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The End Will Not Come Easily

The end of the pandemic will not come easily.

These words, from Danish political scientist Michael Bang Petersen in today’s New York Times, state what is self-evident to many, particularly here in Canada where the so-called “Freedom Convoy” has dominated the news over the past week or so. For many, relinquishing the emotional urgency that this pandemic has thrust upon us has the feel of a bitter concession. “The End of the Pandemic May Tear Us Apart,” warns Petersen’s ominous headline, and after the two years we have all endured, few would doubt this is true.

The article is refreshingly sane, measured, and wise and is well worth reading in its entirety. But I was particularly struck by Dr. Petersen’s succinct and, to my mind at least, accurate portrayal of what’s going on in so much of what passes itself off as public debate these days:

For two years people have debated the value of masks, vaccine passports and more, to the point that they are no longer opinions but identities. And when opinions become identities, they warp our understanding and make it harder to change one’s mind as the situation changes. The truth is that we are all biased.

Well, yes. This seems painfully obvious here in Alberta these days with road blockades and protests and fiery responses dominating the news and everyday conversation daily. The situation might not be as acute where you are, but I suspect you would only have to stick a toe in the shallow end of the social media pool to be afforded rich confirmation of Petersen’s assessment. We live in a world where increasingly opinion = identity, and identity is all. This is not good, to put it mildly.

Two years into this thing, some of us have so thoroughly made our opinions about Covid a key piece of our identities that it almost defines us. For many, Covid has become the grand narrative that gives life meaning and purpose (even, sadly, many Christians). When this is the case, dialing back the intensity becomes extremely difficult. We cannot concede that we may have been wrong or at least less right than we imagined. We can’t acknowledge that in a fluid situation where things change rapidly, and in a media context that incentivizes polarization and hostility, we have all misread, misinterpreted, prioritized wrongly, spoke out of ignorance, etc. Going back to “normal,” however gradually, could seem to lay all of this bare. Indeed, some may not even want things to go back to normal. Chris Hedges wrote a book with the memorable title, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It certainly is and does. And for many, that meaning will be difficult to give up.

Well, what to do about all this. I have no idea how to solve the macro problems, but on a micro level I can only believe that if we are to in any way make the end of this pandemic come easier, we will have to at least try to reach across the divides we have created (or accelerated) and try to inhabit the experience of those who do not think like us, however odious we find their views, however threatening to the identities we have spent the last two years constructing and fortifying this might be. I wish there were some easier path that didn’t involve enmeshing ourselves in the stew of ugliness and complexity and self-interested signalling and half-truths and partial information and identity posturing. But there is no other way. We will have to reach across and attempt to genuinely understand those who are different from us. We will have to come to re-imagine one another as human beings instead of avatars of this or that ideology or political perspective.

When I was in graduate school, one of my theology professors made us do an interesting exercise on our final exam. We were given three statements that were currently generating theological controversy in the church. We had one hour to write on each one (and were told that if we didn’t use the full hour we should not expect an A!). We were instructed to marshal all of the course reading and lectures in our response, to make the best theological case possible for how and why we had arrived at our conclusions. But there was a catch. No matter how strongly we disagreed or agreed with the statement we were attempting to refute or defend, we had to start by laying out the position we disagreed with in the best possible terms. We were to affirm everything that could be affirmed, even if it wasn’t much. Most importantly, we were to describe the viewpoint that we were opposed to in terms that would be acceptable to someone who held that particular view.

I have never forgotten this exercise. I have returned to it often in my writing and pastoral ministry more broadly. Is how I am talking to or about this person or position something that they would recognize and affirm? It’s a vitally important question to ask. Nothing is easier than taking cheap shots at a caricature. Nothing is easier than labelling all protesting truckers as white supremacists bent on spreading “hate.” Nothing is easier than labelling all Black Lives Matters or Defund the Police protesters as anarchists or mindless rioters. This is a very easy path to take, and many take it.

We need to do better. In how we stagger out of this pandemic and in our discourse more broadly. We need—somehow—to recover a view of those we disagree with as neighbours instead of enemies.

Image source.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. howard wideman #

    wise words. we heard Lethbridge struggles with convoy last evening in our creator’s call in the climate emergency – Steve heinrick’s book study. 

    February 4, 2022
  2. jc #

    Great post Ryan! Appreciate the link to the NYT guest essay(aka oped ugh). Sounds like your prof was into Steelmanning the other persons argument before it was cool. I read Scout Mindset in the midst of this pandemic and have attempted to detach identity from my opinions on it but I think my failure rate in that exercise has been pretty high.

    February 4, 2022
    • Thanks, jc. I, too, have my fair share of failures on this 🙂

      February 4, 2022
  3. Ryan, I so appreciate this challenging and thoughtful post. I know you aren’t on social media anymore but I hope you don’t mind that I shared this link there 😉 I (for now) am still trying to sprinkle good things worth reading into people’s newsfeeds, and I think this is one of them. Hope you’re well!

    February 5, 2022
    • So good to hear from you, Ashley! Thank you so much for sprinkling a bit of goodness here! I hope you and your family are well, too.

      February 6, 2022
  4. If you do not see the pervasive spirit of, “neighbourlyness” that animates the, “convoy” protests across our country, you are blind to the reality of what is actually going on around you.

    February 6, 2022
    • Further, Ryan, contrasting the convoys and the BLM/Defund the police protests, that suggest some sort of moral equivalency between the two groups, is tragically inaccurate and potentially dangerous to public discourse.

      I would suggest you inform yourself about BLM and how protests in Baltimore, Seattle and Portland played out before you make these types of comparisons again.

      February 6, 2022
      • Thank you, erahjohn ,for pointing out and voicing some very important distinctions (to me). I highly regard your Analysis and your Mind, which operates similar to a Steel Trap. 🙂

        February 8, 2022
  5. Elizabeth #

    Thank you for this humble reminder, Ryan. I like your use of, “identity posturing”. There is just so much of that on social media right now and sometimes, some people just have nothing better to do.

    I love the exercise that your theology professor presented. What a valuable experience to remind us of our place in the world and among our community.

    When it comes down to this protest or that protest, the best flag I am willing to plant is one that says “Jesus Christ” on it. I’d die on that hill anyday.

    February 8, 2022
    • Thanks very much, Elizabeth. I’ll join you in planting that flag.

      February 8, 2022
  6. Elizabeth #

    Really Mike? I’ve found erahjohn be nothing but an instigator, belligerent and a last word freak. But hey – he does make some interesting points in between. Remember, the world is changed by your example not your opinion.

    On this post alone he basically calls Ryan oblivious to the world around him and then has the gall to reprimand him for his comparisons. (Which he does often)

    Nah, I call overstepping and ego.

    But steel trap? Yes, maybe because of the danger. If he really deserved the accolades you afford him, he would have his own blog. I searched him up (and you, too) and it doesn’t seem to exist.

    Perhaps we can agree on entitled troll?

    February 10, 2022
    • “But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” Gal 5:15

      I just thought erahjohn put the comparisons into a proper perspective. I meant no disrespect to Ryan, whom I have held in high esteem for years.

      February 10, 2022

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