This is an online postscript to the original Editor’s Letter for Plough’s new issue.
It’s astounding just how much has changed in the four weeks since we sent this issue of Plough to press. Way back then, the COVID-19 virus was a distant threat centered on Wuhan, China. Now it has brought a shocking halt to normal life around the globe, taking thousands of lives, threatening millions more, and plunging the economy into turmoil. Here in upstate New York, I’m working from home, where my family has self-isolated to protect the elderly and vulnerable in our multigenerational household.
Plough’s new issue on “Faith and Politics” is thus landing in a world very different from the one in which it was produced. The virus has firmly pushed electoral politics out of the headlines. So much for my earlier worries about obsession with politics as a social contagion: we now have a literal contagion to deal with.
Much has changed in daily life; yet more fundamentally, questions of faith and politics have only become more pressing in light of the pandemic. Self-sacrifice for the common good is no longer merely a slogan in political campaigns: thousands of doctors and nurses are literally risking death to test and treat others. Less dramatically but just as crucially, hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens have upended their lives to help slow the spread of the virus.
For Plough, as for other publishers, this crisis means changed realities. Like most New York State nonprofits, last week we received orders to shutter our main office as part of the containment effort. By then, actually, most of our staff had already begun working remotely or taken time to care for family.
In the meantime, Plough books remain available through our website, with new releases including Julian Peters’s poetry comics and Another Life Is Possible, a Humans-of-New-York-style photojournalism project about the Bruderhof community to mark the centenary of its founding.
And we’ll be keeping up a lively pace at our online magazine, with articles that speak to the challenges that likely lie ahead. We’re especially excited about a new series of profiles of those on the frontlines in the battle against the virus. Each week through the end of May, we’ll make one Plough title available as a free ebook. We’re also planning online events to keep conviviality alive through the lockdown. To stay updated, consider signing up for the Plough Weekly newsletter if you haven’t already done so.
This “Faith and Politics” issue of Plough Quarterly reflects our Anabaptist perspective, and includes insights from the Bruderhof, the community behind Plough. So we want to offer interested readers a few notes on the Bruderhof’s response to COVID-19.
As early as January, Bruderhof physicians were tracking news of the virus closely, with our community in South Korea the first to be directly affected by travel restrictions in late February, followed by our community in Austria. In the United States and United Kingdom, where most Bruderhof members are located, many in communities of two to three hundred people, we soon decided to refrain from all but essential travel.
At the same time, we – just like our neighbors in the wider community – were having animated discussions about the pros and cons of taking more radical measures to contain the virus. The hallmark of our life together, inspired by the example of the early church (Acts 2 and 4), is to work and share together in daily fellowship, meeting each day for common meals and worship. To self-isolate as individual families seemed to contradict our vocation; it’s a step we’d never taken in a century of community living.
Yet by March 12, we concluded we needed to take decisive action to protect the elderly and vulnerable among us, and to do our part to halt the pandemic. We closed our schools, asked all Bruderhof members to remain at home, and halted all community gatherings, while rapidly trying to invent fresh ways to care and look out for each other. Here in New York, we went further, reaching out to local and state officials to offer assistance in building out additional medical capacity to contend with the peak impacts of the pandemic in regions where we have Bruderhof locations.
While these preventive actions by our communities have mostly preceded and exceeded official guidelines, the crisis has highlighted the vital role that legitimate public authority should play in protecting society, especially the vulnerable. In this, it serves to remind Christians who understandably may be skeptical about our political leadership of the state’s God-given task as described in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. When it comes to public health requirements, “one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience” (Rom. 13:5).
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo recently called on citizens to be “socially distanced, spiritually connected.” While staying home physically, we continue to engage with the wider communities surrounding each Bruderhof. In place of house visits to struggling neighbors, we’ve set up pick-up spots for food and are providing other help where we can, coordinating our efforts with government leaders. While our manufacturing businesses have been hard hit by the mandatory closure of our workshops and the pandemic’s repercussions in the marketplace, some of our facilities are being repurposed to produce parts for COVID-related medical devices. Farther afield, we continue to support the work of humanitarian organizations such as Save the Children. Life in lockdown is far from boring.
As for my own family, despite the always-sobering news from elsewhere, I’m enjoying having my three school-age kids at home for these early spring days. In the mornings, we improvise something resembling schoolwork, then landscape around the yard, take birdwatching rambles through the woods, train the dog, call housebound friends around the world. (Plough readers, have you yet rediscovered the joy of calling people up?) With more family time on our hands, we’re pondering how to expand our vegetable garden and orchard, maybe get a few pigs to raise ….
Of course, for many this time is far grimmer: for those solitary in their isolation, those who’ve lost jobs, those grieving loved ones or facing death alone. And before long, the crisis could grow grimmer still. Only hindsight will show whether it proves a short if painful interlude or triggers deep civilizational changes. Either way, these interim days (weeks? months?) can be fruitful for focusing on the big questions to which this magazine is dedicated: How can we live well together, and what gives life meaning? We at Plough look forward to joining in this search for the things that matter most in life together with friends far and near.
Earlier this month, some Christian leaders argued that churches should stay open through the pandemic as a sign of the church’s resilience and resistance to government overreach. This seems both dangerous and unnecessary. The church, in the Anabaptist understanding, doesn’t depend on a house of worship or scheduled public gatherings, valuable as these may be. Instead, Jesus assures us that he is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name (Matt. 18:20). During a lockdown, this promise takes on direct practical significance, as we meet in small groups or by Skype or FaceTime. Christians around the world can now take Jesus at his word, worshipping as the disciples in Jerusalem did in the days after the first Easter Sunday: frightened, split up, behind closed doors, yet knowing that at any moment, seen or unseen, he might suddenly show up.