COVID-19 and the Mandate to Regenerate All Our Relations
By Yohana Junker. 
Over the past few weeks we have been forced to grapple with the ways COVID-19 has shaken our structures in profound ways. As the numbers rise exponentially, we are witnessing the disintegration of whole communities, cities, and systems. In the US, we are at the beginning of a long-term process that is reconfiguring the ways in which we understand ourselves: our bonds, our lives, our values and ways of being, and our relationships to one another and the earth.
What COVID-19 is imprinting into our bodies—as it is proliferating and suffusing communities with a sense of uncertainty and fear—is a sense that our lives are inextricable from social, political, and economic forces. Inequalities perpetrated by white supremacy, neocolonialism, capitalist extractivism and exploitation, cishet patriarchy are exacerbated today within the nexus of these pandemic zones where Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), trans, queer, elderly, disabled, “poor, working-class, unhoused, incarcerated, and detained communities” continue to be the most vulnerable and suffer from insecurities of all tenors.
What is worse, it has unmasked how countries are failing to protect its citizens while bolstering policies, closing borders while allowing for the free flow “of entrepreneurs to capitalize on global suffering,” exploit the vulnerable, and “find ways to reproduce and strengthen their powers within pandemic zone.” The politics and actions embraced by Trump and Bolsonaro, for example, demonstrate Judith Butler’s point with surgical precision—their acts instantiate what she names as an “unethical and criminal self-aggrandizement.”
This should come as no surprise. Julia Rocha, a Brazilian medical doctor has observed that instead of providing access to clean water, soap, the capacity to stay home or to isolate in a room if one is sick, and to receive sound information about the pandemic (which is an immeasurable luxury for most people living in the favelas of Brazil), Bolsonaro has authorized the suspension of salaries for up to four months to protect corporations and Brazil’s collapsing economy. The poorest population in Brazil and the US alike are not only having to manage precarious and insecure conditions but are also the ones carrying the burden of stocking supermarkets, keeping pharmacies open, delivering food to our doorsteps, cleaning hospitals, and so much more to maintain the privileged classes comfort during these quarantined times. The tension between the full-stomach and the empty-bellied is strident. This viral, structural, and slow violence, as Rob Nixon puts, is “driven inward, somatized into cellular dramas of mutation that—particularly in the bodies of the poor—remain largely unobserved, undiagnosed, and untreated.” To evoke Frantz Fanon’s words, the current scenario is a dehumanizing type of violence that has gone “under the skin.” As a silently moving virus, it questions our constructions of time, movement, behavior, and territory; it has evidenced how blurred geopolitical, territorial, temporal, technological, and many other boundaries really are; it has animated in a catastrophic degree the “interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and capitalism.” As a biopower, it has targeted and neglected those in the most precarious conditions—from refugee and border camps to industrial prison complexes and beyond.
The speed at which COVID-19 is moving also exposes our compulsive ways of being: always out of time, out of attention span, thirsty for quick fixes, for mindless consumption, in unending search for the immediacy of sensation. The invisible viral particle is divulging so many of our collective illusions, our errors, our choices. It is unearthing and holding into light our narcissism, arrogance, our addiction to accumulation, and the fallacy that the earth revolves around the human animal. As psychologist Alexandre Coimbra Amaral has noted, the rapid acceleration of our life rhythms (coupled with an acute sense of individualism) has received a global blow this past month. The virus is demanding that we change our social behavior and modes of organization. It is requiring that the most privileged abandon their relationship to home-as-dormitory to begin to relate to it as a place of dwelling, of mending familial bonds, of exercising presence, of cleaning one’s own filth. It is also forcing the human animal to take a sobering look at how many artifices of distraction we have fallen prey to.
To religious traditions across the planet this is precisely the time for providing a witness to, of offering a testimony, of weaving the invisible back into the perceptible through ritual, creative acts of worship, to the arts, music, and imagination that give us a sense of hope. As Octavia Butler has put it, “the very act of trying to look ahead to discern possibilities and offer warnings is in itself an act of hope.” To this end, Cláudio Carvalhaes has recently proposed that we renew our sense of what is possible during this pandemic, inviting us to lament together, to reinvent sacraments, to respond to the fear of our times, to ground ourselves during the pandemic, to stretch our path into the long run, to invent new ways of creating and being alive as people of faith. An invitation is posed for us to re- vision, re-engage, re-root, and perceive ourselves as potential co-creators of a reality that is communally, ecologically, politically, artistically, and spiritually grounded. We must protect that which we love in the face of the current devastating planetary calamity: fragile matter, life, this earth, memory, all our relations, and our histories, as Indigenous epistemologies have charged us for millennia.
