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The Roman god Janus, with one face toward the past, one toward the future.

The coronavirus pandemic has unveiled characteristics bearing similarities to the Roman god Janus.

In the ancient Roman religion, Janus is depicted has having two faces, simultaneously looking to the future and the past; he is the god of beginnings and ends.

It could be argued on Jan. 20, 2020, when the United States reported its first case of coronavirus to the World Health Organization, it was a beginning and an end. With little forewarning, America looked into the abyss of an unknown future, while seeing its past evaporating from its memory.

On Jan. 20, the coronavirus was a remote, exotic disease, not applicable to most Americans. Few were aware of its lethal threat to our collective way of life, let alone knew anyone who had contracted it.

How much has changed in just over three months? Through mandatory shelter-in-place, social distancing and donning protective masks, the coronavirus in tangible and intangible ways has touched every aspect of American life. Many who, if asked, were unaware of anyone who had contracted the coronavirus on Jan. 20 would most likely change their answer today.

As we look to the day when we will officially be on the other side, what does that other side look like? I’m not referring to which retail stores, movie theaters or restaurants survive, but rather which face of Janus will appear most prominent?

What is the threat to our democratic republic? Will we be transformed for the better by this crisis or simply feign a momentary “Kumbayah” moment, quickly returning to our mutual distrust?

Democracy is hard work; it requires trusting those one disagrees with philosophically. We must trust there is mutual adherence to: “We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union.” We must accept, however, there will not be unanimity on the proper path to pursue that utopian goal.

In a democratic society, Janus’ other face would be authoritarianism. Though I do not consider America is on the verge of abject authoritarian rule, I do believe we have adopted some of its characteristics in a macro sense.

Authoritarian rule requires that one trust only a single person who will validate their fears of the “other.” Likewise, that we get our civic information from specific sources that validate our beliefs. Everything else falls into the waste bend of “fake news.”

Can our prevailing individual suppositions suffice for what’s good for society? Can we progress if we maintain unhealthy trust of our civic institutions?

Moreover, can we rely on social media hiding behind our computer screens, emoting visceral substantiated feelings? This may be individually cathartic; it is not healthy for democracy. Yet, the counter argument holds social media as an unabashedly democratic platform.

It has no gatekeepers. But it also possesses no guardrails, which allows it to take on a form closer aligned with individual populism than democracy.

One of populism’s shared characteristics is the quest for immediate gratification. It is not interested in trusting those who see the world differently. It takes on a more strident quality. Rarely does it concern itself with the greater good. It arrogantly sees itself as the greater good, portraying the virtues of a democratic republic obsolete.

The certainty embraced by populism is not concerned that democracies have many moving parts.

I liken the challenges of America’s democratic republic to those of Christianity. The latter is rooted in an inconvenient love for all. But that goal is an arduous task. Over the centuries, many have sought to circumvent the overarching goals of the faith. As a result, various sects of the Christian faith have paradoxically appeared on both sides of many of human history’s most egregious atrocities.

America has found it more convenient to realize ways to circumvent its radical commitments (liberty and equality) than to take the direct arduous path to pursue them.

We are at a precipice brought on by a novel virus. It has forced us to uncomfortably gaze at the inequality and subsequently the infringements on liberty that have hidden in plain sight.

The problems are not new; we’ve just had the privilege to not see them. But we no longer have those privileges. The successful creation of our new normal, with its accompanying discomfort, will be dependent on seeing authentically what has previously been ignored.

Implosion from within remains America’s greatest threat. We cannot afford to be hamstrung by nostalgia, waiting for a day to return, assuming that it ever existed, that will never be again. The two faces of Janus will always be with us. In our new normal, which face will dominate America’s fate?

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@publicmorality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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