Who is “essential”? What does it mean to be “essential”? Who gets to decide?
As the global pandemic of COVID-19 emerged earlier this year in the US, discussions of who was “essential” to normalcy began. Political leaders debated, CEOs argued, and government agencies set guidelines for “essentiality.” The guidelines determined who worked from home, got furloughed or terminated, and who, deemed essential, had to leave the safety of their homes to work, despite the danger of being in public as viral spread continued. These guidelines—and the people who have had to live them out—have changed the way the term “essential,” as it is used about persons, is understood.
It has traditionally been the rich and powerful who have been understood as essential to life in the US, as they have been for centuries around the world. Powerful Americans, most of whom have been cisgender, white, and male, have promoted and often legislated the idea that those who hold the most money and power deserve economic, legal, and social protections. From the country’s inception, these were given the right to vote, to hold office, to own property, and even to own other people. Many US citizens who are neither powerful nor rich, after centuries of socialization and normalization, now accept this idea—that their own health and welfare are based in and dependent upon the strength, life, and health of people whose wealth far outstrips their own. This idea is foundational and required for the emergence of empire, wherever it appears on the globe. The acceptance of this imperial idea as truth has had wide-ranging impacts on life in the US, which prides itself on its democratic ideals and practices.
This imperialism has provided the basis for an oft-stated strategic goal: we must grow the resources of those who have much so that those who have less can be helped. US President Reagan, as he signed a bill called the Economic Recovery Act of 1981 (which greatly reduced tax burdens for top earners and corporations), stated that the bill would start a “second American Revolution of hope and opportunity.” Tax relief for the rich would give them opportunity to spend more and to invest more—actions through which (it was hoped) those benefits would “trickle down” to the rest. Trickling water takes an exceptionally long time to move from a large body to a smaller one; trickle-down economics have not transferred substantial wealth from the wealthy to those who have less. Nevertheless, the curiously robust idea that rich people, most of whom have been and continue to be white and male, are essential and so deserve protection to benefit us all persists in the national popular consciousness.
The strength of this idea has enabled the commoditization of human resources—particularly black and brown people—to produce wealth for the rich. With the emergence of COVID-19, low income workers have been deployed both to continue to produce wealth for the original essentials and to provide protection for others. Between those historically seen as essential and those who serve them, there has always been inequity and a vast and oft-growing divide in access to resources. The pandemic has exacerbated these while creating increased and increasing peril for the newly named “essential” in this season.
COVID-19 changed the definition of essential
Seemingly overnight, the definition expanded to describe those laboring in grocery stores, retail warehouses, the post office, municipal services like sanitation and public transit, food production, and health care. These newly identified essentials are different than those society has always deemed essential, and the societal approach to them also differs. “Essential” is no longer attached to privilege. Many new essentials are not white. Some are undocumented. Most do not have health insurance. Many are low-income and have little political or economic power.
These new “essential” workers have not been accorded the protections afforded the original “essentials.” Those now called “essential” are also seen as expendable, apt to be assaulted, injured, or lost through police brutality, the unjust and cruel symptoms and effects of poverty, increased risk of infection through interfacing with the public, and the violence and racism inherent in social determinants of health, a sterile academic term used to describe what has led in this pandemic to grossly disproportionate hospitalizations and mortality rates among infected African Americans. This has occurred while many in the original “essential” class claim that COVID-19 is over in the US—that increasing cases are due solely to increased testing—that the disease will disappear soon. Hearing “it’s time now to get back to work” must create cognitive dissonance for people, named essential, who never stopped working.
Theological and biblical considerations
Theological reflections in response to ideas of who matters—who is essential—have historically centered God’s preferential option for the poor, with minimal attention to critiques of the “essentiality” of the rich. That is, many theologians and Bible scholars have pointed out that poor lives matter—Black and brown lives matter—indigenous and undocumented lives matter to God. We affirm and celebrate this good news as true. And, there is more to be said. To move further, we consider three conversations included in the New Testament.
