Memorial Day 2020: Grieving Another COVID-19 Death Count Milestone
Memorial Day Weekend is upon us and there will be celebrations, but of what kind? We will remember those who died fighting for our country in years past, but with the freedoms they fought for in such disarray, how will we celebrate a holiday that marks the traditional beginning of summer while the virus is still at work among us?
In our rush to reopen America in the midst of a plague, can we also take a moment to remember those who have died over the past 3 months? We are on the eve of another death count milestone. How should we remember the almost 100,000 Americans who have died from Coronavirus by Memorial Day?
I know that disease is not the same as war. We commemorate those who die in war. We lay wreaths at their graves and we remember the heroes who have fallen. But, President Trump said that he was acting as a “war time president” as he lead us in a war against an “invisible enemy” that will have taken nearly 100,000 American lives by the end of Memorial Day Weekend. He has also said that Americans are warriors in our fight against the Coronavirus and to reopen the economy. If this truly is, or was, a war, then what better time than Memorial Day Weekend to grieve the many who have died in this so-called battle thus far?
I’ve been reading short biographies of some who have died from this virus. I’ve read stories of pastors, fire fighters, businessmen, artists, singers, teachers, nurses, doctors, policemen, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters … people from every walk of life and from all over the country. I read about a college student set to graduate. He was 25. A musician in New Orleans. A guitar player in Colorado. A veteran of Desert Storm. We hear story after story of people who were healthy and productive, who were loved by their families and friends, who had many more years in front of them. Who among them thought in February that they would be dead by Memorial Day? Their lives, their souls, all matter. We should not forget. We should lament.
But, in some quarters, we’re experiencing different kinds of casualties–the death of empathy, and with it, the death of truth. As our nation reels from the public health and economic effects of this virus–as we seek to navigate recovery–we also see the rise of a denial culture that provides little room for grieving. With a new dawn of yet more conspiracy theories, false accusations, misdirection, and blame-shifting, the buck of responsibility is passed around until it lands upon our ideological opponents. Because of this, truth stumbles in the streets.
Isaiah 59:14 in the Bible comes to mind: “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.“ If truth stumbles and our ability to grasp the reality of death is lost, how far is the fall for all of us?
“The gift of the Enlightenment, of modernity, was to place objective reality, truth, at the center of human understanding and experience” Dr. Karen Swallow Prior told me last December. “For the past couple of decades, Christians have warned of the breakdown of objective reality that would—that has—come with post-modernity.”
Dr. Prior is a cultural critic, evangelical author, and an English professor on faculty at Liberty University at the time (she has recently moved to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). I asked her for thoughts about the present concept of truth in America, especially amongst evangelicals. I’m a Baptist pastor, so I was particularly curious about how she thought evangelicals related to concepts of objective truth and justice in the current moment. Will we lose our ability to come to a consensus on right and wrong and what is true and false in the public square if partisan loyalties trump transcendent truth claims? Dr. Prior responded with a sobering perspective.
“[W]hile Christians rightly feared the crumbling of moral absolutes postmodernity would bring, we did not account or prepare for our own conscription into this worldview in which power replaces truth.” She continued. “We therefore find ourselves not only being subject to but even using postmodern means—seeking platforms, leveraging power, increasing polarization, and unwittingly sacrificing truth in the process–in order, paradoxically, to achieve our ‘noble’ end of preserving truth. We have become the very thing we warned against,… Nietzsche was right: in the absence of truth, there is only power.”
Dr. Prior’s words about power replacing truth came back to mind this week as I contemplated what the colossal loss of American life to a previously unforeseen virus means for our age. This weekend should provide us a perfect opportunity to mourn, grieve, and fully express the sorrow of what has happened in America over the past 3 months. In doing so, we should reject conspiracy theories and falsehoods that cast doubt on how many have died out of political fear.
We should reject any inclination to foist such a tragedy over our political foes. There is a difference between accountability and vengeance.
Rather, we should uphold the truth about what has happened and properly mourn those who have passed as a way to rebuild on our shared experience of grief and remember that these are real people who really matter. Their lives have dignity, worth, and value and their deaths do not serve as pawns in a larger partisan game. By upholding truth and endeavoring to mourn beyond political consequences or benefits, we affirm the humanity of those who have passed — as well as our own.
And, I have a deep sense that we will need this dignity and strengthened sense of humanity, truth, patience, creativity, and empathy to navigate the difficult and uncertain days ahead, not as enemies across ideological divides with the forgotten dead behind us as we strive for power. But, as countrymen who remember those we have lost together so we can rebuild again on the foundations of truth that remain.