As a society and as individuals, we do not yet have sufficient distance to understand the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic. Discerning them may take a lifetime, but we should at least begin.
How will future generations judge our response to the pandemic? The virus has exposed many truths about humanity and the ways we organize ourselves as societies. While we are adaptable, we are also vulnerable. One painful reality is overwhelmingly evident: The privileged are less at risk than the poor. We are a nation that has exalted individualism but in the end relies on the strength of community. Did the image of the American melting pot help us become the people we needed to be or did it ultimately harm us?
The Covid-19 virus has exposed many truths about humanity and the ways we organize ourselves as societies. While we are adaptable, we are also vulnerable.
I imagine students researching periodicals (maybe even this article) decades or centuries from now, looking for what this moment felt like to the people facing this pandemic. Let me address them—well, actually, let me address you.
Dear future reader: As I write, most of us are subsisting on confusing theories, indeterminate fears, tenuous hopes and, in the best of cases, bits of science and some awareness of the lessons of history. Some of us are looking back, just as you are. There is continuity and discontinuity between us and the past, and we are trying to learn from both. In this quest, a few of us are asking questions to connect our past, the disconcerting present and the hoped-for future. I am sure we agree that generalizations are risky, but there seems to be an almost universal reaction to this moment: incredulity. Much of what we thought we knew, valued and could not live without is vanishing, and many of us just do not know how to feel.
I am a theologian who is part of the Catholic tradition, and engaging with this moment at its depth is most assuredly the work theologians are called to right now. I pray Christianity is flourishing and thriving in the future as you read this. If it is, it means we did something right.
A Complicated Tradition
One of the advantages of belonging to a religious tradition spanning two millennia ought to be a heightened awareness of the precariousness of history, the unsettling quality of life as it unfolds and the constant need to adapt. Christians should be the kind of people who understand that faith as lived in the world provides the gift of reflecting on the fragility and temporality of everything, and most importantly of our own lives.
This is a complicated thing. We know ourselves heirs of a promise that transcends the brief span of our individual lives; the promise of the resurrection. At the same time, we know that we will get there not by avoiding our fragile materiality but by living fully into it. The one we follow, Jesus of Nazareth, began his ministry at a wedding party, abundantly filling the cups of his fellow guests. The party was fleeting, just an instant in history, but for that one moment a group of people rejoiced and delighted as they toasted the bride and groom with the finest wine.
The Christian tradition expresses this apparent duality humans inhabit with the symbol of the reign of God. Christ tells us the kingdom of God is not a place but an event that discloses God’s purpose and vision for all reality. It broke in at the wedding in the small village of Cana. It discloses itself at food banks, hospitals, liturgies and family tables. It is promised as the eschatological banquet, where the last shall be first as we share a common table. The reign of God is both here and not yet, evanescent and eternal, earthly and heavenly, embodied and transcendent. What we do every moment matters precisely because it can help build the reign bit by bit until the day when all creation returns to God in fullness.
Just as our religious beliefs help us wrestle with the challenge of being made of finite matter and transcending spirit, the way we humans create is a persistent reminder of our spirit-filled temporality. Loving music, we might ruminate and grieve because Mozart died so unexpectedly young. If we love classical paintings, we might contemplate a scene of great bounty, all the while knowing it did not last. If we love architecture, we might be moved to tears by sun-bleached ruins, thinking back to the people who built and gave life to these spaces. To live in the world means to know its awe-inspiring fragility and to realize that through its loveliness everything also communicates its impermanence.
What we do every moment matters precisely because it can help build the reign of God bit by bit until the day when all creation returns to God in fullness.
Making Difficult Choices
At this moment, when human vulnerability has been so thoroughly unmasked that it hurts, my contemporaries and I must choose how to live this truth. There are those who choose denial, hanging on to an illusion of invulnerability and refusing the possibility that our lives are not our private property but are meant to be shared in community. Some people disdain wearing masks or keeping distant or acknowledging that we cannot buy our way out of a global pandemic. Regrettably, many of us simply act out of self-serving egoism. As we see the daunting scarcity of jobs, loss of economic mobility and diminishment of privilege, we lash out against the weak and decide we are somehow more deserving than anyone else, without regard for anyone left behind.
There are also those who face the uncertainty with trepidation; so much of who we thought we were was enmeshed inside our well-laid plans. We feel lost, but in the midst of this disorientation we can be patient, knowing that there is something new being born. And there are many spirit-filled people finding purpose in sharing vulnerability and discovering a side of themselves they had not known before. These days, I hear from young (and not so young) people how they are experiencing a time of awakening, asking difficult and unavoidable questions, getting to know themselves and others more fully, discovering strengths and weaknesses and taking stock.
