COVID-19 is giving cancel culture a whole new meaning.
Barely a month ago, it meant political agitators pressing institutions to call off public appearances by speakers who agitated them.
Enter the pandemic, and it means cancellation e-mails or social media messages informing us that yet another gathering of two or more has been kyboshed by this infernal invisible virus.
Yesterday, for example, my Cardus colleague Milton Friesen planned to be in Montreal for an event sponsored by the English Speaking Catholic Council, speaking on the topic of social isolation.
Milton’s day, like that of millions of Canadians, turned into social isolation at home with his family for the sake of physical distancing.
Likewise, Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall planned to be with her team putting the finishing touches to the 55th annual National Prayer Breakfast scheduled for May 7 in Ottawa, which she is chairing this year.
“We’ve been hoping and praying it could take place, which is why we held off as long as we could before making the decision,” Wagantall told Convivium from her Saskatchewan riding.
“This will be the first time in (the Prayer Breakfast’s) history it’s been cancelled. It’s the longest running single event on (Parliament) Hill so, yes, it’s very disappointing. There’s a huge team that works very hard organizing it. But the reality of the times makes it impossible for people to travel across the country to come together.”
Instead, Wagantall has turned her efforts to helping promote tomorrow’s online National Day of Prayer organized by TheCRY ecumenical movement. She and her team are also planning a necessarily pared-down online version of the Prayer Breakfast. Those who join in from home will have to supply their own scrambled eggs.
Wagantall accepts the need to scramble for alternatives at a time of COVID-19 as essentially a test of faith. Viral cancellations might bug us when they pop up in our newsfeeds or inboxes, but they also call us back to the basics of faithful patience, courage and witness.
“Scripture says when “two or three are gathered together.” Obviously, when that was written, no one had any concept of being able to virtually connect as we do now. So, I thank God that we have this opportunity, in the midst of this very difficult situation, to still do that as a body of believers (whose) spirits are connected whether we’re in a church building or (physically) at a prayer breakfast or online.”
For my colleague Milton Friesen, as for English Speaking Catholic Council executive director Anna Farrow, a discussion of social isolation being scrubbed because of an imperative for social isolation is a paradoxical golden opportunity to reflect on what the Church and the faithful have to offer during times of crises, whether individual predicament or pandemic catastrophe.
“When I sent out the notice that the event was cancelled for now, I got a lot of people writing back saying ‘how ironic is that?’ and wanting to do it remotely,” said Farrow. “But we hope to postpone it until the fall, which would be interesting timing because by then it’s going to be a different story. We’ll certainly have a different lens with which to look at it.”
The current “lens” on social isolation, she noted, has largely been one in which the State looms large, looks down on lonely, solitary people, and – Hey! Presto! – comes up with a bureaucratically-approved program to solve the problem. But COVID-19 largely cancels that view of the world.
It reveals, instead, that while the State has enormous powers to marshal financial assistance, to persuade, cajole and command the populace, it can’t fit its way into the real-world nooks and crannies where individual human beings live. It takes nimble, personally motivated non-State actors to effectively interact at that level. For example, exactly the kind of people you’d find in a faith community moved less by grand political abstractions of the common good than by the singular truth of seeing the Imago Dei – the image of God – in each of us.