Failure of Imagination: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
A Failure of Imagination
How do you wrap your mind around 103,000 deaths? It’s almost impossible. The number itself becomes an abstraction. The impact, however, becomes a bit more real when I think of the 18 who have died from Covid-19 in my mother’s assisted living facility. That’s 18 out of a resident population of 88. Yet, even 18 deaths in the space of two months tends to become just a number, one that can be acknowledged and then set aside. I could do that if it were not for Ellen. She moved into assisted living just a couple of years ago. She had no health problems. She just wanted to be rid of the responsibility of keeping up a house, cooking, cleaning and all the rest. In her mid-70s, she was very petite, always had a smile and dined at my mother’s table every day. She loved to talk about her children and grand-children and always had a book she was reading. She was a good person, and she died a terrible death, alone. I can set aside numbers in my mind, but I can’t set aside Ellen and I can’t get her face out of my mind.
What makes it worse is that it seems clear that with adequate planning and preparation we need not have lost 103,000 lives, not to even speak of the lives that will continue to be lost in the coming months. It was not, however, simply a failure of national public health policy; it was a failure of imagination. Even though warnings were issued, because those in authority could not imagine America being struck by a pandemic, little was done to prepare, or even respond as the first cases were reported. So now we’re left with numbers and statistics, but I still cannot get Ellen’s face out of my mind.
How do you wrap your mind around four centuries of racism and racial inequality? It is said that racism is the “original sin” of America. I’m an historian. I know the history. Yet how do I understand or make sense of the 250 year enslavement of a race based upon little more than skin color. My family is from the South. I possess the papers of family members that include “slave schedules”, listings of human beings, of men, women and children, who could be bought and sold at the whim of their owner. Yet, this can also be an abstraction, especially for those who have little knowledge or exposure to the historical record. We can easily relegate penal servitude, segregation, lynchings and Jim Crow laws to the past. The black and white film footage of Bull Conner using dogs and fire hoses against children seems to have little to do with contemporary life and culture. Then we see a video of George Floyd on the pavement with a policeman’s knee on his neck. He’s saying he can’t breathe. In his last moments of life he’s calling for his mother. I may be able to blind myself to the history, but I can’t set aside George Floyd and I can’t get his face out of my mind.
Yet, the question has to be asked, have we been unaware of the racism that is endemic in so much of American society? As with the pandemic, I think there has been a failure of imagination. The current occupant of the White House has signaled over and over again his implicit support for groups that support racist ideologies. To speak of “fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville may seem a benign comment to some, until we see groups marching with Confederate and Nazi battle flags and chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. Can we say that we really didn’t understand what was taking place? Can we really say that we didn’t understand what was being said on the ground in Charlottesville and in the White House?
American cities are burning.
A pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives.
Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed.
This is not the time for yet another failure of imagination, especially for those of us who are believers. I would suggest that while there may be political remedies to certain aspects of the current crisis, the solution that we can offer as believers is to live out in our own lives the gospel imperative of self-sacrificing love. It must start with an abandoning of the pragmatic ethic of “the end justifying the means”. No “seat at the table” is worth the compromise that is required. Obtaining a place of power to “do good” at the cost of integrity and Christian witness is a Faustian bargain at best. In any case, we are not here to exercise power. We’re here to bring reconciliation. Moreover, how we accomplish our ends is usually more important than the end itself, for how we accomplish it speaks to our character and our faith.
It seems to me that we need a rebirth of our imagination, both in order to see things as they are and also to see things as they might be. A rebirth of our imagination might also help us to see that we’re not here to fight a war, cultural or otherwise, but rather to bind up the wounds of others.