Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
I’m sure most everyone reading this has seen one or more of those memes going around that depicts the months of 2020 as a collection of snapshots of a single celebrity’s expressions. These memes work because we’ve all felt roughly the same anxieties this year: the buoyancy of the New Year in January, the ignorance of February, the shock of March, the nightmare of April, the creeping dread of May, the horror of June, (and so forth). As one tragedy after another has rocked our nation—and the world—against the backdrop of bizarre and unpredictable reactions to the pandemic, we can all probably agree on one thing: everything is not okay. Many of us have felt this for a long time now (some longer than others), but 2020 seems to be the year that we are faced with it as an undeniable fact.
I realized back in May that I had begun turning to certain stories to find a version of the world that makes sense—a version that reflects reality and truth, because what I feel like I’m living through this year is so distorted. I began to consume stories of the Black experience in America, and in engaging with documentaries like 13th and The Color of Compromise, watching dramatizations of true stories like When They See Us and Just Mercy (and more), I discovered there was a truth that had been hidden from my educational experience in America that explained what was happening—what continues to happen—in our streets today in 2020. These are stories I am continuing to pursue, as it was just a start.I’ve watched otherwise rational and religious people disseminate conspiracy theories, slander, and outright lies across social media platforms—sometimes in the name of Christianity, often in the name of some form of liberty.
But so much has happened in 2020 that it feels like there is a distortion of reality that extends beyond the gaps in my history textbooks. This spring and summer, I’ve watched otherwise rational and religious people disseminate conspiracy theories, slander, and outright lies across social media platforms—sometimes in the name of Christianity, often in the name of some form of liberty—and it’s caused me to question how America can ever recover from not just the pandemic itself, but also from the breakdown of truth and rationality in civil discourse.
What is happening now in America is not exactly unique, though. In the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, I have found a reflection of 2020 America that is real and true and therefore as oddly comforting as it is horrifying. Airing in 2019, the show tells the story of the April 1986 nuclear power station explosion and meltdown—the events and the scramble to contain the disaster both on the ground and from the top-down in a Soviet government intent on suppressing the truth. The tagline of the show asks, “What is the cost of lies?” and it feels prescient for our many current crises. It’s hard not to see a great deal of 2020 pandemic America reflected in the government responses of 1986 Soviet Russia to the Chernobyl disaster, as well as in the attitudes of many of the people.
Why do I call Chernobyl oddly comforting? Because Solomon was right when he said there is nothing new under the sun. If you, like me, have looked around this year and wondered if the whole country has gone insane, the answer is (probably) a solid no. Chernobyl has acted as a reminder to me that social media hasn’t made people crazy, paranoid, or stupid—people have always been willing to spread misinformation, lies, and conspiracies when it suits an agenda like a political or religious ideology. In one scene in Chernobyl, nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) confronts a government official about the imminent danger at the power plant. He says: “I prefer my opinion to yours.” To which she replies: “I’m a nuclear physicist. Before you were Deputy Secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.” I viscerally winced at this exchange; it sounded like it could have been ripped straight from Facebook.
When people don’t like the truth in hard times, truth-tellers will often be accused of spreading alarmist hysteria. In Chernobyl, radioactive graphite is found on the ground outside the plant. It is seen and reported, and it burns a fireman. Yet multiple people—whose interests are protecting the image of the Soviet Union—forcefully say that nobody could have seen radioactive graphite on the ground outside the power plant because that would mean the core has exploded, and they know the core has not exploded, so radioactive graphite has not been seen. A denial of facts to suit an agenda: if they say the core has not exploded, then there can’t be dangerous radiation leaking into the air. No graphite, no explosion, no radiation. Soviet Russia will be great again.
But you don’t get to lie with impunity. Misinformation has consequences; lies have consequences. Chernobyl shows that with major crises, you reach a point where the problem is too big to be contained by false messaging. A disaster the size of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown had to be dealt with. It could not be denied or reframed. Likewise, over 160,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since February. When I see that number, that timeline, it takes my breath away. There is graphite on the ground and experts telling us there is graphite on the ground, but still far too many Americans are saying it cannot be there.
What, indeed, is the cost of lies?
