- Biblical Studies, COVID-19, and Our Response to Growing Inequality
SBL promotes the academic study of biblical texts to foster the understanding of religion and to cultivate empathy in our diverse world.—Society of Biblical Literature1
Our interpretations of what it means “to cultivate empathy in our diverse world” have surely shifted since the beginnings of the present pandemic. This brief essay will explore the potential impact of COVID-19 on our guild, particularly as it relates to the growing inequality made stark in recent events. As a comparison, I will present a summative review of shifts in the field of economics in light of the 2008–2009 Great Recession and the 2020 pandemic. This review will propel a self-reflective question: How will the biblical studies scholarly communities respond to the experiences of COVID-19? As an academic society, we may choose to ignore the inequalities magnified by the pandemic and reify the existing norms of our field. Or perhaps these events can catalyze the beginnings of a transformation to more profound societal impact congruent with our official statement. I propose that the tragic pandemic and its racialized responses can compel biblical scholars to renew our commitments to mediate between texts and reading communities, particularly in the face of endemic patterns of inequality. By doing so, we may more effectively abide by our own stated mission to cultivate empathy.
COVID-19 has negatively affected people across different economic classes, with the greatest devastation on underprivileged populations. The economic burden of COVID-19 falls more heavily on those with less access to resources, access that is both racialized and gendered. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declares, “There is increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic [End Page 600] minority groups are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”2 African Americans have much higher contraction rates and death rates of COVID-19.3 The impact is further seen in the outbreaks in incarcerated populations and the disparity of resources in education across underprivileged school districts under lock-down. In contrast to prior recessions, the social distancing shutdowns harm women employees more than men.4 With the closures of schools and concomitant disruption in household labor, such gender disparity will surely continue through the life of the pandemic. These disruptions have brought further precarity to the most vulnerable, who have limited options to shelter in place and face increased challenges with food insecurity. The economic repercussions of increased racialized violence stemming from COVID-19 are substantial though difficult to quantify.
As COVID-19 has delivered an unprecedented shock to the global economies, it will surely generate major changes in the field of economics. As a biblical scholar interested in wider economic systems, I am observing the various reactions to this pandemic. When I majored in economics as an undergraduate in the 1990s, the field was still deep in the neoliberalism characterized by scholars such as Milton Friedman, who provided theoretical support for the laissez-faire policies of influential politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Grossly oversimplified, this period advocated for fewer government controls and the promise of capitalism in generating broad societal wealth across all classes.5 This flourishing [End Page 601] of neoliberalism was tied to the Cold War discourses, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and broad disdain for government interventions. This neoliberal tendenz is reflected in the revisions of the standard textbook, Paul Samuelson’s Economics, which dominated introductory economics classes for five decades and is still one of the most successful textbooks of all time.6 The book was first published in 1948 and appropriately reflected Samuelson’s own advocacy for a Keynesian approach to interventions aimed at market failures.7 In later revisions, including the 13th edition (1989) assigned to me as an undergraduate, Samuelson and new coauthor William Nordhaus were distancing themselves from Keyesian interventions as a general norm.8
The Great Recession of 2008–2009 generated a different line of thought in regard to economic neoliberalism. Politicians targeted economists for their failure to predict this crisis. A group of economists began to question the merits of unregulated capitalism, using growing inequality as evidence. Advocates for intervention emerged, labeled...