We might say that for humanity the coronavirus pandemic is a raging storm. What kind of people will we be, not only at the end of the storm but throughout the journey?
Who are we? Although the question is global, it must be answered locally.
Who are we? Although the question is global, it must be answered locally. Who are we as family, neighborhood, state, nation, human race? In the United States, this question is not new. We have been asking it for over two centuries, but it came to the fore powerfully during the last presidential election and its aftermath. Many of us, especially people of color and immigrants, witnessed the powerful among us setting those they decide worthy against the excluded and making evident the chasm between privilege and expendability. We cringed as white nationalism took the microphone and wielded power. In uncovering what had been latent, we have watched in horror as black and brown persons become targets of bullets, beatings and incarceration wrought by racism and xenophobia, and we ask ourselves, “Who are we?” This question was there before the pandemic, but many of us are now paying attention to it for the first time.
On a recent evening, I recoiled while listening to the news as an irate man wanting to dismantle all public health mandates during the pandemic declared imperiously, “If we don’t have individualism, we don’t have America!” It dawned on me that he is a thermometer, flashing the warning light of a high fever that has been raging for a long time. “American” individualism, containing the other “isms” that allow us to feel superior, promotes the fantasy that it can assert itself against a pandemic ravaging bodies and economies. “If I can just have everything for my own comfort and put my interests first, all will be fine,” we tell ourselves as the sickness spreads. Egoism at full throttle is far from the reign of God. Perhaps it is what most clearly defines its opposite.
We need a treatment for this sickness tearing into us. On the streets of my neighborhood and stretching throughout the country, there are two strains contaminating us that are working simultaneously on the “American” psyche. The first, individualism, appeals to absolutist ideals of freedom that place individual benefit always ahead of the communal. As J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur wrote in his paean to budding Americanism in 1782, “the rewards of [the new American’s] industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement?” Crèvecoeur was a Frenchman who married an American woman and became a celebrated writer on both continents after publishing Letters From an American Farmer, which included his reflections on life in the United States.
Crèvecoeur left evidence for posterity of a seemingly total disregard for the original peoples inhabiting the land, as well as their destruction, and his is perhaps the first mention of new arrivals from Europe “melting into a new race of men.” He delineates the requirements for being an “American” with precision: Be European, care single-mindedly about your self-interest and your “fat horses,” and privatize your religious beliefs because these have no application to the “welfare of the country.”
This early treatise argues that the question of who the people of the United States are, despite the language of “we the people” used in the founding document signed only six years earlier, is one of economically motivated self-interest. Today, we witness this in an individualism that fetishizes liberty as one person’s private property and getting ahead of others as a primordial value that bears no responsibility for the common good. Indeed, in Crèvecoeur’s telling, there is no sense of community or joint purpose. The only requirements for being a “good neighbor” are to be prosperous so the neighborhood looks good and to stay out of each other’s way. In a telling sentence, Crèvecoeur identifies “religious indifference” as a much-desired outcome of being transplanted to the North American continent, adding that “persecution, religious pride, [and] the love of contradiction are the food of what the world commonly calls religion.”
Egoism at full throttle is far from the reign of God. Perhaps it is what most clearly defines its opposite.
If we look for a response to the question “Who are we?” from the time of the imperfect founding of this nation, the answer should make people of faith supremely uncomfortable. The requirements of caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, of sharing with the hungry, the prisoner and the sick, are all silenced in accounts like Crèvecoeur’s. According to him, “[w]e are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself.”
As self-interested individualism cleaved from communal concerns is set up at the center of early Americanism, a second identity marker develops during the wave of European migration that opens the 20th century: the melting pot. Although it seems to promote the opposite of individualism and was thus envisioned by its author, it was swiftly detached from its original meaning and put at the service of “Americanism” narrowly defined. To answer the question of who we are requires a deeper interrogation of the idea of the melting pot.
The Melting Pot
In the middle of the pandemic, I convened an online conversation about the idea of the melting pot. The thoughtful responses disclosed understandings forged in diverse contexts. Older folks thought it an outdated idea that had lost its usefulness, yet I was surprised that young people revealed its centrality in their elementary school classrooms. One millennial political scientist, Alejandra Alarcón, recounted that even though it was a relic by her elementary school days, a segment on the melting pot recipe in the “Schoolhouse Rock” television series was formative for her generation. While some who grew into adulthood abroad understood the “melting pot” positively as “merging, not losing,” those from communities of color in the United States reacted with an opposite view.