It is time to face the myths that sustain the assaults we have caused to the earth. It is time to reach for the imaginative capacity of Indigenous peoples across the Américas, as stated by Indigenous leader Ailton Krenak. As he explains, Indigenous populations have developed technologies of resistance since first contact. They sing and dance and eat and commune with one another, including the families of the mountains, rivers, and forests. They tend to these relations with reverence. They tolerate pleasure (not pain), relish in the joy of being fully alive; they dream dreams that are capable of postponing the ends of the world, for it has ended and reemerged numerous times for those who have survived colonizers. To Krenak, one of the most profound teaching Indigenous cosmologies can offer us is to sacralize our relationship to the land, to teach us how to exercise an ongoing reverence to the earth and all our relations. As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson also elucidates, Nishinaabeg ways of being are spun out of an expansive “web of connections to each other, to the plant nations, the animal nations, the rivers and lakes, the cosmos, and our neighboring Indigenous nations,” in what she describes as an ecology of intimacy. Such a mode of being is based on “deep reciprocity, respect, noninterference, self determination, and freedom;” on a knowing that “the earth gives and sustains all life” and that “natural resources are not natural resources at all, but gifts from Aki, the land.” Nishinaabeg teachings also reiterate that we should “give up what we can to support the integrity of our homelands for the coming generation. We should give more than we take from it.” This is a movement that radiates in equal measures outwards and inwards, extending deep love to all earthlings, in a “rebellion of love, persistence, commitment, and profound caring,” in a refusal to succumb to lethal colonial projects and all its iterations.
These delineations of resistance and intimacy invite us to touch, to listen, to look closer, to dig, to dream, play, envision, ritualize, sanctify, create, conjure up the possibilities and mutations of our relationships to each other, our subjectivities, and the earth. It is time to show up to one another in the “now” and, as Anderson França puts it, to use our platforms to re-distribute resources and solidarity. By displacing the human animal from the position of planetary centrality, COVID-19 may be summoning us to pay attention to how matter, biomes, and other animals have responded to crisis while invoking from us presence, tenderness, and regeneration of all our relations.
**The images in this blog post are part of the author’s meditation exercises during COVID-19. She describes this spiritual practice as a breathing-being-praying meditation. She begins by centering herself, breathing in and out deeply, and noticing a word that emerges for her. “The word,” she explains, “is a reflection of how I sense and name my most urgent needs, the desires of my spirit, my body-prayer. I then begin by inhaling deeply and drawing one line, exhaling deeply and drawing another line. I do this until the page is filled with lines that reflect current patterns of being and breathing–my heart frequency.”
 This title is inspired in Winona Laduke’s All Our Relations: Struggles for Land and Life (Cambridge, MA: Haymarket Books, 2015).
 See Sherronda J. Brown’s essay “Humans Are Not the Virus—Do Not Be an Eco-fascist,” published online on March 27, 2020 by Wear Your Voice.
 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence: Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 5.
 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 40-45, 71.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol 1 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 140–145.
 Ailton Krenak, Idéias para Adiar o Fim do Mundo (São Paulo: Compahia das Letras, 2019), 26–27.
 Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 8.
 Simpson, As We Have Always Done, 8.
 Simpson, As We Have Always Done, 8, emphasis mine.
 Simpson, As We Have Always Done, 9
Yohana A. Junker, Ph.D., is Faculty Associate in Theology, Spirituality, and the Arts at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Her ongoing research probes the salient intersections among the fields of art history, eco-criticism, decolonial studies and contemporary Indigenous aesthetics. She recently earned her doctorate in art and religion from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. A life-long Methodist, Dr. Junker was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, and received her BA from Universidade Metodista de São Paulo. She holds an MTS from Christian Theological Seminary and, while at the GTU, she was awarded a presidential scholarship, a Louisville Institute Fellowship, and a Hispanic Theological Initiative Dissertation Scholarship. Junker has contributed chapters for the forthcoming volumes Sustainable Societies: Interreligious & Interdisciplinary Responses (Springer), Painted Portrayals: The Art of Characterizing Biblical Figures (SBL Press), and is co-editing, with Dr. Aaron Rosen, Modern and Contemporary Artists on Religion: A Global Sourcebook (Bloomsbury). In her writing, art, and activism, she investigates the ways artists create poetic spaces that allow viewers to come together, to reclaim agency, and to work collectively toward what Paulo Freire calls conscientização, which restores our sense of purpose, our thirst for justice, and our desire for transformation. Her artwork is central to her scholarship and activism, as demonstrated by her participation in two recent events, the “18th Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium: Political Theology at the Edge—Collectivities of Crisis and Possibility” and “On The Consequences of Hate Speech at the Manny Cantor Center in New York City.”