This is probably the most captivated the collective American imagination has been since 9/11. COVID-19 dominates the news and reminds us of its existence every day (and will continue doing so). The stakes are as high as life and death. It feels pointless to try to think about anything else. In fact, it feels wrong. How can we peel our soul away from awareness, prayer, acts of kindness, and watchfulness to indulge in things like literature or film? Isn’t that trying to flee from stress into the arms of indifference?
I’m reminded of a passage in The Return of the King. After the captains of the West decide to sacrifice themselves in a sure-to-be-crushed march on Sauron’s black gate, Imrahil, the Steward of Gondor, reminds them that they must leave an army behind to guard what’s left of the kingdom.
To prudence some heed must still be given. For we must prepare against all chances, good as well as evil. Now, it may that we shall triumph, and while there is any hope of this, Gondor must be protected. I would not have us return with victory to a City in ruins and a land ravaged behind us.
Imrahil is the only one of the Captains who considers that they might emerge victorious. The whole point of the march is to invite the full weight of Sauron’s army onto them, distracting attention away from Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom. Gandalf counsels that they have “little hope for ourselves.”
But then it works! Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom and the ring is destroyed. The lone voice that showed concern for defending what is left rather than throwing everything at the imminent threat is proven wise.
Here’s the point. To be supremely urgent is not to be exclusively important. This isn’t a sneaky way to argue against lockdown measures. Yes, the economy matters, and unemployment kills people too, but triage exists for a reason. My point is not political, it’s spiritual. Our temptation now is to abandon any thought or attention toward non-pandemic things, because those things are not supremely urgent. Our temptation is to turn absolutely everything into a parable for getting through coronavirus. But in so doing, we risk leaving the soul unguarded.
Worship of politics, a long-term problem in American culture and especially in evangelicalism, will intensify in the aftermath of COVID-19. This pandemic will fill the minds of many so completely that the things of heaven will grow strangely dim. That’s part of what makes global tragedy so tragic. This virus will kill people, economies, and it will try to kill minds and hearts. We have limited power over those first two. The third, however, is a willing surrender. We can resist it by actively cultivating a love and pursuit of truth and beauty that transcends utility.
As difficult as it seems, we must try to redirect our gaze away from this pandemic. Even as I write those words I hear the inner critic saying, “Come on. Is this what you would say to someone holding a hand in a hospital bed, or someone who can’t even bury their loved one?” No, that’s not what I would say to them right now. But it is what I would say eventually. The generational wreckage, the elevation of political conscientiousness as the highest moral state and activism as the most pious sacrament, is not going to happen because bereaved people grieve their loss. It’s going to happen because people who didn’t lose nearly as much will write and Tweet and preach in such a way to justify the idolatry that existed long before the coronavirus.
The city must be left manned. Why? Because of victory. The possibility of preserving life means preserving the things that give life meaning. While there is any hope, the eternal things must be defended. Today it feels wrong to think about anything other than a pandemic. That’s precisely the reason we must try.