Being a Millennial in the Pandemic and the Church

Millennials are defined by our memories of and experiences in 3 major events during our childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood: 9/11, sustained wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession. And now we’re adults, many of us with kids and mortgages, in a pandemic. 

In a lot of ways, I think millennials are uniquely suited to doing the good and hard work of this time, which so far include sacrificing social pleasures for physical isolation, patroning small local businesses that may not survive the crunch, and educating our parents and grandparents about the seriousness of the threats we’re facing. We’re used to combing through the buzz of overstimulation and over information on the internet for credible sources and realistic outcomes and expectations. We’re also used to begging older generations to listen to us, trying tactic after tactic to try to get them to understand our perspective and value others’ welfare above their own comfort or routine. We habitually use the internet to remain connected with others. And we’ve become accustomed to reality suddenly, dramatically changing for the worse. We grew up on dystopian fantasies and we learned our lessons.

We are also accustomed to being lied to by people in authority, including our parents, our instructors, our bosses, and our highest elected officials. Our parents lied to us, if unintentionally, about how the world works and our place in it, then denied us access to power while blaming us for our trauma. Our instructors insist we’re lying and demand obituaries to prove our absences while also losing assignments, not sticking to the syllabus, and repeating the same demeaning diatribes as the generations before them. Our bosses lie to us about benefits, our value to the company, and even our value as human beings.

Elected officials have lied about who was responsible for 9/11, who are our enemies, what people think, what’s best for us, who we can trust, and certainly about their motivations. Our current president has lied about…everything. And we’re pretty good by now at sniffing those lies out. Most millennials I know skip his portion of the now daily COVID-19 briefings to avoid the racist comments, misinformation, and lies. And now the president saying some of us will have to die so that rich people don’t become a tiny bit less rich. Smells rotten to me. 

So we value stories and art and entertainment, and we do what we can to support the people who give us that. We look for stories of real people before believing what authorities tell us about the virus, its spread, and what we should do about it. We organize to help others. And we have to keep reminding news agencies and the world at large who we are (25-40 year olds) and who we aren’t (college students on spring break).

There are selfish people who think they are invincible in every generation, ours included. But we aren’t the ones on beaches despite warnings (and why aren’t those beaches already closed?).

Our spring break is working from home while trying to keep our kids on task for their e-learning.

Our spring break is developing online learning for the students we won’t see in person for the rest of the school year.

Our spring break is visiting the grocery store for our elderly neighbors on the way home from an underpaying job.

Our spring break is staying at home, hoping our disability or underlying condition won’t be a death sentence as we watch the president tell us we might have to die and as our caregivers dismiss our concerns.

Our spring break is spent delivering dozens of pizzas a day for less than minimal wage.

Our spring break is a day off from the hospital where we’ve volunteered to care for COVID patients because we are young and healthy and childless.

I see many of the same tension for us millennials in churches. We generally see loving their neighbors as a radically different process and value system than the ones we’ve been taught.

Loving queer people, for example, isn’t accomplished by excluding them or by instructing them, with pitying expressions, that they are hell-bound. And we believe this regardless of how we interpret biblical references to homosexuality, which in biblical times referred to predatory pedophilia, not the identity, lifestyle, and loving relationships implied by the word today. We are more likely to know openly queer people, and our love for them makes these issue far from theoretical.

As another example, to millennials, using funds responsibly and in Christ-like ways means handing out money sometimes, not only food, regardless of whether the person has “earned it” or is “worthy” of it. Their being children of God, human beings, makes them worthy of kindness and dignity, makes their suffering intolerable to our understanding of Christianity. We certainly won’t agree to buying yet another set of cushioned chairs for the one hour a week we’re going to be using them. We don’t believe that the only issue worth voting on, the one that *ahem* trumps all others is abortion. If we are responsible to God for the lives of those unborn children who might possibly die as a result of legislation passed or unheld by a person who we voted for, then we are equally responsible to the children kept in cages and denied flu vaccines, to the children killed on a schoolbus in Yemen, to the children starving in refugee camps, and to our own children, who are taught to run in zigzags to avoid active shooters and who the president sees as acceptable losses in his efforts to save the stock market.

These understandings are largely excluded from the wider church. When voiced, they are largely ignored or vilified. We don’t habitually engage in useless endeavors, so few millennials continue pounding on those doors of power and influence that have been shut to them for their “radical misunderstandings of the Bible.” So most Christian millennials are faced with 3 choices: conform, shut up, or leave. I’ve done all three, most recently “leave.” 