Using images of “assimilation,” “erasure,” “disappearance” and “lie,” they related painful memories pointing to how the melting pot was weaponized as a way to destroy particularity at the service of a homogenized national identity. What the conversation revealed is that a construction of “Americanism” defined as a melting pot became synonymous with the Euro-American prosperous whiteness defined earlier by Crèvecoeur. The requirement of blending in and disappearing into an undifferentiated mass resulted in the loss of languages, customs and religions, and became an aspirational goal.
As the theologian Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., pointed out in his lecture “Toward a New Narrative for the Latino Presence in U.S. Society and the Church” in 2012, Catholic thinkers in the United States embraced the Americanist principle and “supported the concept of Americanization which they identified with modernity as something positive that would allow the Catholic immigrants to be accepted by and eventually exercise influence over the dominant WASP culture of the United States.” What assimilation based on whiteness makes impossible is any inclusion of people of color. It also strips human dignity away from anyone refusing to submit.
What assimilation based on whiteness makes impossible is any inclusion of people of color. It also strips human dignity away from anyone refusing to submit.
In 1908, the play “The Melting-Pot” opened in New York City, premiering the metaphor that eventually became synonymous with assimilation. Yet, this was far from the intent of the play’s author, the acclaimed Jewish writer Israel Zangwill.
The drama presents a cast of immigrants asking the question “Who shall we be?” as life explodes around them through the aspirations of the young and the suffering of their elders. David, the young Jewish protagonist and sole survivor of a pogrom in Russia on Easter, takes refuge with relatives in the teeming tenements of New York City. He wrestles with ways to make sense of his faith, his language and his ancestors, conscious of the extraordinary suffering of the new immigrants arriving every day. Zangwill uses the phrase “melting-pot” only once in the play: A more prominent metaphor is “God’s Crucible,” a key religious term whose meaning has been subsequently lost.
The “Crucible of God” refers to the ways David makes sense of the searing experience of desolation and poverty, the self-destruction caused by despair, and the hope of forging bonds in shared vulnerability that will melt away “the feuds and vendettas” of old lives. Exploring bitterly the anti-Semitism that cost him his family, David imagines a new human family, where Christians recognize “that this Christ, whom holy chants proclaimed re-risen, was born in the form of a brother Jew.”
The heartbreaking retelling of the murder of his family as they celebrate Passover and his father clasps “to his breast the Holy Scroll” had a particularly powerful purpose. President Theodore Roosevelt was in the opening night audience, and through the play Zangwill pleads the case for 10,000 Jews fleeing Europe to be allowed into the United States. As David exclaims for the president’s ears, I am “holding out my hands with prayer and music toward the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God! The Past I cannot mend—its evil outlines are stamped in immortal rigidity, take away the hope that I can mend the Future, and you make me mad.”
By 1914, the play’s meaning had been so distorted that Zangwill penned a response. “The process of American amalgamation is not assimilation,” he wrote, “or simple surrender to the dominant type…but an all-round-give-and-take by which the final type may be enriched.” He points out that his characters learn not to erase but embrace uniqueness and value each other. The anti-Semitic Irish maid learns some Yiddish, and the observant Jewish grandmother accepts that her grandson must play the violin on the Sabbath to feed his family.
Far from the “self-interest” espoused by Crèvecoeur, Zangwill argues his belief that ethically “in the crucible of love, or even co-citizenship, the most violent antitheses of the past may be fused into a higher unity.” Although his focus is the desperate fate of Jews, which as an activist he wants to change, he understands the crucible to hold within it all of the world’s poor and desperate: “Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian—black and yellow—Jew and Gentile.” The play mounts a robust critique of wealth, of turning a blind eye to suffering and of seeking personal gain at the expense of others.
Who Are We?
We are called anew to this question of who we are. Individualism will be our end, and the melting pot betrayed us. We need our metaphors for who we are to be both global and intimate. Perhaps the Holy Spirit breathed some of it into being in Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” meditation on the Gospel of Mark. “We have realized,” the pope tells us, “that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat...are all of us...we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
It is time for a new human to emerge, ready to row for the sake of all. We are sharing the boat full of faith in each other, surprised by the gift and vulnerability of our fellow rowers, and as we row forward together, we face down the storm in kinship. Future reader, I hope we found dry land and built something new. Only you will know.