by David Romanik
The presidential campaign of 1920 introduced a new word into the American lexicon. After years of political turmoil at home and abroad, Warren G. Harding promised that his presidency would signal a “return to normalcy” in the United States. No longer would Americans have to worry about world wars, Leagues of Nations, and pandemics; instead, they could return to what they knew before the world fell apart. Americans responded enthusiastically to this neologism: Harding earned 60 percent of the popular vote and 404 votes in the Electoral College. For a time, it seemed that Harding’s pledge came to fruition. The Roaring Twenties were a time of economic growth and relative domestic tranquility. Though the twenties failed to roar for farmers and racial minorities, many people assumed that Harding’s promised “return to normalcy” was a permanent state of affairs.
Before long, however, it became clear that this was an illusion. By the end of the decade, the stock market had crashed, touching off the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. Meanwhile, military dictators took power in Europe and Asia, setting the world on an inexorable path toward yet another global war. In some ways, it was actually the world’s haste to get back to normal that precipitated, or at least exacerbated these crises. In the end, our collective desire to return to normalcy prevented us from recognizing how the world had changed.
Over the last few months, the world has been brought to its knees by a novel Coronavirus. In this country, hundreds of thousands of people have contracted COVID-19 and tens of thousands of people have died from the disease. The unemployment rate has drawn comparisons to the early years of the Great Depression. Yet, despite the physical and economic ravages of this disease, the question I have heard most frequently over the last two months is, “When will we be able to get back to normal?” For a while, I was surprised by this question. After all, aren’t there more pressing issues to consider? Isn’t the disruption to our routine overshadowed by the urgent medical needs of those impacted by this virus? Before long, however, I realized that the question of getting back to normal was motivated by an equally urgent spiritual need. The prolonged confinement required by physical distancing guidelines has strained intimate relationships, even as it has made us yearn for the company of friends and acquaintances. Our inability to visit and fully take part in the life of the places that are most important to us, including the church, has created a vacuum that is all but impossible to fill. People want to “get back to normal” so they can reclaim those activities that help them make sense of the world. After weeks of sheltering in place, in other words, people are ready to go back to the way things were before the pandemic.
Realistically, however, going back to the way things were will not be possible. On a practical level, we will all be devoting significant time and energy to the ways we can reduce the risk of infection. Our “first Sunday back,” whenever it is, will look very different from the last Sunday we were together, as we take steps to limit personal contact and keep everything clean. On a deeper level, this pandemic has reframed the way most of us look at the world. We have a new appreciation for the depth of our interconnectedness. Not only do we perceive the ways we can impact the health of the people around us, we also understand the ways we rely on each other for our very survival. Moreover, this pandemic has forced us to acknowledge the limitations of quick fixes and easy answers. Short-term solutions with obvious “measurables” can be helpful, but they fail in the face of a persistent problem. We live in a new reality, one that requires us to look beyond our immediate needs and think collaboratively about how we are impacting the next generations.
The Church is uniquely positioned to respond to this new reality. Our faith is predicated on the assumption that every human being has value, and that we are connected to and dependent on one another in ways that we do not fully understand. The letters of Paul insist that all of us are members of Christ’s body, even (and especially) those we might ignore under normal circumstances. More significantly, the Christian faith offers the freedom of eternity. As followers of the one who has destroyed the power of death, we need not be preoccupied with short-term solutions. We operate on an eternal time scale, which means that profitability and efficiency are overshadowed by grace, mercy, and compassion.
Even after this pandemic has abated, there will be no “return to normalcy.” Fortunately, our faith has prepared us to embrace the new reality. Indeed, while the world may have changed, we still know who we are and who we are called to be. Our call, as ever, is to be the Church: aware of eternity and acknowledging everyone as a person created in the image of God.