Why going back ‘to normal’ isn’t good enough

By Moderator Rev Denise Liersch

In the past few months, we’ve been hearing stories of people’s experiences as they have been travelling this roller coaster we call “the pandemic”. We keep hearing phrases like, “when this is over …”, or what the “new normal” might be like. Those phrases carry something of the depth of sadness, struggle and hope we have for something different to now.

I’m on the same roller coaster and there are so many resonances with my own experience. I’m aware how these stories, as they touch into my own experience, help give a tiny glimpse into the lives of others and what I hope for – not just for me, but for all of us.

I’ve been reflecting on the mix of frailty, brokenness and promise of being human: of what we’ve been discovering we appreciate now more than before, and what we want to make sure we don’t lose when we “come out the other side”.

Normally, living in isolation is reserved for detainees: those in prison and detention centres. In recent months, many of us have gained a glimpse into the impact of isolation on our emotional, mental and spiritual health and wellbeing.

We have gained a glimpse into what it’s like to not know how long this will go on for, how elusive a “return to normal” seems, and the effect this has upon our sense of hopefulness about the future. We speak about extroverts finding this most difficult, yet are becoming aware of how much, even for introverts, this is “not good for us”.

Community sentiment has shifted and there is increased government funding and resources for mental health support, aware of the harms of isolation and living with unknown futures.

And all this within just a couple of months – because ordinary people have felt the impact. Perhaps, in an unexpected way, it has helped us to have some insight and greater appreciation of what it’s like for prisoners separated from family and society, or for asylum seekers in indefinite off-shore detention. How is this good for our society? What can we learn from this for our “new future”? What might the Spirit of God be inviting us into?

We have discovered how much we value family relationships, friendships and colleagues; how much they sustain us and the impact on us when we don’t have them.

We have discovered how vulnerable and fragile we humans are (and our economic structures and systems); how little it takes to undo us; and the renewed sense of need to include and hold those who were already vulnerable.

Community sentiment has shifted in unexpected ways, with a wide-ranging embrace of support to include those previously out of the line of sight, in an attempt to correct areas of systemic inequity. For instance, hotel accommodation has been provided for those without secure housing. But what will happen when the “crisis” has passed?

And how will we approach the issue of national debt, as we consider how to support those who might otherwise fall through the cracks? Who will we expect to take up the burden of repayment: the poor or the privileged few?

An article from the Ethics Committee in the June edition of Crosslight highlights some of these areas of inequity of which we are more aware because of the pandemic, where we might hope for a “new future”.

What are we learning about inequity in educational opportunities, employment, racism, access to internet technologies, participation in the economy and the impact of economic structures on our environment?

During April, there was an international conference to once again hear the groaning of the Earth, which has become stronger in this time of COVID-19.

The “Economy of Life in a Time of Pandemic” online conference focused on the socio-economic- ecological impacts of the pandemic and how it offered the world an opportunity to rethink and reshape financial and economic systems to prioritise the health and well-being of communities and the planet.

Chris Ferguson, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, of which the UCA is a member, stresses that the current global scenario calls us “to show up and carry forward the core visions and core themes of the New International Financial and Economic Architecture, and that these have to necessarily be transformational”.

“We need to raise the questions about debt and taxation. Our next steps, including our short-term steps, cannot be less than radical,” he said.

Isabel Apawo Phiri, World Council of Churches deputy general secretary, added: “In the harsh light of COVID-19, we see more clearly the great inequality of income and wealth. We see the gender inequities and generational disparities of our economies.

“Our responses to the pandemic could very well rewrite the world for the better, and fundamentally transform the way we live, what we eat and buy, what we produce, how we distribute goods and where we invest.”

The international project of NIFEA raises our awareness of the interdependency of our economic and financial structures, the impacts upon the ecology of our planet and the disproportionate burden upon the poor.

COVID-19 has raised our awareness of how the Earth has been breathing more freely as a result of a decrease in human activity in industry and travel.

Recently, our hearts have been stirred by the outpouring of response to the deep inequities in the USA in relation to race, following the death of George Floyd and so many others before him. Yet, we in Australia know of the hugely disproportionate rates of First Peoples in incarceration, and of deaths in custody.

We know of the heartache and yearning for healing, for a different way of being, as one people, nourished by the wisdom of the people of this land, our First Peoples. Our First Peoples call all of us to listen to the Spirit who creates and re-creates us. How might we now hear this call?

The pandemic has brought a new awareness. How can we hold on to this shift in community sentiment and not lose sight of what we are learning? What direction might the winds of the Spirit of God be sweeping us toward?

This is a time of invitation, to be caught up into the deep desire of God for a world of mercy, justice and peace. It is a window of opportunity, a moment of gravitas.

After we ask Jesus “who is my neighbour?”, he tells us a story, posing a different question altogether: “How might you be a neighbour?”

Over the coming months, as we adapt to an easing of restrictions on our gatherings, may we be strengthened and guided by the Spirit of God as we consider: How much do we value our human connections and how much they sustain us in times of struggle, joy and hope?

How might we contribute to the future of a neighbourhood that includes all that God loves? Whatever is good for the whole of the community, is good for each part of that community.

What might the Spirit of God be inviting us to?

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the Earth.

This article originally appeared in the June edition of Crosslight. To read the full magazine, click here.

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