In the Letter to Philemon, Paul describes the transition of Onesimus, a person formerly considered unessential, now becoming useful and essential to the point of family membership. Philemon, a man of means, whose stature was such in the new movement of followers of Jesus of Nazareth that he hosted their meetings in his home, was also the owner of enslaved persons, one of whom was Onesimus. Onesimus fled his owner, escaping to Paul for justice. Philemon, a leader of the Jesus movement somewhere in Asia Minor, was doing at least two things wrong. He refused to release his slave Onesimus, and he brought shame on the whole community by openly violating one of the founding principles of Jesus’ movement. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon carrying a letter, which identified Onesimus as “useful,” Paul’s “own heart” and “child,” and most importantly, “no longer a slave” but Philemon’s “beloved brother.” By baptizing Onesimus, Paul both freed him from slavery and transformed him legally into Philemon’s brother—the co-owner and co-heir of his property.
Much ink has been spilled, largely by white male scholars, arguing that Philemon is not about slavery. No, they say—it’s about obedience. Philemon needed to obey Paul, who, as an old man and an apostle, deserved rapid acquiescence to his requests. These arguments paint Paul as a patriarchy apologist and beneficiary. This leaves us with two problems.
First, it requires willful blindness to read Paul and not see freedom as central to his message. How can we miss the coherence in this letter with what we know of Paul’s understanding of the Savior who came to set people free? To read Philemon and not see a discussion of the relationship of slavery and faith in Jesus is to state that Onesimus’ history as Philemon’s property is coincidental, an issue of little importance to either’s life and faith. It also requires not considering the 15 of the letter’s 25 verses concerning this history and its impacts on discipleship—Philemon’s, Onesimus’, and Paul’s.
Second, knowing the violent history of US slave-owning and ideologies-masquerading-as-theologies written by white male Protestant faith forebears supporting ripping people from their families, shipment of them to lands they knew not, the forced labor of these people and the arguments made in Jesus’ name for how those enslaved were meant to be so—these raise our exegetical suspicions. How do centuries of naming enslaved Africans nonpersons, unessential, and subhuman impact the way this letter is read? How does it inform the way African Americans are viewed and approached today?
The next conversation we consider is between a Syrophoenician woman and Jesus, recorded in Mark 7:24-30. Jesus, suffering fatigue and burnout, escaped to a Gentile area, hoping to be left alone. But no luck—a Gentile woman came, bowing down at his feet. It is impossible to ignore this approach—which we can assume the woman knew. She begged him to cast a demon from her daughter. Jesus replied, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it out to the dogs.” Jesus named the Syrophoenician woman a dog (!): unessential and undeserving of his time and mercy.
This story includes overlays of gender, nationality, and interfaith relations. It is also the only Gospel story where Jesus refuses someone asking for help. As women scholars and ministry professionals, we know the sound of dismissal and the need women have of being more clever and quick-tongued than those who would say them nay. Here, Jesus is the dismissive male, giving this story power to shock us.
The Syrophoenician woman sees herself as essential—both for herself and for her daughter. She is an uppity woman; we can assume that her daughter lived to often hear the tale, forming her as an uppity woman too. One message here is that we need to know ourselves as essential to gain life in abundance.
This is the only story where someone gets the better of Jesus. Not even his powerful enemies in Jerusalem succeed at this—but she does. She turns his metaphor back on him, telling him the dogs are already in the house, eating the children’s food. It matters immensely who gets to define who is essential. In this story, that is not Jesus. He doesn’t say, ‘Why yes, little pagan lady, I the great Jesus allow you to enter our Israelite house!’ This woman defines and claims essentiality for herself and her daughter. Jesus simply acquiesces in her redefinition of who belongs in God’s house. “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” No one can take that from her because no one gave it to her. She herself proclaims the truth that her life matters.