We can hardly leave the country, though. And even if we could, what’s to say any other country would want us? We were told that the racists in power would eventually die off, and we should be patient for change. Instead, we see segments of our generation and Gen Z radicalized. And still we can’t protect our children from gun violence and can’t convince our grandparents not to go to church or to lunch afterwards during a pandemic. 

It’s a grim life that’s prepared us so well for the present pandemic.

Amidst my own dizzying anxiety, I’ve learned a lot from watching older generations face this pandemic. In particular, where I’ve rushed to react quickly and decisively, whether in terms of vegetables or workplace demands, my more mature colleagues have taken a more reasoned approach. They are optimistic for their own emotional well-being. They are careful. And most are generous. 

We aren’t prepared to sacrifice as a society for the sake of that society—all our experiences thusfar have discouraged it—and now we’re being asked to. We’re even required to in order to save lives. I deeply hope that every generation, including my beloved and jaded one, manage to do so.

Fear Then, Fear Now (Updated)

Note: Based on some feedback I’ve received since posting, I realize that my initial goal in writing eight months ago and my ultimate goal in writing last week both got a bit lost in the proverbial weeds. I’ve tried to tighten this post to make my points and goals more explicit.

About 8 months back, I wrote the following.

***

I rarely sink into a rage among this group of friends. All are people who care very deeply and who I’ve known for months, if not years.

However, last week I found myself seething, forcing myself to sit silently in my chair and listen respectfully to person after person describe their fears. Now, I realize that fears make us feel highly vulnerable, and so they can be very difficult to share with a group, especially if you aren’t very close to every person there. I realize that many people probably have deep-seated fears that they would not ever share with another person, let alone this little group of nine Baptists. Instead, person after person talked about terrorism, “people over there” and “crazies”. Next, someone brought up the presidential candidates. One person confessed trepidation at the idea of ISIS gaining access to a nuclear weapon.

At least no one started talking about spiders.

I studied terrorism extensively in college, so I know I have a different viewpoint than most. And I don’t deny that ISIS is a serious problem, and a daily concern. But I wanted to talk about fear. The most recent time I felt fear was the previous evening. I went to a friend’s house to play board games, and as I was coming home I realized I was coming home to an empty house. My roommate was away for the weekend, my neighbors were all probably asleep, the dog wasn’t alive to bark, the light was on in the carport but I couldn’t see into the darkness past the gate or in my neighbor’s backyard. Before I got out of my car, I had my house key in my hand, angled so it could slide into the lock as quickly as possible. I scanned 360 degrees before I got out and again when I stood straight. I listened carefully for footsteps, breathing, anything amiss. I unlocked the door and still knew I wasn’t safe. Not until the door was shut and locked behind me. And maybe not even then.

I am far more likely to be killed because of someone else’s road rage than I am to be killed by a terrorist of any kind (and there are so many kinds). I am at a much higher risk of being followed into my house and raped than anyone in the world is at risk of dying from radiation exposure due to a nuclear attack by ISIS.

Of the seven of us in this conversation, five were men. Up to that point, only men had been talking. While trying to tamp down my rage at all these fears that have so little bearing on how I live my life and what I worry about, the other women in the group spoke up, describing the moral ambiguity rising in our society and expressing her worries and fears for what her children will have to face, what they will fear as they grow up, how they will be safe and happy and good people in a society like the one ours is becoming.

Finally, something practical.

I built off of my friend’s fears for her children, describing how, in our society,people don’t do right for the sake of right. Here, freedoms and rights are not preserved for many, many people. I pointed out that, as a single woman, I am a more vulnerable target to random violence (not the most vulnerable, certainly) than men who share so much with me, including religion, skin color, socio-economic status, and geographic region. I described my fear of making eye contact with another driver because he might decide on that alone to follow me, to harass me, to hurt me. (It’s happened to me before, and I thank God that he never got out of his car.) I mentioned choices I make every day because of fear, like avoiding filling up with gas at night, like not walking between large vehicles in parking lots, like not going to the neighborhood park alone without texting someone else to let them know where I am and when I’ll be back.

My fellow Christians heard me. Their eyes softened. There was a pause.

