Pandemics bring grief and fear. We must respond with social solidarity, not scapegoating.

By BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler

A stylized image of six white lilies on a an antique wooden table
A stylized image of six white lilies on a an antique wooden table

Why is this week different from all other weeks? For millions of Jewish and interfaith families around the world, they will ask the familiar four questions at the Passover Seder meal, in answer to the question “Why is this night different from all other nights?,” but around a much less crowded table. Many more millions of Christians around the world are making their way through Holy Week, from the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday to the despair of Good Friday to the glory of Easter Sunday, but without the call-and-response of “He is Risen. He is Risen Indeed!” or the white lilies crowding around the altar.

My interfaith family will experience both holidays in new ways this week. I was looking forward to hosting a Seder for the first time this year, and I will still do so, but with my in-laws joining on a computer video chat rather than sitting at my dining table as we originally planned. I will observe Good Friday and celebrate Easter Sunday, but I will be with my Baptist church family in only virtual ways this year. While personally painful, these adjustments are not unique. They reflect the drastic changes that religious organizations around the world have made to protect the health and safety of their congregants and communities.

In the United States, the vast majority of congregations have made the responsible but difficult decision to close their buildings and move their religious practices, as they are able, to remote gatherings. They have done so not only in response to guidelines and directives from public servants and public health officials, but also because of their religious and moral commitment to caring for their neighbors. These diverse religious communities are responding in real time to a crisis that has shaken the ground beneath our feet, and their acts of social solidarity should be celebrated, particularly given the extreme burdens on religious exercise that the faithful of many different religious traditions are experiencing right now.

There is another, dangerous response to the crisis that is also emerging in our country right now. Faced with stress and uncertainty, some are looking for a scapegoat — a group on which to target our blame. Like many, I have been alarmed by the reports of rising violence and other racist acts against Asian Americans, who have been wrongly blamed by some for this deadly virus. The perpetuation of harmful labels like “the Chinese virus” only foment the ugly bigotry. This irrational hatred reminds me of the rise of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic bias and violence in our society over the past several years.

There are other, less extreme examples of blame and shame that are circulating in our culture right now. Some have targeted their hostility on geographic hotspots where the virus has taken an immense toll on human life, such as New York. Rather than respond with empathy for the disproportionate impact on some of our neighbors, some add further insult to their immense injury. Others have fixated on a small minority of religious communities that have continued to meet in opposition to the guidance from public health authorities. Perplexity and anger over these irresponsible decisions is natural, but we should speak out against anti-religious bigotry that may spill out from our collective anxiety.

As leaders in many communities have reminded us, “Viruses don’t discriminate, and neither should we.” This pandemic is already having disproportionate effects on more vulnerable people in this country; we must not also allow it to sow bias. While it may be tempting to find some group to blame for the dangerous spread of this insidious virus and deadly disease, we have one common enemy: the virus itself.

We are grieving the very real losses that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to our daily lives. While scapegoating offers the temporary illusion of relief, social solidarity across lines of religious, national and racial difference is a sustainable solution. We can point fingers, or we can join hearts. When we lean into community, we realize that our fate is deeply connected to the fate of our fellow human beings. In a variety of religious traditions, we call that loving your neighbor.

In this week unlike all other weeks, people of faith are bearing witness to our faith in action in new, physically distant but socially connected ways. Next year, may our Seder tables and our sanctuaries be full again.

Amanda Tyler is the executive director of BJC.

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