[Editor’s Note: If after reading this article you want to know how to respond in similar ways and get involved to build a movement that approaches these issues through a prophetic and empathic lens, please sign-up for Cat Zavis’ spiritual activism training: Prophetic Empathy and Revolutionary Love. You can learn more and sign-up here.]
Why People are Demanding to Get Back to Work
“We want to work, we don’t want a government hand-out.”
“We are essential. We are essential.”
These are the voices of our fellow citizens gathered in various locations throughout the country demanding that States re-open.
Many liberals and progressives, both on social media and in the media, are horrified by their actions, deeming them insensitive and ignorant, using a variety of slurs and derogatory terms to describe them. I understand their frustrations. And, at the same time, I hear the pain in the voices of those demanding states re-open.
What I hear in their cries are expressions of angst and suffering, not only economically. They are suffering from a crisis of identity. These are people whose sense of worth is shaped in large part by their value in the world of work and their ability to support their family. Why? Because that is the message of the capitalist marketplace – your worth and value is not inherent in you, but is a reflection of how valuable you are to the company or business for which you work and for your ability to economically support your family. They have absorbed that message. So now that they are home without the ability to work and earn a living and thus unable to ensure the economic well-being of their family, they do not feel valued.
In addition, they have been influenced by rightwing messaging that it is some “other” – usually the poor, people of color, and immigrants – who take government hand-outs. It is lazy people. And they don’t want to see themselves through the judgmental lens through which they judge the ‘other’. They need to feel a sense of dignity and respect and that comes through their ability to provide for their family. They need to feel valued, that they have something to contribute and instead they are being told, “your job is not essential,” so stay home (which they understand to mean “I am not essential”).
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Furthermore, many of them cannot afford to stay-at-home. They live paycheck to paycheck. I heard a story about a single mom who is a hairdresser and has $15 in the bank. They need economic security. This real need gets distorted in the rightwing messaging and capitalist ethos that tells people that their dignity is connected to their work. So it seems that they value their work and hence dignity more than their health and well-being. This level of economic distress and desperation does not excuse their atrocious behavior that has most recently included storming state capitals with weapons and endangering the lives of government officials. Yes, I know that many of these “protesters” are being used as pawns by the Right. And still, if we ignore their cries, we do so at our own peril. Approaching them with empathy can help us understand why they do this.
Yes, I recognize that many, many people are suffering a similar fate economically, or even worse, and they aren’t out protesting and putting many people’s lives at risk. They’ve been able, even at great cost to themselves, to prioritize caring for the health of others above the economic devastation many of them face.
The coronavirus is an opportunity to disentangle from the distorted capitalist message that your worth or value is dependent upon what you earn and to reconnect with the highest ethical messages of all religious traditions that instruct us to care for each other. When Jesus told his followers “sell what you have and give it to the poor”, he was not demeaning the poor for receiving but uplifting the very notion of caring, in part, through giving. This message can help people understand that they are valuable just because they are embodiments of the spiritual energy of the universe. They are essential to their community and their family. Their long-term well-being and the well-being of their family and all of us is what matters now. Staying home and taking care of oneself and one’s family is an act of collective love and is a real contribution. This is what being valuable and essential looks like now.
We can help build momentum for a transformed society by putting forth this ethical message. What we need to convey to people is the following: “Your concerns and fear about your economic well-being are valid and real. We hear you. We need to work together to ensure that workers and their families are protected from economic devastation throughout the duration of this virus. Please join us in supporting the Monthly Economic Crisis Support Act put forth by Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Ed Markey. This crisis has also shown us the need for universal healthcare for all. Call your congressional Representatives and Senators and demand that they pass legislation for universal income and healthcare for all. And call the President as well. We have been told again and again that our value and worth comes from our job, but that is not true. Each one of us is valuable and worthy of respect, care, and dignity because each one of us is a sacred being, an embodiment of the Divine. And right now, the value we can contribute to our society and to our families is to stay home and be safe. We need to be healthy for the long-run. Our families need us to stay healthy. And our contribution, value, and worth is also to our communities and our country. The best way to serve our country right now is by following the guidelines set forth by your Governors. It is time for the government and country to take care of each one of us and for us to help care for each other. And the best way we can do that is by ensuring our economic needs are met at this time and by ensuring that everyone is safe and healthy. We are here for each other. We care about each and every one of you. We all matter and our lives matter. This is difficult and challenging. We know we can do it together. This is an opportunity for us to build a society that cares for all its citizens. Let’s do it.”
To do this, you can (1) share the above message by writing an op-ed or Letter to the Editor to your local paper, and calling your local radio station; (2) call your Senators and Representatives and tell then to support the Monthly Economic Crisis Support Act put forth by Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Ed Markey that would include monthly cash payments of $2,000 to every U.S. household, and demand universal healthcare for all; (3) share the above message with your city and county councilmembers, state legislators, and national congressional members. To win people’s minds, we have to speak to their hearts. The rightwing has a very powerful messaging apparatus, we need to do all we can to unravel the Right’s psychological hold on their constituents. The above are just some steps to begin that process.
If we cannot show understanding and compassion for the real pain in these people’s lives, we risk the likelihood that many of them will become the shock troops for an anti-democracy movement that could have profound impact on the 2020 elections and its aftermath.