One of the men started resumed talking about the “moral decay of our country” and brought up a presidential candidate. And accompanying my rage this time was disappointment. Isolation. I wanted them to be honest about their daily fears, even if they were different from mine. But no one had mentioned cancer or car accidents. No one did.

[Before I go further, I want to point out that every single one of us was white. Every one. Every one, as far as I know, is heterosexual and abled and neuro-typical. We are draped in privilege, swaddled in it from birth. I have real fears related to being a woman, but my fears as a white woman are nothing compared to the fears of people of color, and specifically of women of color. People with disabilities have entirely different and entirely valid fears. And we weren’t even addressing those depths, just the gender discrepancy in the fears.]

I wanted to ask these men, “When was the last time you felt fear? Maybe it was over a news headline but did you ever consider what you would feel if you were a refugee who no one wants to help because they think you might be part of the same terrorist group you’re trying to escape?” I wanted to scream, “Are you thinking about other people’s lives? Are you really more worried about Hillary’s emails than whether someone is going to target you just for existing? Are you really more concerned about Sanders’ socialist policies than whether your father’s cancer will come up in you?”

I might have been letting my anger carry me a little ways, but I don’t think I was being unreasonable to want these Christians to be personal, to match vulnerability with vulnerability as we talked about our lives. Why else are we here, anyway, but to share and support one another as a community? That’s the kind of living Christ encourages.

Again, I don’t mean to imply that terrorism and politics aren’t important concerns, aren’t daily threats for many, many people. They are. These issues and these hurting people should be prayed over fervently. The fears my friends shared valid. And I know they care deeply about their loved ones, friends, and the state of our country and world.

But when I think about fear in the Bible, I think about a son dying, a sinking boat, a terrible storm, a troubling message, a dead spouse, a flood, and standing in the very presence of God. Were more people afraid of Caesar or of the single armed centurion? Of a mass conspiracy or of being recognized by a servant in the firelight? All are worthy of fear, though we Christians are not called to fear but power, and yet I still feel frustrated, angry, disappointed by the way the conversation played out.

***

My relationship with fear has changed since I wrote this. I better understand now that people can take the words of their elected (and not-yet elected) leaders as license to do or say to you whatever they want. To threaten you. To hit you. To try to kiss you. And worse.

The people around me that day eight months ago were right to fear the election and the candidates, and I wish I had better understood the connection between these macro issues and individuals’ personal fears. I felt so frustrated then, but maybe my friends knew what they were talking about better than I did.

Yet I still find it disturbing that there was such a difference between what my female friend and I were willing to admit as daily fears and what the men were. I think this is a problem. But I’m most disturbed that, filled with so much anger, such frustration, I didn’t ask more questions. I didn’t say, “This is what I think you mean. Is that right?”

In the months since that conversation, let me tell you some of what I’ve been doing. I’ve been listening to marginalized people describe the harassment they face at rest stops and in restaurants and in the checkout line. I’ve been reporting Neo-Nazis who are photoshoping the faces of Jewish people into photos of gas chambers. I’ve been retweeting stories of brutality and terror. I’ve been sharing others’ words about how useless, worthless, hated, inhuman they’ve been made to feel. I’ve been sharing ways to support and help people being harassment in public. But I’ve been doing this almost exclusively on Twitter. Few people in my life are on Twitter, and if I see a problem in my reality, I need to address it in the places where my views might do some good. That includes Facebook. That includes a dinner out with friends.

I didn’t say what I was thinking then, but I’ve have eight months to think about it and to see the truth in my friends’ words, as well as realize some related truths.

I still fear the single centurion more than Caesar, but my fear of Caesar is greatly increased because of what people who think of themselves as centurions have done and said as a result of Caesar’s words and actions. They feel justified. And Caesar doesn’t have to deputize every such person to make him or them dangerous. That is the link between the macro and the personal.

Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and that the second greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves. For most people like me (white, abled, heterosexual, etc.), our civil rights weren’t under threat this election. I wish I had urged my friends to listen to people who aren’t like us, to hear their fears and find the macro connections and meet their vulnerability with our own.

I wish I’d made my opinion more plain, so I’m doing so here: I believe that loving others means be afraid of what marginalized people are afraid of, then using your vote and voice to fight for their rights as if they were your rights. I believe that is a significant way we white, abled, heterosexual Christians need to love our neighbors. I believe that I have been failing miserably at loving other people.