"What Makes Worth?"
I remember the day I learned that Ghanaian currency had once been the cowrie shell. “A shell, like you could pick up from the beach?” I remember thinking. “Money can be anything," Father Kofi said, "so long as it’s hard to come by and everyone agrees on its worth.”
I am not an international economic scholar, though I pretend to be one on Facebook (just kidding) -- so this thought stuck with me and grew there. Money is a construct. Coins, bills, checks, credit cards, account balances and stocks and IRAs--none of these have any value in themselves. They only take on value in the real world when we spend them on something, and that something helps us live.
I could go on about this for a while, but these days I don’t need to. In a kind of beautiful shift of focus, Americans (for the most part) have suddenly decided that people matter more than money.
That’s a new thing. In the recent past, for example, we have lived by the corrective thought: “It’s the economy, stupid.” That no matter how bad human rights are, or wars or oppression or degradations or bigotry, no matter how unjust or merciless policies might seem, if the economy was okay--well, we could be okay with anything else. By and large, at least to a majority. Suddenly, today, we are not. Today, we have decided that it is the human that has worth--and that the stock market and our economies do not matter so much as the preservation of lives.
We are suddenly loving our neighbor as we love our own selves.
As with the rest of our Lenten texts so far, this was one of the ideas that got Jesus into real trouble. Woe to you, blind guides! He said. “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by its gold is bound by their oath!” Sacredness was dispensible, holiness meant nothing; money was more important than life. And were it not for our last week or so of transformation, I might have preached the same about who we are today.
We have been for so long caught in the shackles of wealth: “It’s the economy, stupid!” People voted their pocketbooks over others’ personhood, their account balances over human rights. People secured their own luxuries without caring for the hungry. In part, this is because yesterday we saw the vulnerable as someone else, and today we see it as ourselves. There's a lot of reflecting we should all do about this: our concern and discipline and sacrifice when our own community's lives are seen as at risk, that we would not consider for those we see as others. We see this as affecting our own selves, or if not us then our mothers, our fathers, our brothers and sisters in Christ. And as we have acted, I believe our hearts have also grown--we former Grinches have suddenly found that our hearts are swelling, loving and sacrificing for not just ourselves but those who were us once, who we might be someday, who are beloved to us and all around us now and whom we want to keep in love forever. Or as close as we can.
We are learning to love our neighbor as ourselves.
...There is a lot of pain in this time. Students are giving up their classes, projects and ideas and dreams they had for completion. Musicians are longing to be put to the task. Parents are wondering how their children will keep up, missing a good bit of the school year. Other parents don’t know how they will cope with working from home and having their kids home, too. Businesses are stuck between wanting to pay their employees but still having to pay their rents and mortgages. They don’t want to cancel contracts, but they know they won’t derive income at present. The pain spreads through the ecology of our world as we try to figure out what professions, really, are the essential ones. Is it just the healthcare workers? Or the gas stations, too, that they need to visit to make it to work? And while we cancel school, we will provide meals, but who can do that when parents must now stay home? And where does the food come from, when food processing factories are not meant to gather? And they need electricity, which means utility workers and engineers must report as usual, but then who cares for their parents at home when the visiting nurses and companions are staying home? We are all essential to one another. We are linked… not because we are worth money, but because we are worthy. You are worthy. Wherever you have been, this ecology that balances itself around worth knows your value.
For me as a pastor, I can tell you that this time is very hard. At just the moment I want to hug you all, I can’t. At the exact time that I’d like to take your hand, it’s not going to happen. I’m terrified to put names to the numbers of what authorities say is coming--if I can prevent that, I will--and yet I have learned that if someone goes into hospital with suspected coronavirus, I can’t visit that person. I can call, I can probably Skype, I can send a card--but I can’t go. The isolation cuts in every direction: people are afraid, but we cannot sit beside them. People are anxious, but we cannot hold them close.
For most of us, by the way, these emotions are in our future not our present. When trauma happens, we are at first usually numb and active: we want to do things, so we create plans and tend to details and stay up late informing ourselves. The emotions will come later. That’s normal, and it helps to expect it. If you suddenly feel tired, or anxious, or panicked, or angry, or sad or useless or helpless or afraid, that’s normal. The emotions, for now, we have packed away while we cope. When the long silence comes, those emotions will parade themselves before us, and make us call them by name.
So call me, and we’ll call you too. Reach out to us; we will be reaching out. And we know, we understand, that it isn’t easy. But please help us by calling anyway. We need you.
We need each other.
I have a dim hope that the children growing up today will see this and remember, like a crucible-moment of their formative years, that humanity was willing to change their lives for one another. I have a hope that maybe, when this virus passes by, we will discover that we can also change our lifestyles to combat other existential threats to humanity, like climate change. See how much we have already been able to cancel flights, reduce travel, shrink our footprints! What are a few hundred disposable wipes to whole factories shutting down? I have hope.
I have hope that we will all look at our neighbors differently, and really neighbor them. The people who live all around us are a gift from God! Love them. Love thy neighbor. Love them as much as you love yourself.
Did I say, earlier, that the most precious thing was not the economy, but people? I was wrong. The most important thing is definitely not the economy. And people are precious, absolutely--but the most important thing, the most beautiful thing that is worth all the rest, is love.
Love your neighbor, as you love yourself.
And let's keep them safe, together.