Our final conversation is between the rich man and Jesus, followed by Jesus’ comments to his disciples about wealth and the kingdom, recounted in Mark 10:17-31. The man, knowing himself as essential, knelt before Jesus with a question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? How can I, who have all the world’s goods, add to them the next world’s goods, thus truly having everything? After some rehearsal of the commandments, Jesus shared the one thing the man lacked: to sell what he owned, giving all to the poor, and to follow Jesus. Shocked, the man went away grieving. Jesus followed this up by discussing how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom—shocking the disciples. Jesus doubled down, making clear that the rich’s entry will be as difficult as a camel’s through a needle’s eye.
The conversation shocks in our world, where wealth shows that one is valuable—important—essential. If the essential rich and powerful cannot enter, then how can the kingdom be understood? This question is not just for Jesus’ original disciples; it is a question for us today, living in complete agreement with the disciples against Jesus. From the congregational treasurer who hopes the pastor will keep members with deep pockets happy, to members who find preaching on these texts so disturbing that they warn preachers to offer more comfort, to the whole of our governmental, legal and judicial systems, constructed on massive funding to get elected, to stay in office, and to mount a defense and stay out of prison if charged—we demonstrate our profound respect, hardwired into our culture, for essential wealth and the essential wealthy.
Jesus understands that we use wealth to bury our fear of death, not comprehending that God, who owns all, has overcome death. We hoard possessions out of our spiritual poverty. The rich man grieves because he recognizes his utter investment in death. There’s no kingdom of God for him because he won’t walk through life’s door. His possessions possess him, rather than the reverse.
We live in a time of radical hope, change, and terror.
Something has shifted. A restorational, transformational type of justice is unfolding, as city governments remove tributes to racist historical figures and corporate America and higher education question how to serve constituents, residents, and students—both the original “essential” class and those whose essential labor placed them in mortal peril. These shifts inspire hope.
As hope emerges, resistance—sometimes violent—appears. This ranges from “Karens” (white people calling the police on people #livingwhileBlack), to the appearance of Confederate flags and nooses in public and private spaces, to the terrorizing and murder of Black and brown people, for whom racism has increased the risk of and danger from COVID-19. We must acknowledge these dangers and confront both them and the corrupt societal systems curating and maintaining injustice, thus endangering all.
Responsibility for transforming the understanding of “essential” is before us as people of faith. This is not just a matter of speaking truth of and to the first “essential” ones. The foundations underpinning society which we have considered essential must be reimagined. Racism, at every intersectional layer, long considered an essential and immovable part of good moral order in the US, is now recognized by many more white people as something that must be eradicated. This will require the elimination of systemic policies and practices which have harmed and continue to harm and sometimes kill those not deemed essential. Until Black, brown, low income, undocumented, Native, indigenous and immigrant people are named as essential in legislative, judicial, and social policies, there cannot be true transformative justice. This will require identifying the harm done—both by and tothe original “essentials” and to everyone else—by policies designating some as essential and others not.
These challenges are not new. Societies often seek to balance economic gain with human rights and public safety—always taking care to center protection of those deemed essential and their holdings. The rich young man knew that he and all he owned were essential because society had taught him so. Philemon believed he could own other people while following Jesus because it hadn’t stopped him from becoming a community faith leader. The Syrophoenician woman learned skills in defining herself within a family and community enduring multi-generational marginalization.
We can identify modern-day parallels to all three. From corporate scions who’ve seen themselves as virtuous actors forced to think about change, to faith leaders who name the enslaving of Africans a “white blessing”, to those on the streets, in the statehouses, and in church meetings local and global demanding holy change and increased justice, the question of essentiality—of who matters and who decides—continues. As viral spread, illness, and death rates continue to climb, fed by policies viewing some as worthy of protection and others not, the sacred rage disrupting these policies is imperative to address both the public health crisis and the multiple crises built on the racism on which our nation and much of our life in the church has been founded.