Neill is a dear friend and wonderful writer. Early on, it seemed COVID 19 would have the largest impact on the elderly. We never really know who the “Remnant” will be in any given situation. While this meditation is aimed at a churchgoing audience, Neill’s ideas are both thoughtful and thought provoking. I love his challenging last line, “Finally, let us entertain the possibility that we, too, may become a Remnant, and may God help us save ourselves so that we can save others.” Alison encouraged me to share Neill’s Lenten reflection with our community. I am sharing it with his permission.
Americans have balked at outrageous suggestions that sacrificing a small percentage of our elders and most vulnerable is an acceptable price to pay for the earliest possible restarting of the economy. Although we may be outraged, ancient nomadic peoples did sometimes make the difficult choice to sacrifice the very old, the sick, and the dying to assure the survival of the community. One amazing and true Native American story has a lot to say to us about finding our way out of the wilderness of the current pandemic.
Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival by Velma Willis (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994) starts on a bitter November day when a small band of hunter-gatherers, who live just north of the Arctic Circle on the border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory, are starving and desperate. The caribou and moose have eluded the hunting parties, and everyone is dejected. Winter has only just started when the Chief makes a controversial decision. He declares that the two oldest and most feeble members of the group will be left behind. Everyone is so weak and afraid that no one protests, not even the two old women themselves or their closest of kin. Once the others have said their tearful goodbyes, the two shocked and proud but angry women cry and complain bitterly to each other.
Then they make the critical choice to “die trying” rather than just surrendering to their fate. With great effort, they recall the learning of their youth and manage to kill squirrels with the skillful throw of a small hatchet and snare enough rabbits and winter grouse to get them through the winter. In the spring, they move up a small creek to a place they remember to have once been a good fishing camp. The fish are still abundant, and the women dry a huge cache. They also trap muskrats and beaver. In the fall they gather vast quantities of cranberries. They sew fur hats and gloves and make blankets from all the animal pelts. Every day they are surprised by their own strength and ingenuity, although they are always sore and spend many nights worried that their legs won’t work the next day.
So what happens the next winter? The people who abandoned them the winter before are again starving and feeling guilty and ashamed. Perhaps they are being punished for leaving the two old women behind. So the Chief orders search parties to go out and find the women, whether dead or alive. And you know the rest of the story. The women end up saving the whole group with their vast winter stores and the warm clothing they have made over the long year. The reconciliation is a slow process, and it takes months to restore trust. The women make many demands, and the Chief and others beg forgiveness and treat them with honor and respect. Eventually, they are even reconciled to their closest of kin.
I love the Old Testament stories of the Remnant. Those left behind are the ones who save all the rest of us. Let’s look for the face of God in our surviving elders as we remember all they do for us, and let’s give thanks for the hidden strength and ingenuity that many of them are finding in this pandemic as they thrive in ways that may surprise both them and their juniors. Let’s look for the face of God in the prisoners released, the guilty and the innocent alike—that oft-forgotten Remnant who are benefitting at long last from the acceleration of justice in the face of the pandemic. May they be reconciled to themselves and to society. Let us look for the face of God in those whom the pandemic claims, and let us reach out to them and their loved ones by whatever means we can now and in the months and years to come. Let us look for the face of God in all the non-human species who are thriving because of a shrinking global economy—all those for whom “business as usual” only means death and extinction. They are the least-acknowledged Remnant. Finally, let us entertain the possibility that we, too, may become a Remnant, and may God help us save ourselves so that we can save others. Amen.
April 21, 2020