Another Week Ends

1. We got the call early in the morning. A Covid vaccine clinic an hour […]

Bryan J. / 3.19.21

1. We got the call early in the morning. A Covid vaccine clinic an hour away in downtown Pittsburgh had a number of appointment cancellations. If we could drop everything and meet them at 3:00 p.m., my wife and I could have two defrosted Moderna shots that would otherwise go to waste. 

As my wife and I sped down the highway, I was surprised at our opposing takes on this good fortune. She felt like a lottery winner. I, on the other hand, felt like a crook. As our own Todd Brewer articulated so well on Wednesday, the vaccines are for the weak, not the strong. You know, all that Bible stuff about the last being first and whatnot? But the peace of mind knowing that my congregation wouldn’t have to cancel church services anymore if the pastor was merely exposed to the virus was too much to pass up. If anyone pressed me on the matter, I’d use my asthma as the excuse. Or my obvious obesity, whichever one was less embarrassing in the moment.

As one tweeter expressed in this USA Today article:

I’ve been feeling a bit ashamed about sharing some really good news … yesterday I got my first dose of the vaccine. The shame comes from my BMI being one of the factors for me receiving it, but I’m working on my perception of this!

For someone relatively young but also overweight, what’s the right course of action to take? Get the jab for the sake of herd immunity or hold off and let others go first? Risk the accusation of line-cutting or stew in personal and internal shame until the fit and young people are invited to join in?

2. Hence why I got a good laugh this week out of this surprisingly personal McSweeney’s brilliant gag, Sherlock Holmes in the Case of How Did That Guy Qualify for the COVID Vaccine:

“Watson!” bellowed Sherlock Holmes from the Chesterfield, handing me his laptop. “What do you make of this?” It was thrilling to hear the old excitement in his voice — his days of late consisted of playing the New York Times Spelling Bee and checking the Vaccine Tracker every three minutes. The computer was open to Facebook.

“David Worthington got his vaccine?” I cried in disbelief, staring at the photo of the band-aid on our friend Worthington’s well-muscled shoulder. “That guy’s 40 at most!”

“My thoughts exactly, Watson. And he’s really rubbing it in with the #DoingMyPart and #GetVaccinated hashtags.”

To say we were weary of the pandemic, after almost a year confined to 221B Baker Street, was an understatement. I had sunk so low as to binge-watch all nine seasons of One Tree Hill, a show I have never enjoyed. Also, I know for a fact that Holmes hadn’t washed his cape in over a year.

Returning the laptop, I stared at the empty street below. “But can we prove it, Holmes? He doesn’t list his age. I checked.”

“No one lists their age on Facebook, Watson. But the proof is in the pictures …”

Indeed, the culprit in Holmes’ case is the potent combination of quarantine cabin fever and self-righteous zeal. Still, my Band-Aid arm didn’t appear on social media. While we may have found a Christian way of doling out the vaccine, we haven’t figured out a way to vaccinate against envy. There’s no holy pass when it comes to the deadly sin of [vaccine] envy, regardless of our quarantine habits.

3. Not that any shade hurled my way on social media would be effective, after all. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the ineffectiveness of rules and shame in the deployment of public health measures. So says Zeynep Tufekci in the Atlantic, articulating how the public focus on rules (6ft, 15 min, etc.) was helpful, but also deeply performative.

In the United States, the public was initially told that “close contact” meant coming within six feet of an infected individual, for 15 minutes or more. This messaging led to ridiculous gaming of the rules; some establishments moved people around at the 14th minute to avoid passing the threshold. It also led to situations in which people working indoors with others, but just outside the cutoff of six feet, felt that they could take their mask off. None of this made any practical sense. What happened at minute 16? Was seven feet okay? Faux precision isn’t more informative; it’s misleading.

And shame, it turns out, makes things just as performative:

While visible but low-risk activities attract the scolds, other actual risks — in workplaces and crowded households, exacerbated by the lack of testing or paid sick leave — are not as easily accessible to photographers. Stefan Baral, an associate epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that it’s almost as if we’ve “designed a public-health response most suitable for higher-income” groups and the “Twitter generation” — stay home; have your groceries delivered; focus on the behaviors you can photograph and shame online — rather than provide the support and conditions necessary for more people to keep themselves safe.

And the viral videos shaming people for failing to take sensible precautions, such as wearing masks indoors, do not necessarily help. For one thing, fretting over the occasional person throwing a tantrum while going unmasked in a supermarket distorts the reality: Most of the public has been complying with mask wearing. Worse, shaming is often an ineffective way of getting people to change their behavior, and it entrenches polarization and discourages disclosure, making it harder to fight the virus

One Pennsylvania law says that food must be served with alcohol in restaurants, presumably to cut down on intoxicated Covid spreading. One local bar obediently offers its customers a single hot dog cut and divided amongst the patrons at the table to fulfill this Covid requirement. It’s a theological truism straight from Saint Paul himself that rules produce rebellion. The organization of the vaccine distribution is starting to look like a public policy win, as it were, but our public health messaging may need a thorough review before the next pandemic strikes. Tufekci makes a powerful point. Rules and shame may have made our pandemic time worse, not better, despite the rush of watching anti-maskers arrested by police online. 

