WE beseech thee, Almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy people; that by thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.Collect for Passion Sunday, BCP
We need narratives to make sense of our lives. Just because they’re narratives doesn’t make them untrue or unwise. “Narrative” simply names the task of gathering experiences into a coherent whole, with the goal of explaining why we are where we are. Those experiences can be real, and our current experience can be real; it’s the connection between them that beckons our creativity. When we’re facing a large-scale disaster like a pandemic, a narrative that people of faith often turn to is Divine will and judgement. This can be legitimate, or it can be disastrous.
It looks like those who are suffering from this virus are not being “preserved…in body” by the “great goodness” of “Almighty God,” especially those who die from the disease. Something similar might be said for those whose loved ones have died without their comfort, or those who are lonely or otherwise struggling with physical distancing. Suffering is real, and that reality raises the age-old question, “how could the great goodness of Almighty God allow this to occur?” When we sit with this question, sit with our suffering and pain, welcome this great goodness of Almighty God into our place of suffering, then we find that we don’t need an intellectual answer but God’s comforting presence. Tom Wright reminds us to lament, and to discover that lament is one of Scripture’s most powerful witnesses to God’s love.
However, this does not deny the possibility of a coherent answer to the question itself, and as much I respect Wright, I think he goes too far in denying just that. We would do better to say that such an explanation is simply of no help to those who are suffering or grieving. However, Wright is correct to point out that our pursuit of an explanation can be a “knee-jerk,” undisciplined, “would-be Christian response,” since it can become enthralled with the ideology of rationalism lurking unexamined just below the surface of literalist fundamentalist evangelicalism.
This is especially the case when we think God is judging the people we fear or despise, those we have labelled as “enemy” to our own prosperity or self-interest. Far too often, the proposed narrative ends up being a powerful means of casting god in our own image. It’s a potent source of that heresy that god (small g) is vengeful and angry, on the hunt for poor, different-looking evil doers and seductive jezebels to smite. Almost never do we entertain the possibility that God would judge the wealthy, the powerful, the privileged, the suits in their pulpits and on the White House lawn.
So we dispense with the possibility of judgement altogether: either because it’s pastorally unhelpful in the moment, or because it’s a gnostic, rationalist heresy. My friend Jeff commented on Wright’s article in a facebook thread, also citing Radner: he raised the thought that our inability to grapple with the possibility of judgement is a slide into disembodied Gnosticism. I see where he’s going, but I’d argue the reverse: that our dismissal, or even worse, our abuse of the judgement narrative, is because we’re already gnostics.
What I mean is that we employ the judgement narrative to tell us that god actively wills to destroy creation. In fact, I hesitate to even call it “creation” at that point: it’s “evil flesh” set against “godly spirit.” We go straight to Noah’s flood, Moses’ plagues, the ingenious bluster of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos et al, to St. Paul’s context-specific admonitions, St. John’s vision of God pouring down bowls of wrath and upending the heavens and the earth, and to Christ’s own “woes.” But we ignore the controlling context of all of Scripture, ignore the God revealed in Scripture. Any narrative we seek to make of the disease must be disciplined by—has to cohere with—the God we see revealed in Scripture.
And who do we see revealed in Scripture? At the start, we see God as Creator of heaven and earth. And at the end, we see God as Redeemer, as the one who brings heaven and earth to perfect wholeness in His eternal life. As the author to the Hebrews puts it, we see the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith, of our lives, of all reality. It’s only within this vision of God that we can begin to make any sense of why He allows disasters and pandemics to happen. I’m also reminded of Radner’s Anglican history class, structured around Cranmer’s Prayer Book. Yes, Cranmer included the Litany as an important service in the BCP, included that great petition for relief and healing to the One with the power to allow, prevent, even cause or “uncause” these disasters. But Cranmer also had us return, at the beginning of Lent and every day until Palm Sunday, to the God “who hatest nothing that thou hast made.” In a Prayer Book full of Reformed, penitential spirituality, and in Lent, this most penitential, sin-examining season of the year, we continually return to God’s good act of Creation.
And now, nearing Holy Week at the end of Lent, we’re to ask “Almighty God” to “mercifully look upon thy people; that by thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul….” This changes the question of why God allowed the virus in the first place, and why God allows this virus to spread. We can instead ask, what does it mean for us to make sense of this virus and its spread, in light of the creating governing and preserving goodness of Almighty God?