There is another strange byproduct of our current, distorted reality: the impulse to tell people not to be afraid of the coronavirus. In Chernobyl, the government denied the people the truth and thus gave them no opportunity for fear. As time went on, they lied and lied and lied again about how bad the damage was to control the narrative (the Russian government is still lying about the impact of Chernobyl to this day). But God gives us natural fears for the purpose of self-preservation, and he gave us curiosity and the ability to learn and grow in knowledge so as to make wise decisions. If you were living in the literal shadow of a melting-down nuclear power plant, you should absolutely feel a healthy fear of that and make informed decisions about what to do: namely flee and flee quickly.
Today, we are living in the midst of a pandemic. The virus is novel (new), and although we have experimental drug plans, we have no proven, fully peer-reviewed effective treatments or cures. We cannot flee from it, so we must do our best to live with the reality of it. I fully understand that panic doesn’t do anyone any good, but a healthy fear of what we are living through can build respect for the thing and respect for the experts helping us fight and defeat it. Admonitions of “Do not fear” are coming from as high up as the president’s mixed messaging to as low down as that one nurse you know on Facebook who says exactly the opposite of all the other medical professionals.
But the most insidious misuse of “Do not fear” in 2020 has come, I think, out of the mouths of some Christians. Whether out of a desire from the Religious Right to politicize the pandemic or to show that God is greater than the virus, in these cases “Do not fear” is wielded as a sword of power—as if to fear the virus is to give in to Satan’s plan for America. Ergo to be victorious, we must not fear!
To be clear, Scripture does command us to not be afraid, but when God tells us over and over to not fear, it’s not because he wants us to ignore the impulses and instincts that he instilled in us for caution, rationalization, and self-preservation. He wants to remind us that despite all the very real dangers of our very fallen world, he is still in control. “Do not fear” does not mean “ignore the scientists.” It does not mean that we should go to church without a mask, ignore social distancing protocols, and claim victory over the virus in Jesus’ name. What it means is that all of creation is groaning for redemption—but take heart, for he has overcome the world. It means this world is not our home and that even if God does not save us from the fire, he is still good.
Because the redemption of the whole world is coming, I do not fear what this virus could ultimately do to me. But I mourn the ravages it is pouring out on this nation, and I do fear for the real pain and suffering it brings. I wear a mask and stay at home during a pandemic because I know that there would be no reason for God to command us “do not be afraid” if the world was not, in fact, a very broken place. Fear is not a sin. There is rightly oriented fear that moves us toward safety and a reliance on God as our very great help in time of need—fear that acknowledges the pain this life will bring before the resurrection of the soul.
I fear for an America that is willfully unafraid, and not just because of the virus.
When the power station at Chernobyl goes up in flames, a crew of firefighters arrives to try to put it out. They don’t know that by entering the building, they will be exposing themselves to so much radiation that they will almost all be dead within weeks. The camera follows the eyeline of the first man in, panning up the burning building, bright against the night. The imagery is starkly reminiscent of the Third Precinct police building in Minneapolis, which was burned down following the killing of George Floyd this past May—one of many images from 2020 that will be seared in my memory for years to come. When I watched the Third Precinct burn, I knew that everything was not okay in America. It was one of those jarring images that spurred me to action this year. It wasn’t a harbinger of bad things to come, but a sign that things are already bad. In Chernobyl, when they enter that burning building, it’s already too late. The fire is a sign that the core has exploded and massive radiation is pouring out. Everything is not okay. They can put the fire out, but they cannot put out its consequences and aftermath.
In reading reviews of Chernobyl from viewers who lived close enough to the disaster to remember it happening, I found one person who said that it was not the fall of the Berlin Wall or Reagan’s speech that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. It was the Chernobyl disaster. Because the way the Soviets handled Chernobyl revealed how millions of people’s lives actually mattered very little to their own government. Like the writing on Belshazzar’s banquet hall, some signs do not foretell—some reveal what is already happening, and some disasters reveal the existing character of a nation rather than allowing it to step up and thrive. The pandemic and racial tensions in particular have cracked open the core of America in 2020. Fear should drive us to our knees for this nation—but not a fear of a virus or loss of creature comforts—but a fear that leads to repentance for systemic sins, and a fear that drives us to seek restoration for our land. Because as amusing as it is to “meme” the months of 2020, the problems we’re facing are far too complex for that. The core is on fire, and we should heed the cost of lies that sparked and fan the flame.