell the huge movements all across the nation? It was strange also because Trump is rather remarkable and famous for having no principle or convictions whatsoever, no belief in compassion, kindness, or forgiveness. Strange furthermore because he did swear to uphold his office on that same Bible in January 2017, while speaking of the “carnage” of life in the US a few minutes later in his inaugural speech. The carnage he mentioned is all around him now, much of it due to him and his sycophantic partners.
All large US cities saw major demonstrations again last night that often continued past the official curfews. The national government is gone AWOL. The White House used its special bunker Saturday to shelter the president for an hour or two because of a fear that demonstrators might overrun the fences. No official declaration. No national emergency speech by the president but a fresh spouting of foul twitter messages, mostly to taunt all opponents, who might now count everyone but the 40\% or so of the voters who still support him. Even independents and middle-of-the-road Republicans, if there are such, are abandoning him. Today, in a craven call to governors, he kept true to form, hiding behind their reputations but goading them and demanding that they use force to quash the demonstrations (they need “to dominate” activists), if they don’t want “to look like jerks.” He prodded them not to be too careful about the use of violence. Fortunately, there is a huge, proteiform movement of support for radical change in our society. What form it will take, nobody knows. But peaceful people seeking justice and peace—in that order—are demonstrating everywhere, sharing food and money, volunteering, mobilizing forces for voting, etc., while sheltering in place. And fortunately also, there are governors, civil authorities, health professionals, teachers, parents, a multitude of people who take upon themselves to be the leaders needed in this crisis. Governor Newsom of California again today addressed the public in this spirit of hope, courage, grassroot organization, and thoughtful cooperation. Santa Cruz had a small demonstration downtown on Saturday. The mayor of Santa Cruz and its chief of police knelt together at one point in memory of George Floyd.
The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, has been a spectacular political leader, the more so when compared to the narcissistic and violent fascist who still occupies the White House today. During his press conference today—done by video link as usual now—Newsom called everyone to do their part in taking the events, including the pandemic, as opportunities to be more caring, more compassionate towards each other. He made clear that this care has to be the life-blood of a systematic eradication of racist behavior. Racism is deeply set and entangled in our social and institutional structures. With the terrible events of last Monday on everyone’s mind, when George Floyd, a Minneapolis black man, was killed by a police officer while already shackled on the ground, he tasked everyone with doing their utmost to care for each other, transform perceptions and old habits, and implement social justice and equality. Protests have erupted in Minneapolis and other cities. The National Guard has been called in by the Minnesota authorities after violence threatened to engulf the city.
The president of our country, meanwhile, pours gasoline on the fire in the middle of a pandemic. He considers any supporter or even claimant of justice to be an enemy that needs to be destroyed. He is not content to use media platforms to spout lies and incendiary one-liners, he is now aiming at killing free speech if it clashes with his villainous views. Only stratospheric stock market numbers may pacify him for a minute or two. He has not hesitated to encourage violence via his Twitter account to the point that the media company at last flagged one of his messages (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” an old racist phrase that has the cause and effect backwards). This new stage in seeking to divide and polarize a nation looking for unity of purpose will solidify his core base. Let us hope that it will also decrease any chance he has of getting the votes of independents or even those of some Republicans whose embarrassed and shameful silence may include absence at the polls.
Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera! says Hercules to a cart driver in La Fontaine’s fable of Le charretier embourbé. This proverbial bit of moral code goes back to antiquity. It made sense as part of the Greek notion of freedom and autarky, when it didn’t hurt that authority over oneself was enhanced by dominion over women, children, strangers, and slaves. This authority over others did not trouble the moral luminaries of the time and could be assumed to be part of the natural world. The English version, “God helps those who help themselves,” is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin but was first formulated in these exact words by Algernon Sidney in the seventeenth century. What is peculiar is that many people in the US think that the idea and even the formula originated in the Bible. For some, it might even be a commandment. In fact, it is not biblical at all, in spite of somewhat similar statements in the late book of Proverbs, and in spite of attempts to interpret some parables in the synoptic gospels—the faithful servant or the ten virgins—along this line. It is part of the mishmash of notions purporting to support a proudly conquering capitalism. Believing that it is a biblical verse is a way of surrendering one’s independence of thought to a mythic authority, while sugarcoating what can often be bitter and cruel. As many know, including a minority of Christians, this view of the person is a radical misunderstanding of the notion of grace. Jesus’ words and deeds were mostly concerned with those who need other people’s help and the biblical god doesn’t seem interested in those who help themselves, or at least not that barefacedly. The biblical god helps widows, orphans, strangers, oppressed Israelites, precisely in circumstances when human solutions are hard to come by.
It doesn’t seem appropriate at all to even think of singing the exultet hymn of praise at this coming resurrection mass. Exultet iam angelica turba caelorum… More adequate for our times would be to continue Lent and rogations for another year and keep asking: a peste fame et bello libera me domine…
There were times — in 541 under Justinian, or in 1347-48, the Black Plague, as recalled by Walter Scheidel in his article in yesterday’s NYT— when the demographic loss was so severe that the survivors could free themselves for a generation or two from the pressure exerted on them by the political or religious elites. Salaries doubled or trebled, no matter the early efforts by kings or aristocracy to reestablish the old order of hierarchical division and labor exploitation. Land redistribution happened by default.
We are unlikely to see the same redistribution of wealth happen this time. The limited size of human losses, from a global perspective, and the solid integration of the economic and political machinery make it unlikely. No matter our efforts to move towards a more just and sharing world, and in particular the generosity and courage shown by all workers in the pandemic, it seems that deregulated market capitalism will continue to dominate our lives during and after this catastrophe. The support given by a Democratic majority to Biden rather than to Sanders shows that most Americans are not ready (or were not ready, a few weeks ago) to reject the present capitalist disorder and its myths. Disorder in the USA: no insurance or security for workers, some seventeen million of whom, to date, have lost their jobs, contracts, and wages (that is about 11% of the non-farm work force, which totaled about 155M recently, according to the department of labor figures). More will lose their jobs, and with them their so often endorsed employers’ health plan. A one-time temporary help has been granted ($1200 per individual, $2400 per couple), but what is that in regard to the coming months of food bills, rent contracts, car payments, heating expenses, and especially eventual health insurance? What is that for people whose sense of isolation and abandonment will only grow? Tax payments have been delayed, but no sick leave, or so little, no insurance in the event of job loss, no affordable universal health insurance in sight, except perhaps some adjustments that will not threaten the income of insurance companies, hospital groups, pharmaceutical companies, or manufacturers of medical instruments. Congress is devising new financial packages to support large and small employers, but what happens if about a third of the total economy cannot restart because many people will have no income for several months?
As I walk along the ocean this morning, I start to think of my own steps, I expect them to calm the strange feeling—a mix of anxiety and nervousness— that has engulfed all my thoughts for the past few days. Listening to the noise my shoes make on the path reminds me of the slow walk of the old mare Tamise on the road after an afternoon of hoeing. She was a quiet, smart, stubborn mare on the farm. The recreated memory of her measured pace comforts me, and perhaps even more the fact that she accepts to be bound to me by the rope of her bridle which I hold by old reflex but which she does not need to find the trough and her stall.
Financial values went back up somewhat in reaction to the Federal Reserve’s resolve to inject up to 1.5 trillion dollars into the banking system and in reaction to the White House’s Rose Garden show Friday March 13. Trump was awful in his emcee role: health authorities were paraded before the microphone, and so were Pence and a number of CEOs of some large pharmaceutical companies and distributors like Walmart, Target-CVS, Roche, etc… They spent much of their time thanking a president who managed to get a number of facts wrong. He uttered a few lies. And he didn’t own up of course to terrible decisions made by his government, like the dismantling of the National Security Council’s global-health office. At least, small consolation, he didn’t talk anymore about a “foreign” virus. The take away from this Rose Garden exhibition was a belated recognition of the seriousness of the situation. And more practically, access to testing would ramp up by next week although Trump managed to still claim that it is not really necessary! No mention of course that a preliminary test had been developed by the end of January, about a week after China identified the gene structure, that the World Health Organization recommended this test for now, and that it was broadly distributed and used systematically in countries like South Korea but not in the US.
Other news that are diagnostic of the social chaos in our country: the democratic majority in the House voted for a package last night that was meant to support workers if they or their family members get sick. We learn today that the main provision—universal right to sick pay for ten days for any sick employee—will apply only to about 20% of workers, strictly speaking. It will exempt small and large companies. This was apparently the price that the House Democrats had to pay for getting Republicans and the White House on board, though about forty of the Republican representatives did not see the wisdom of such a watered down version of the law and still voted no. Today’s NYT editorial said that the Democrats should have pushed for the universal plan and forced the Republicans to explain their opposition to paid sick leave. But perhaps the most important thing was to get any legal package, no matter how imperfect and unjust, to be approved by a chaotic White House and a servile Senate. One may also think that not only Republicans but a number of Democrats worry about the economic cost of a protective, fairer, less exploitative labor law?. It looks like the Democrats wasted an opportunity to make some real progress in support of labor. This decision means that too many employees will show up for work even if they are sick, and that the virus will spread at a greater rate than would have occurred otherwise. I hope that our leaders are not choosing the economy over life.