4. I can’t help but wonder, also, if some combination of rules and shame played a part in turning a youth group kid into a mass murderer this week. The investigation is ongoing, so I will ask forgiveness in advance if these observations don’t hold as the story unfolds. Matters of race and mental health and misogyny will certainly be major components of the story that detectives are unfolding, but preliminary reports indicate that Christian spirituality played a dark and twisted part in the murderer’s rationale.

I imagine there are many readers on our site who heard the news and reflected on their own experiences with purity culture and sexual shame. Between my own experience and the horror stories I’ve swapped with my fellow evangelicals, I think the matters go beyond simple Freudian repression. “I tend to think about firearms less in sexual terms, and more in terms of potency/power, though of course those concepts are related,” said one psychiatrist on America’s gun-violence pandemic back in 2018.

Or, as one writer for YaleGlobal articulated:

To the darkly lonely ones who feel unable to belong, that is, find some sufficiently sustaining acceptance in any group, an overwhelming despair can become irresistible. The “remedy” for this gravely painful condition, a sort of residual “sickness unto death” — a term of 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — may be discovered elsewhere. 

When someone ends another human’s life because they represent “a temptation … to eliminate,” it’s at least plausible that guilt and shame are lurking somewhere in the background. Add racism and misogyny to the mix, and you have a horrific cocktail. Such thoughts are of course speculative, but it does get at the heart of a central theme: is there anything out there besides rules and shame available to us for creating a world with less suffering in it?

5. Back to humor for a bit. One of the difficulties of a rule-following life is the speed with which rules can change. As Molly Henderson satirically points out via Slackjaw, even a question as simple as “is coffee healthy” is subject to the same regimen of rules and shame that Covid vaccines and purity culture employ:

The aim of our research has been simple: to cut through the noise of contradictory studies and determine the real effects of coffee on human health. We may now confidently state that coffee is the best thing you could possibly consume for your body and mind, and that, if you drink it, you are absolutely certain to instantaneously die.

It’s a parody that proves the point: we have trouble enjoying something as blessed as coffee unless there are rules and shame involved. Is coffee good for me, so I can shame my unproductive coworkers for not caffeinating enough in the morning? Or is coffee bad for me, so I can slyly shame my social media followers for not doing all they can to take care of themselves?

6. Elsewhere in the world today, Washington shames Beijing for its treatment of Uighurs, which produces an equivalent shaming response from Beijing for Washington’s history with Native Americans. Megan and Harry are shamed for being both too royal but not royal enough. Members of r/WSB are shamed for selling. Evangelicals are shamed for not properly reigning in their sexuality. Fat folks are shamed for getting the vaccine. If we are looking for something beyond rules and shame, we might be struggling, as David Brooks was trying to write on the subject:

Like a lot of people, I’ve tried to envision a way to promote social change that doesn’t involve destroying people’s careers over a bad tweet, that doesn’t reduce people to simplistic labels, that is more about a positive agenda to redistribute power to the marginalized than it is about simply blotting out the unworthy. I’m groping for a social justice movement, in other words, that would be anti-oppression and without the dehumanizing cruelty we’ve seen of late.

I tried to write a column describing what that might look like — and failed. It wasn’t clear in my head.

An understandable thought — is there anything out there beyond rules and shame, asks Brooks? But things changed for him when connected with fellow New York Times opinion contributor (and Mbird quotable) Esau McCaulley:

McCaulley doesn’t describe racism as a problem, but as a sin enmeshed with other sins, like greed and lust. Some people don’t like “sin” talk. But to cast racism as a sin is useful in many ways.

The concept of sin gives us an action plan to struggle against it: acknowledge the sin, confess the sin, ask forgiveness for the sin, turn away from the sin, restore the wrong done. If racism is America’s collective sin then the tasks are: tell the truth about racism, turn away from racism, offer reparations for racism.

A struggle against a sin is not the work of a week or a year, since sin keeps popping back up. But this vision has led to some of the most significant social justice victories in history: William Wilberforce’s fight against the slave trade, the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and the Confessing Church’s struggle against Nazism. And, of course, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. […]

But this vision does not put anybody outside the sphere of possible redemption. “If you tell us you are trying to change, we will come alongside you,” McCaulley says. “When the church is at its best it opens up to the possibility of change, to begin again.”

New life is always possible, for the person and the nation. This is the final way the Christian social justice vision is distinct. When some people talk about social justice it sounds as if group-versus-group power struggles are an eternal fact of human existence. We all have to armor up for an endless war.

But, as McCaulley writes in his book “Reading While Black,” “the Old and New Testaments have a message of salvation, liberation and reconciliation.”

If there’s any hope beyond rules and shame, I haven’t found it anywhere else. The love of God for wayward sinners made in his image is the only thing I can think of that can move the needle for the over-eaters, the rule-givers and the shame-mongers, the self-righteous, unrighteous, and even people like you and me.


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