Mike’s Choir Follies and Medieval Flagellants

An earlier post on this blog showed how the Alt-Right loves the malleability of the imagined medieval and uses the medieval period as a resource for racializing, fearmongering and violence. Unfortunately, the alternate universe of the conservative imaginary where the Alt-right resides is populated by more than skinheads and neo-Nazis. Recent news offers an example of some very loose Right-side thinking, some profoundly ignorant conservative conjuring a little closer to the American mainstream.

Singing a glad song, with lots of virus particulates

Vice President Mike Pence visited the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, on June 28th. He delivered a speech there condemning the removal of statues of confederate leaders, saying: “We’ve seen statues of some of our nation’s greatest heroes being torn down, and one can’t help but wonder that ancient question. That if the foundations crumble, how can the righteous stand?”

Consider those words carefully. According to Pence’s logic, slave ownership is the foundation of righteousness. The attending churchgoers eagerly applauded. Is that because they were blinded by avarice? Avarice is a sin of desire, in this case the desire to hold onto what slave-owning whites possessed in ‘the good old days’.

My lucky rabbit’s foot

Pence’s speech also encouraged prayer. Nothing wrong with that in general, but it seems misplaced when offered up as a solution to a worldwide viral pandemic, unless the prayers include the hope of more compassion towards neighbors, which at the moment would necessarily include wearing masks. Prayer at the Dallas church was led by a 100-person choir. None of the members wore masks as they lifted their voices to the Lord and spat their spittle breath upon their neighbors. Their singing arrived at just the moment when Covid-19 cases surged in Dallas (the highest count of daily infections occurred on June 25th).

Epidemiologists have established that church choirs spread the disease. They also suggest scientifically-proven ways to reduce viral transmission, like social distancing, masks, and vaccines.

Red, white, and blue with embarrassment

Notice the flags in the next image, from the same event:

We are encouraged to show love of country, but two things about this episode of flag waving puzzle me.

First, the lack of timely engagement by Trump and Pence with the coronavirus outbreak – punting the pandemic response to states and then insisting that governors prioritize the economy over public health – led to at least 36,000 more deaths than would have occurred under the response advocated early on by health professionals.

The national effort at reducing transmission was lousy. So why are they waving flags? An appropriate response to our national failure in this time of crisis should be embarrassment. Or, let’s wave the flag of South Korea instead, since that nation did much better than we did.

Second, I wonder why some people use the flag as a kind of lucky charm or talisman. Does waving a flag ward off a virus in the same way that eating garlic helps one to avoid vampires? If evidence could demonstrate that waving flags, eating garlic, or wearing crosses and rabbit’s feet could prevent infections, I would try them. But in this instance, absent the evidence of its talismanic powers, the flag is little more than a sign of and support for myths, of the kind meant to convince the simple to follow the powerful.

Have you tried self-flagellation? “What have you got to lose?”

A medieval comparison is in order, since, after all, this is a blog about the relationship of the past to the present.

The same God who hears prayers also deals in pandemics. The Black Death killed around 50% of the Europe’s population between 1348 and 1352. In the aftermath of that plague pandemic, Christian believers felt discomfort about praising God (the exuberance of Baptist choirs was far into the future). Instead, Christians saw the plague as evidence of God’s displeasure with them. God, they imagined, sought to punish them. So, instead of singing praises, they gave supplication and took up penitential acts. A most popular form of penance at that moment was flagellation, typified by long parades of peasants and artisans whipping themselves into great bloody frenzies, sometimes using ropes with knots and spikes on the ends to cut deep into the flesh. Go here to learn more.

Collective delusions change with the times. Blowing singer’s breath on friends and then praying they will not fall ill is about as delusional as cutting into one’s flesh to curry God’s favor. And, sorry to say, but waving a flag, great as that is for drawing the people of one nation into wars against other another, will not work any better against a pandemic than prayers or whips.

Sweet land of personal liberty?

A final observation about Pence’s day at the choir follies…. The event at Dallas Baptist was dubbed Freedom Sunday. Calling it that was an exercise in the perversion of an ideal. “Freedom Sunday” is a social movement within a broad community of churches dedicated to the prevention of slavery and human trafficking. It has a substantial track record, as attested by several advocacy organizations like Setfreemovement.com and International Justice Mission. Until Pence’s event, Freedom Sunday signified an effort to do corporate good.

The event perverted a call to egalitarian human freedom by advancing a most peculiar personal freedom. Until last Sunday, it was the goal of Freedom Sunday to free slaves. Now, according to Pence’s version of freedom, Freedom Sunday means something like “leave me alone to do whatever the hell I want to do” or, despite the potential harm to others, “I’ll sing in church without a mask if I damn well want to.” Such a corrupt selfishness is not a suitable solution to combating a communally spread disease, nor is it an effective platform for management of a government. Freedom perverted by selfishness is not a solution to human trafficking, structural racism, or other of the dangerous social ills that the power of communal prayer in churches might help to remedy.

Christians will want to pray on that.

3 thoughts

  1. Michael,
    Your articles on The Conversation site are marvelously readable!
    Please add me to your email list for your blog postings.


  2. This is a brilliant musing on where we are. I’ve watched how public opinion in the trucking industry has jumped to increasingly paranoid conclusions. One customer advised that I “rotate my ammo and pray”. It’s getting wild out there.


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