A normal worth going back to

by Mark Safstrom

“Proximity makes the heart grow fonder” was the smart rebuttal that a friend made to me once years ago when I had blithely said the same about “distance.” We know this to be true after the many weeks this year spent physically distant. When this pandemic is over, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could remember how much of a toll this social deprivation took on us? How unsatisfying it was to do absolutely everything online: meeting, teaching, worshipping, and happy-hour socializing? Or how hard it was to tend to the sick, counsel those in distress or with mental health struggles, or attempt to mourn the dead? We are learning a lot about our resilience and interdependency, about who and what we value most.

Then the protesting and rioting began. It is not hard to see how social distancing and its accompanying anxieties had set up perfect conditions for racial tensions to explode onto the streets. The image of George Floyd being choked to death in public took the nation’s breath away.

De facto segregation by unequal treatment under the law and access to public services is the ultimate in social distancing, and has persisted despite decades of people valiantly working for change. We hope to fully “reopen” the country, but it is as apparent as ever that the country has never been fully open to all its people. If religion is the “skeleton” of ethnicity in America, as one church historian put it, then certainly our denominational identities have perpetuated racial or ethnic homogeneities too. That Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is the “most segregated hour of the week” is probably still true now that church is online.

Our theological commitments and friendships are forged within a context that is familial and ethnic. Yet there is something at stake in how we engage with and perpetuate these traditions. Pietisten was restarted in 1986 primarily because there was no other forum for engaging with the heritage of Swedish Pietism within the denominations in North America that it had birthed, all of which, rightly, had shifted their focus to diversifying their memberships. At the same time, we must regularly ask ourselves how we can both engage with specific theological traditions and move those forward, while at the same time de-segregating them. No surprise, most of Pietisten’s authors over the past thirty-five years have been white and male. Earnest efforts to reach out to authors and readers beyond that demographic over the years have surely been met with skepticism, and suspicions of tokenism or ideological colonialism. With any volunteer effort, which Pietisten is, it is easy to say “well these are the submissions we received” or that was what we “had time to do” in the midst of our day jobs. Yet “expanding our friendships” is one of our guiding premises, and we must acknowledge that we have regularly faltered as we have tried to do this over the years.

I would like to think we will be changed, and that we would always remember our feelings of appreciation for good leadership, for compassion and self-sacrificing service, both in ourselves and in others. I would like to think this is a turning point in American race relations. Yet there is good reason to be concerned that when we go back to normal, it will be the status quo. We just had centennial remembrances of the 1918 influenza epidemic only two years ago, yet were caught off-guard when another pandemic arrived. Black Americans have annually been subject to extrajudicial executions for generations without reprieve since Reconstruction, and yet all too many white people continue to think these crimes are anomalies. History doesn’t show a good track record of our learning from the past.

Our theologies may also need to change. In his sweeping history, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor makes a notable claim regarding the Black Death. Though the plague had caused an estimated loss of one third of Europe, he searched in vain to find evidence that this had reshaped medieval theology in any significant way. To the contrary, clergy fell

back on old tropes when explaining the catastrophe – that this was the apocalypse or the result of the wrath of God. Or worst of all, scapegoating the Jews for the calamity, which erupted into genocidal violence.

The value of studying Christian history, including Pietism, is that we can see that there were alternate options and that things might have been otherwise. If we affirm God’s Providence, we must do so without using it to validate our own current endeavors or privileged positions. The starting point in reflecting on the calamities and systemic societal problems we face should be our very own selves: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”

We do need to go back to some kind of normal, because where we are is no place to stay either. We must keep our heads in the game and remind ourselves daily what evil things we have seen and done, and the good things that we all too often have omitted. Values and good habits, purposely forged during times of trial, can indeed manifest themselves in our later normal life too, even when our memories of trauma fade.

As part of our storytelling and healing during this pandemic and its ongoing interruptions in our lives, we are sharing five sermons from pastors in our community, adapted from messages they delivered to their congregations throughout this spring. The common theme of all them is to look for how we are being changed as communities of faith, anticipating a time when we can do more than “return to normal,” but rather take our losses and growth and invest in a future full of hope.

Guds frid – God’s peace.