Real Security in Precarious Times

By Ian Oliver

The e-mail memorandum from YDS appeared on March 25: Could those of us teaching during the Spring semester please make plans “if it becomes impossible for you to teach at some point during the remainder of the semester”? And please send information about a contact person to reach “if you become incapacitated.”

The language was as gentle as it could have been, but the message was clear. If you’re suddenly hospitalized and put on a ventilator, or if you die, could you please let us know what should happen with your class? The form, the content, and the need for such an email brought the coronavirus crisis home in an immediate and very personal way. Intimations of mortality are not supposed to arrive via memoranda.

The word precarity captures 2020 so well: how everything that once felt safe and secure now feels on the edge of collapse. 

In a recent review of Megha Majumdar’s novel A Burning, Susan Choi wrote: “… this is a novel of our pandemic times, an exploration of precarity in all its forms.” The word precarity captures the year 2020 so well: how everything that once felt safe and secure now feels on the edge of collapse. 

The Promise 

As I read again the Divinity School email, a voice in my head says: “This is not what I was promised. The promise said: if you work hard, save your money, and follow the rules, you’ll get prosperity, safety, and security. Security is my right.” I’m not proud that I think this. But how else to explain the kind of panic I’m feeling as I send off my advance directives to my brother?

Is there anything Christian about my belief that security is my right? It is certainly far from the 19th-century hymn that announces, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” My hope, it turns out, is built more on a great job at a prestigious institution, my retirement plan, my health insurance, and my almost-paid-for house in a quiet, archetypally leafy suburb. And my shock that I and my little world might be mortal might reveal where my true hope resides.

In June Maeve Higgins wrote in The New York Times: “… One powerful lie that we were born into is that white people deserve different, better lives than anyone else. We see now that this lie is deadly for others, and it is dangerous for us too. This lie that can only hold fast by isolating us from one another and having us do ugly things to keep that separation up …”  

The Lives of Others

This year I have realized that the lives of others are much more precarious than mine. The pandemic has taken a deadly toll in poorer neighborhoods of color in New Haven and other Connecticut cities. It has not killed large numbers of people like me. For people like me, when one safety net is removed, there is another safety net below it, and another below that, all the way down. 

The murder of George Floyd on May 25 and my grief and shock that followed show how self-centered my little world is. I had been frantic about the potential danger the coronavirus posed to me and mine, ignoring all the while my dependence on the state monopoly on violence that literally killed Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others. I didn’t want to see that many of my neighbors and colleagues live in a constant state of precarity that I’d never known, and that their precarity is the price of my security.

In the Shadow of Thy Throne

God does promise a kind of security. “Under the shadow of thy throne, thy saints have dwelt secure/sufficient is thine arm alone, and our defense is sure,” declares the Isaac Watts hymn, based on Psalm 90. But somewhere along the way, a biblical promise of collective hope became a presumption of my individual safety, an assurance of a secure eternal home transmuted into a guarantee of real estate.

Certainly, if I take the prophets seriously, they do appear to spend a lot of time condemning the impiety of those who feel secure in their wealth, privilege, and safety. Jeremiah 7:8-10 says: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only to go on doing all these abominations?”

The Cloud of My Illusions

I’ve come to realize my feeling of precarity is itself the enemy of hope. The more I fear that my safe and secure life is in danger, the more I hold it close and idealize its goodness. But the Gospel seems to move in the opposite direction. The more precarity I feel, the more empathy I should feel for – and take action on behalf of – those whose precarious lives I might now begin to understand. Jesus always seems to be moving toward the poor, the rejected, the sick, and the oppressed. Justice advocate Bryan Stephenson speaks about the importance of proximity – of getting physically close to the poor and the prisoner in order to take a first small step toward compassion and understanding.

The Gospel hope is that I should only feel as secure as the least secure of my neighbors. Anxious precarity is not God’s hope for us, but God can’t get through the cloud of my illusions of my own entitlement until I remember that I ultimately depend on God for life, for any sense of righteousness, and for my daily bread. Until I give up my illusions of control and the social order that tells me everything I have is deserved and not a gift, I will never truly hear God’s voice.

What actually makes my life precarious is not the threat of disease, death, or disorder. The true precarity happens when I hesitate at the edge of letting the Kingdom of God subvert the anchors of security that tell me my identity depends on maintaining the world as it is. The Kingdom is the tiny grain of grit that somehow slips into my shell and starts the growth of a pearl of great price. True hope takes me from the world to which I cling to the world of which God dreams.

The Rev. Ian Buckner Oliver is Senior Associate Chaplain for Protestant Life and Pastor of the University Church, Yale University. He is also a lecturer at YDS.