The pandemic lays bare how American politicians have ignored the past and its injustices. It’s time for repentance, not just prayer.
When President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and public health officials held a Saturday press conference on their plans to address the coronavirus, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson was a surprising addition to the line-up.
Yes, Carson is a medical doctor. But his specialty was neurosurgery, not epidemiology. A public health crisis will certainly impact Americans who live in public housing and are housing insecure, but Carson did not address those issues either. Instead, he stepped to the microphone to celebrate Trump’s call for a National Day of Prayer Sunday.
But America is not in trouble because people are not praying; we face an exacerbated public health crisis because this administration has spent more time preying on the most vulnerable than lifting all people.
As Christian ministers who are called to preach the truth to God’s people, we are deeply troubled by the way this president continues to hypocritically manipulate faith as a cover for his ungodly policies. Though he has used racism to stoke fears in the nation and pushed policies that exacerbate racial inequality, Trump called on a black man to whitewash his incompetence and corruption at precisely the moment when the harsh reality of a global pandemic has exposed him.
Carson drew on the language of religious nationalism to frame the Trump administration’s response to the present crisis for a reason. “Developing your God-given talents to the utmost so you become valuable to the people around you, having values and principles—those are the things that made America zoom to the top of the world in record time,” Carson said. “And those are the things that will keep us there too.”
By obscuring America’s original sin of race-based slavery and the Doctrine of Discovery, which claimed divine right to seize native land, the myth of Christian nationalism that Carson was parroting allows Trumpvangelicals to hope for a triumphant future to match their imagined past. “No matter where you may be,” Trump tweeted, “I encourage you to turn toward prayer in an act of faith. Together, we will easily PREVAIL.”
Public health officials have made clear that the weeks and months ahead will not be easy. For those of us who pray, our posture must not be one of ALL-CAPS CONFIDENCE, but of humble confession. The day of prayer we need is a day of repentance. And it should begin in the White House. The Trump administration got rid of the White House global pandemic office, played down the threat of the coronavirus, and continues to portray a disease spreading within US communities as a foreign threat that can be shut out at the border. He has also attacked the Affordable Care Act, cut food stamps, proposed a budget that would cut Medicaid and Medicare, and systemically worked to defund government programs we need now.
But Trump is not the only one who must repent. The extreme poverty and systemic racism that will be exposed by this public health crisis were here long before Trump. One hundred forty million Americans are poor and unable to afford basic supplies to prepare for quarantine, uninsured or underinsured at a moment when the health of food and service workers directly impacts all of us. The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, and the more than 2 million Americans who live in jails, prisons, and detention centers cannot practice social distancing or self-quarantine if they are exposed to the coronavirus.
For decades now, we have invested the majority of our nation’s resources in arming ourselves with bigger and bigger weapons that could destroy the world hundreds of times over. But we have met an enemy that could be more deadly than any war this nation has ever fought, and we are ill-prepared to even test our citizens for infection.
We must be clear: It is not only Republicans who must repent. House Democrats passed a needed Families First Act to ensure access to coronavirus testing, paid family and sick leave, and economic protections as we all face uncertainty. But they allowed provisions that leave out millions of workers—many of them among the most vulnerable. We do not need prayer for protection. We need repentance and prayer for political courage and will to do justice. Then we need action because, as the Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.”
In the Christian church, this is the season of Lent—a time when we confess the ways we have fallen short and turned away from God’s justice. Though many churches have canceled services to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the psalm appointed for this Sunday is a song of penance from ancient Israel (Psalms 95). It is not a song of triumph, but a pointed reminder that the potential for self-centeredness we see in corrupt leadership is in each of us. “Harden not your hearts as your forebears did,” the psalm says. The people who passed this song from one generation to the next also passed down the story of an evil ruler, Pharaoh, who had “hardened his heart” against their people during a plague and refused to grant them freedom. When we pray Psalms 95, we remember that Pharaoh’s have always triumphed at the expense of the poor and marginalized. But we also remember that the hard heart of Pharaoh is a temptation for each of us. We must repent in order to open ourselves to the needs of the most vulnerable among us.
As we face the uncertainty of a global pandemic, the lies of religious nationalism cannot save us. We cannot ignore the past and its injustices, which still shape our present. Nor can we put our faith in the false promise that our wealth and power will save us. No, we must humble ourselves and remember what every faith tradition reveals: that God is present among the most vulnerable among us, and that if we act now to protect those at the bottom we have the greatest chance of protecting us all.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber IIThe Rev. William J Barber, II is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. His latest book is Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing.