Texts: “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass” by Mary Oliver * 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (gifts of the Spirit)
Saturday is a holiday in the United States. Every July 4th, Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence of 1776.
This year, July 4 might be a painful one for Americans. The US is at the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread is accelerating. While Canada and the United States had similar rates of per capita infection in the spring, the US now has ten or 15 times more new cases each day than Canada.
The United States went into the pandemic as the only rich country in the world without universal Medicare. Its political system allowed an unpopular racist to be elected President in 2016. And most of its states are run by Republicans who spend more energy upholding white supremacy than on keeping their citizens safe.
The pandemic has caused the American economy to collapse; and with no end in sight to the spread of COVID-19, it is unclear how the economy will recover. At the same time, the US is being roiled by a massive movement against police violence.
Fear, division, and despair are widespread in the USA today. So, what, exactly, do Americans have to celebrate this July 4?
Canada will mark its founding three days earlier. On July 1, 1867, Britain created Canada out of its four remaining North American colonies. Because the pandemic has slowed so dramatically here, I imagine it will be easier for Canadians to celebrate this July 1st than it will be for Americans on the 4th. But like the US, Canada has a lot of tough news to digest this summer — about the pandemic, about racist police violence, and about economic crisis.
I was cheered by the announcement last week that the four Atlantic provinces are creating a travel union. The “Atlantic Bubble” is possible because there are no longer any COVID-19 cases in NFLD-L, PEI, NS, and NB. I hope these four provinces will institute border controls that are strict enough to allow the more than 2 million people who live there to resume normal life. I also hope their COVID-free status will inspire Canada’s six other provinces to eliminate the virus.
Among the more than 10 million people who live in the four western provinces, there are now just 800 cases of active COVID-19, down from a high figure of several thousand. If these provinces could also stumble into zero status, they could link up with Canada’s three northern territories — which like the Atlantic provinces have no COVID-19 cases — and create a second bubble. That would leave Ontario and Quebec as the only parts of Canada still dealing with spread of COVID-19. But if the six provinces with active cases are to achieve elimination, they need to make big improvements in their ability to test, trace, and isolate the sick.
I understand why the United States with its incoherent leadership cannot contain the virus. But why is it so difficult for Canadian governments to do so? The incentive to eliminate the virus is enormous; and the cost of not doing so is even greater. So why has adequate testing, tracing, and isolation not yet been put in place?
Despite terrible gaps in Canada’s quarantine period – with meatpacking plants, long-term care homes, and homeless populations — public health measures have reduced the incidence of disease in Canada; and Canada has enough expertise, people, and money to massively ramp up its COVID-19 response. So, I suspect the struggles of Canada’s governments reflect a disease of the spirit.
Many of the problems we face are global in scope – weapons of mass destruction, climate change . . . and infectious diseases. My hunch is that the spirits of government leaders and bureaucrats are sapped by the scope of these issues. Viewed from a national perspective, these problems can seem unsolvable.
Nevertheless, eliminating COVID-19 in a country is a straightforward task, albeit one that takes clarity of thinking, steady and empathetic leadership, and massive resources. The fact that so few countries have managed to eliminate it illustrates the wide spread of spiritual malaise.
In today’s Bible reading, St. Paul writes about various gifts of the Spirit. The one that caught my eye is the ability to distinguish between different spirits. Many activities – from sports, to politics, to war – are highly spirited, but few of them are holy. For a spirit to be holy it must be connected to universal love. It must be a spirit that focuses on the whole of the earth, all of humanity, and the entire web of life.
When a community centres its work on a love that is universal, its energy can soar without limits. But if it is focused on something narrower, its efforts will not be as sustainable or as effective.
National days like July 1st and July 4th direct our spirits away from a universal level.
While we all begin at a local level, long-term sustainability requires moving beyond one’s family or nation.
I appreciate how Mary Oliver’s poem “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass” articulates this. It notes the need to start with self-love, and also how elusive self-love can be in the face of neglect or oppression.
But if we do learn to love ourselves, the poem suggests we then forget about ourselves and love the world. It is only when our love embraces the world that we become children of the clouds and of hope.
So, this Canada Day my pledge will be to distinguish between the limited spirits of nationalism and a universal Spirit of Love.
Love’s universal spirit can help us to achieve anything — to eliminate COVID-19, to restore social and economic life, and to build a world free of the other global problems that bedevil us.
May it be so. Amen.