From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling

When we planned this issue more than a year ago, we did so out of a concern about the growing economic gap in American society. There are many studies that demonstrate the rapid growth in wealth among the 1 percent and the decrease in wealth of the lower 90 percent. A number of essays here – e.g., Marilyn Kendrix’s article and the sidebar – point to various findings. As a Christian and a New Testament scholar by training, my motives were biblically based (see John Collins’ article). My concern was that our nation had struck a Faustian deal that privileged the accumulation of wealth over the concern for human beings. Simply put, I could not square the contrasting beatitude and woe in Luke (“Blessed are the poor … Woe to you who are rich”) with what I saw occurring in American society. 

These concerns have taken on a much greater sense of urgency with the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the articles in this issue had been submitted before this pandemic became world news and certainly before it became a pressing concern in America. Now we are faced with the largest week of unemployment claims on record. If this has not yet affected your own family, it probably will; it has already affected ours. Similarly and even more poignantly, we are deeply concerned about the healthcare system and about who will have access to it. As I write these words I am keenly aware that we are still on the upswing of the challenges, not on the downswing. They will only grow more intense. Healthcare and the economy are the two most critical issues at present, but there are others posed or exacerbated by the pandemic, e.g., immigration. 

Though many of these articles do not directly address the current situation (and by the time you read these lines, the circumstances will have changed again), the principles that they speak to should help us think through the challenges ahead. 

We need to address the current situation structurally. It will not be enough to address it individually. We need to be advocates for just policies that support all equitably. I am hoping that our political representatives craft legislation to support our economy that will protect jobs and not permit corporations to use tax dollars to enrich stockholders. We need to find ways to expand our health system to care for the avalanche of sick that now seems certain to come. There should not be a distinction between those who can pay and those who cannot. Care should be predicated on human need. We need to make certain that those who live on the margins have food to eat. The logistics required by each of these statements are staggering, but we have to find some ways to address these issues as a society. 

We also need to do what we can individually. Those of us fortunate enough to have an income during this crisis need to do all that we can to assist others. We might start with our families and make sure that when someone loses a job, we can help. We should think of those in the service industry who are forced to shut down. For example, if your barber or hairdresser needs to close their shop, please send them a check for a haircut even though they cannot give you one. If you have a favorite restaurant or two, send them a check for a meal, even though you will not eat it. If you pull your children from daycare, think about sending them a check. There are many local charities who will serve the marginal. Now is a time to be generous to them. We need to organize local systems to help people who live alone. Enforced isolation can create serious challenges of depression for those who already feel lonely. Emails and phone calls can be lifelines at times like these. 

I write these lines because I believe that these are the values that we as Christians embrace. I speak as a Christian, but do not think that these are exclusively Christian values; people of other faiths and people of good will share them as well. I speak as the dean of a divinity school who grew up as a minister’s child. My parents consistently cared for people who fell between the cracks of the social systems of support. We often had other people living with us, sometimes for extended periods (while we cannot invite people into our homes right now, we can serve them). 

When I was young, my father once asked me to accompany him to help some people whose car had broken down. When we arrived, it was clear that the car needed major repairs. The family consisted of a woman with four children. My father invited them to come home with us and then stopped at a pay phone to call my mother (no cell phones in those days). I will never forget the scene when we pulled into the driveway. My mother was standing on the front porch with a glass of ice tea in her hand and a towel over her arm. She offered the woman the tea and said: “I am sure that you are exhausted. Please come in and relax while I bathe your boys. When I am finished you can take a shower while I get dinner on the table.” My parents never said anything to me, my brother, or sister. It was simply what they did as Christians. I hope that I can live up to the example that they set. They followed the words of Christ: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and your visited me.” May we all do the same.