It’s the Economy, Not the Children

What has the pandemic revealed about whom or what we U.S. Americans most value? Whatever the answer, it can’t be “our children.”

In a “values clarification” exercise from many years ago, I heard the speaker say something like this: “If someone stretched a tightrope between two buildings in your city, would you walk it? Most people would decline the action as too dangerous. But then imagine someone or something of great value to you is stuck on that line—let’s say it or they have been stolen or kidnapped and the thief/kidnapper managed to set that object or person of great value out on the line. Now, would you walk the line to save them?”

Whomever or whatever is out on that tightrope that is most worthy of risking our lives to save, it is not our children.

One of the most durable and profound theological insights I was ever given came from a book I read before starting college. The book was a collection of sermons theologian and professor Paul Tillich preached in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago when he taught at the Divinity School in the 1960s. The insight: whatever or whomever is your ultimate concern, that is your true god.

Whomever or whatever is our U.S. American ultimate concern (of course, I know there is not one for all Americans), it is not a god who cares about our children.

The Columbine shootings in 1999 functioned then as the pandemic does now in revealing we value something more than our children. Columbine, and then a horrific and insane number of other school and public shootings, reveal that our children are collateral damage when it comes to preserving gun rights.

Oh, we develop bullet-resistant backpacks and install security systems on buildings where people have money to protect our kids. But elected officials, threatened by lobbyists who must invoke the fear of god as deep as the Spanish Inquisition did, have not made our children safer. A god who demands sacrifices is beings served.

What is the name of the god being served during this pandemic? Is it the economy? Is it the publicly traded markets? Is it the fear of losing arguments about the necessity of small government, that government is incompetent to do anything to help except defend borders and contracts and punish criminals (talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy)? Is it some god whose first commandment is “Don’t tread on me?”

Moloch statue from Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), National Museum of Cinema (Turin)

Hear, Moloch, ancient god of child sacrifice. We are giving our children to you. For the sake of gun rights. For the sake of the economy. For the sake of a president’s re-election, and for all those who have umbilical-corded themselves to him. For the sake of a philosophy of government. For the sake of my freedom to go maskless during an aerosol-spread pandemic and drink until dawn or worship a god who demands I be in a packed church listening to a preacher whose ego is stroked by attendance numbers.

If the god we serve was a god who cared for our children and really wanted to see in-person classes in most communities this fall, if we really valued the life of every child and every teacher and staff person, we would not have public officials or everyday citizens denying the science of the matter. (Or perhaps our god values only MY children and MY school’s teachers.)

The push to get children in the classroom is for their development, yes. And, for some children, school is a safer place than home. But the urgency for in-person classes this fall while the virus ascends is to serve the god of the economy.

The public school system plays a significant role in allowing working parents to work. Government responses to the pandemic reveal that schools serve the economy. Those underfunded, over-crowded classrooms where teachers are expected, by local needs and government mandates, to handle all kinds of situations today that were not even recognized a few decades ago—those schools are acolytes to the economy. (And, if we really cared about our children, classroom size, especially in elementary school, would be capped at about 12 students.)

What if, back in May, our nation’s leaders at all levels had said, “The number one priority is getting teachers and children back to school with very little risk?” It is so clear that this was neither the explicit nor the implied message. The economy—and whatever it represents to those in power—was to be served at the expense of children. (Oh, and also the elderly, according to one Texas official.)

We could have mobilized resources to close much of the digital divide and to provide reliable broadband access in rural areas. Officials would have required masks when the science showed that masks work and would have supported mask-wearing by precept and example. But, in way too many places, we did not.

I’ve recently begun learning more about the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy. That governance arrangement among indigenous nations, still practiced today, was one inspiration for the U.S. Constitution. One of their governing principles is the Seventh Generation principle.

The Seventh Generation principle means when making major decisions, consider the sustainability and consequences seven generations into the future. Surely, no one has a crystal ball or the algorithm that would make accurate predictions. But considering the impact of decisions today, seven generations forward (let’s say 150-200 years). Seems like a humane, profound, disruptive, useful, and beneficial exercise.

In a nation that makes decisions based on this quarter’s earnings or this presidential election, the Seventh Generation principle would be revolutionary. Nothing like it has been considered in the U.S., well, maybe ever. Certainly not today.

Moloch is waiting to be fed. We don’t have to feed it. We don’t have to serve it. We don’t have to sacrifice our children. We can serve a god who values our children. But serving another god would, as changing gods always does, require repentance, turning around, and living differently.

Those actions involve soul-searching and discomfort—and our U.S. American capacity for soul-searching and discomfort, from the White House down, is currently too limited to meet the profound calls for transformation and offering ourselves to more life-giving gods.

IMAGE CREDIT: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 04:39, 17 April 2020 (UTC) – Le musée du cinéma #Turin#

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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