COVID-19 in the Context of Sacred Commemorations

These are the desert lands that challenged people in the traditional story of liberation and community bonding that is honored in Jewish traditions this week, the spiritual significance of which was celebrated by the great spiritual leader of the people in Christian traditions on the last night of life before his own moment of challenge and transition. Image is from the public domain.

This week, of all weeks — and this week of this particular year, of all years — is one that should stir into waking life a visceral understanding of Indigenous values, deep within the hearts of people of the dominant culture. For this week commemorates events during which individuals set aside their own personal fears and desires, and did so for the benefit of the greater good of their entire community, understanding that any individual is only as safe and whole as the larger whole of which they are an embodied part — the Whole that is the very source of life.

The original events were occasions when participants learned through spiritual ways of knowing. The stories that tell about what happened then are mythic ways of knowing that bring this Knowledge into our times so we can experience and learn from this wisdom in our own lives. The different ways of knowing are not restricted to any one culture in terms of existence, as they exist in all cultures. But spiritual and mythic ways of knowing are more widely recognized as valid in Indigenous culture than in Western culture — even though, as you can see in the stories to which I am about to refer — mythic and spiritual ways of knowing have had great power in Western culture for millennia. Valuing these ways of knowing in no way minimizes or devalues intellectual or experiential ways of knowing. (In fact, rituals such as those described below engage experiential ways of knowing.)

Wisdom emerges only when all the ways of knowing, learning about, and responding to the natural world and to life itself are integrated. And the systems of values by which communities and individuals live are informed by, and manifest, the wisdom of that community.

During Passover, people of the Jewish tradition ritually eat certain foods that are limited in taste and quality because they commemorate a time the People as a whole were in a time of hardship and facing an unprecedented change in their lives. Not only that, they were hunkered down in their homes during a time of plague, filled with fear as the keening of grief echoed through the night landscape. But we do not read of the most devout members of this group setting themselves apart from their community at that time, insisting they had a right and even a duty to go outside and gather better foods for their holy offerings. We do not read of them violating the instructions they had been given to shelter in place in order to gather for a reading of their holy texts. Instead, we see these people acknowledging and honoring their deep relationship to one another, their social and spiritual and biological contract of kinship and oneness, by setting aside their own individual fears to do what was necessary for the good of All. We know, if we read that story, that the tension between their individual fears and desires and the genuine, desperate need to protect well-being of the whole community was a throbbing source of anguish for many years after this one night. The story paints the struggles clearly, and it’s clear that even so many years ago the community leaders found it necessary to invoke authority, law, and punishment to maintain the unbroken unity that permitted everyone to survive the ordeal. In those laws and punishments, we see the response still visible today, to the value system of “individual rights are the most important thing” that has come to dominate contemporary culture when it rebels against the value system that prioritizes the good of the whole. This is not the time or place where either value system was born, however. Both live within human hearts. It is our responsibility and our joy to work through that struggle within ourselves during each and every challenging moment — the most creatively productive moments — of our lives.

During Easter week, people of the Christian tradition ritually commemorate, first, their great leader’s own commemoration of the Passover tradition just mentioned. In one of the sacred stories told of these events, in the book of John, the story is even told in such a way as to ritually align this great spiritual leader with the lambs killed during the original Passover event to provide not only food to people about to face the most grueling moment of their lives, but the blood with which to paint their doorposts in order to spare them from death by plague. Notice that this blood, which is compared to the blood of the spiritual leader, becomes the blood of the People themselves — a sign of their literal common blood as living beings related to one another and bound by this mark of blood. The death of the leader as the story plays out marks them as being of One Blood — a community — as his blood symbolically marks the doorposts of their individual lives. And again, in this story, we see the same struggle between individual fears and desires on the one hand, and the greater good for the whole on the other. When the leader is arrested, he does not resist though one of his followers responds at first with violence. After the arrest, another follower denies that he knows the leader, out of fear for his own life — not once, but repeatedly. Again there comes a time when the people in the community hunker down to wait things out. Even the leader, who has been killed, hunkers down to wait for death to pass by. And then, in the proper fullness of time — determined by Real Time, not by human decision — the community is reborn and life begins to pulse again . . . in the entire Whole. It can only happen because the people were finally able to set aside their own individual fears and desires, their own timetables of what should happen when, and allow themselves to be carried on the river of Real Time and What Is. This is the river of All My Relations. And it carries everything, not just human beings. As this particular spiritual leader pointed out, it carries even the sparrows, and the very lilies of the field.

The struggle between individual needs, fears, and desires and the greater good for the Whole of which we are all a part exists within every heart. In Indigenous cultures, the value system that is privileged, that is taught to young people and generally upheld in specific situations when important decisions must be made, is one in which the greater good for the Whole has precedence. There are fairly recent historical stories of times when individual young warriors raced out ahead of the rest of a war party because their anger at recent and violent injustice, or their desire for personal war trophies, spurred them into wanting to score an immediate individual victory over an enemy. The war chiefs stopped and abased them for daring to risk the larger victory and survival of the People as a whole for the sake of satisfying personal desire. There is a fairly recent historical story of a leader who was stripped of his authority and honors because he put his own desires for love ahead of the good of the whole People, engaging in a relationship that he knew would create violent animosity between different families and so endanger the whole group. At this time, stories of individual sacrifice for the good of the whole are playing out across Indian Country. They are not my stories to tell, so I do not share them here. But I am filled with pride and admiration for the People as I learn of such stories.

Now, as in the times of these stories I have just told, is a time of great trial for everyone. It is these times of great trial, times of desperate hardship and risk, that the value system of Serving the Greater Whole is most essential to uphold. This is what the sacred stories of the traditions I have shared tell us, even now. It is what the people of two great religious traditions of the world celebrate this very week.