Sorry to disappoint, but I can’t give a full answer now: that’ll take far more time, maybe decades or centuries. But the first place to start is our interpretation of Noah’s flood and Moses’ plagues, prophecy and apocalyptic destruction, and then I’ll offer some early thoughts on the virus. If we read Scripture’s disaster narratives with the controlling context of Creation and Redemption, we can’t say that God is actively seeking to destroy Creation. The best we can say is that God is allowing the very human consequences of rebellion against the natural order to take their course. Possibly speeding up these consequences to mitigate the damage that our violence and rebellion might cause. The flood and the plagues aren’t a fault of a “religion of God” but of a “religion of me.”
This means that any theological claim we can make about this virus has to be that God is allowing scientific and historical consequences to unfold. “Science” and “history” are just our modern words for the ebb and flow of the created order. But Christians believe that this created order has theological realities embedded in it. So yes, we can point to poor labour and health conditions in Wuhan, China. No, we cannot call it a “Wuhan virus” to score political points, block multi-lateral agreement on what the international community needs to do, and ignore the ways our own North American/Western European structural deficiencies have contributed to the virus’ spread.
Because I believe that major causes for this spread in the west are the lack of coherent, public, common healthcare infrastructure and our personal unwillingness to practice adequate physical distancing. But we can also point to the inability of many to practice adequate physical distancing: they too had to go to work sick rather than risk staying home and getting fired or laid off. How much do we still have to fight for paid leave and other benefits going directly into workers’ hands?
So whether it’s poor health conditions and labour protections in Wuhan, or inadequate healthcare infrastructure and labour conditions in the West, or simply a youthful illusion of invincibility and an unwillingness to take steps of physical distancing to protect the more vulnerable, this virus has spread because we have neglected our common human dignity. Again, we have focused on “me and mine” at the expense of the “we” of humanity, assumed that people are worth only as much as they’re “worth”: that their dignity depends on the size of their bank account, or even their ability to grow the GDP. And we’ve made the fantastical assumption that there’s some connection between the two, as if “net worth” was ever a measure of contribution to society. (Meanwhile, we laud billionaires who then sit on their billions, and we glorify massive corporations who then ask for donations to pay for workers’ leave. We parade them in front of the White House while PPE shortages “mysteriously” abound.)
It’s a rebellion against the reality that God has created all of us in His image, and created us to be with each other, for each other rather than alone. We are only as healthy and strong as the feeblest, most vulnerable person among us. My health is not something I can control as an “individual”: you and I and everyone else depends on the societal organization of food, safety, sanitation, medicine, air quality, so many other things I don’t even know about, in order to live safe, healthy, dignified lives. We depend on them to be available, accessible, and responsible for all people.
But why does God still allow the virus to spread? For us to be “governed and preserved in body and soul,” for our health to be maintained by societal and ecclesial organization, it must accord with the “great goodness” of Almighty God. This virus shows us that we haven’t governed ourselves in accordance with this goodness, and that we need to learn again how to do so. If God were to “snap His fingers” and make the virus disappear right now, would we really learn how to accord with His created order? This might sound harsh, but I have to ask: would we make the structural, worldview, mindset and values changes that might prevent such an outbreak in the future, and raise the overall level of health for everyone in our society?
We can and should plead to God for mercy, for healing, and for wholeness. Yes, we can and should ask God to end the virus now, especially since it has caused so much loss and suffering already. But also, we can and should ask God for the courage and the wisdom to take the opportunity to examine our values, our structures, our assumptions about human worth and dignity. We have the opportunity here to to ask serious questions of our connection between wealth and dignity and the structures that support that fantasy. We have the opportunity to ensure the establishment of a vibrant, robust and universally accessible healthcare system that all people are happy to support. (Yes, even Canada’s healthcare system needs a lot of improvements.) And we have the opportunity to ensure safe and healthy labour standards across the world, from Wuhan to Washington State, in Spain, Italy and here in Canada.
For many, this work is too much to handle right now. They need to lament, to know God’s comforting presence. And we all need to continue physical distancing and flatten the curve. But be it through lament, physical distancing, sustained reflection on the causes of this pandemic and the structural and worldview changes that we need to make in the future, we must remember that Almighty God has made us one human family, that He seeks to “govern and preserve us” by His “great goodness,” that He has room in His life and love for these various tasks of lament, reflection and action, and that that He has promised to faithfully provide what we need, as we turn to Him.
O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth: have mercy upon us.
O God the Son, Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us.
O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful: have mercy upon us.
O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three Persons and one God: have mercy upon us.