N.T. Wright. God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath. Zondervan Reflective, 2020. (75 pages)
This little book is true to its title. It is a decidedly Christian reflection for those interested in how their Christian faith works with challenges such as the one we’re in now. Allow me to sum:
Throughout history, humans, in the midst of crisis, have been playing the blame game, a way of moving the locus of responsibility away from ourselves. The ancients did it with gods and demigods. Later peoples shifted to earthly figures as scapegoats and sacrificed them on literal altars. We moderns blame political parties and nation-states. Religions blame “the devil” and “the end-times.” What is true of all of these, is that they are mythologies and conspiracies.
Rather than succumb to imaginary and fanciful thinking, the gospel of Jesus implores us to seek the truth, to lament, and then to overcome. It is to look forward into what God will do. And, it is to hold the world accountable to the principles found in justice, peace-making, and love. A Christian’s response is to make clear, that now is the time for repentance from the ways in which we have operated that have left the poor and marginalized on the fringes of society. Now is the time to receive and believe the good news, that there is a new rule and reign led by the poor and poor in spirit, the humble and meek, the hungry-for-justice, the peacemakers, and the healers. In the words of a famous quip, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Neither should followers of Jesus.
So, let us stop wasting our times trying to find out “who’s to blame,” and start using our time to bring forth the Kingdom of Heaven, here on earth. And to that, I say, “Amen.”
1 Where Do We Start?
So does anybody know what’s going gon? (2)
The high-minded philosophers…came up with three alternatives. (2)
First, the Stoics. Everything is programmed to turn out the way it does. You can’t change it; just learn to fit in. (20
| Alternatively, the Epicureans. Everything is random. You can’t do anything about it. Make yourself as comfortable as you can. (2)
| Then the Platonists. The present life is just a shadow of reality. Bad things happen here but we are destined for a different world. (2)
A Christian Response?
2 Reading the Old Testament
Amos said that whatever God was doing, he would reveal his secrets to ‘his servants the prophets’ (Amos 3.7). We have had plenty of prophets telling us what those secrets were. These range from the cause-and-effect pragmatists (it’s all because governments didn’t prepare properly for a pandemic) to the strikingly detached moralizers (it’s all because the world needs to repent of sexual sin) to valid but separate concerns (it’s reminding us about the ecological crisis). We sometimes have the impression that the coronavirus is providing people with a megaphone with which to say, more loudly, what they were wanting to say anyway. (7)
The tongue of the infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
The children beg for food, but no one gives them anything.
(Lamentations 4.3; see 2.12)
But you, O Lord, reign for ever; your throne endures to all generations.
Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore to us yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old–
Unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.
I have been young, and now am old;
Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread.
All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you or been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back…
If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god,
Would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit, I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave…
O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate…
You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me; my companions are in darkness.
(Psalm 88.3-5, 14-15, 18)
Alongside this Israel-and-God story there runs the deeper story of the good creation and the dark power that from the start has tried to destroy God’s good handiwork. I do not claim to understand that dark power. As I shall suggest later, I don’t think we’re meant to. We are simply to know that when we are caught up in awful circumstances, apparent gross injustices, terrible plagues – or when we are accused of wicked things of which we are innocent, suffering strange sicknesses with no apparent reason, let alone cure – at those points we are to lament, we are to complain, we are to state the case, and leave it with God. God himself declares at the end that Job has told the truth (42.8). He has clung on to the fact that God is just, even though his own misery seems to deny it. (14)
| Jesus not only drew on that story. He lived it. He died under it. (14)
3 Jesus and the Gospels
Jesus, in other words, doesn’t look back to a hypothetical cause which would enable the onlookers to feel smug that they had understood some inner cosmic moral mechanism, some sin that God had had to punish. He looks forward to see what God is going to do about it. That translates directly into what he, Jesus, is going to do about it. For he is the light of the world. (17)
So he heals the man. This is the now time. Not the time for speculating about previous sin. (17)
Jesus Himself Is the Ultimate “Sign”
We have seen how the Gospels present Jesus as standing at a moment of great transition. (17)
Being kingdom-people and being penitence-people comes with the turf. That’s part of what following Jesus is all about. (18)
The New Testament insists that we put Jesus at the centre of the picture and work outwards from there. The minute we find ourselves looking at the world around us and jumping to conclusions about God and what he might be doing, but without looking (19) carefully at Jesus, we are in serious danger of forcing through an ‘interpretation’ which might look attractive – it might seem quite ‘spiritual’ and awe-inspiring – but which actually screens Jesus out of the picture. As the old saying has it, if he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all. (20)
Now is the time for God to become king. Now is the time to repent and believe the good news. (20)
For us to try to read God’s secret code off the pages of the newspapers may look clever. We may even get a reputation for spiritual insight – but actually, we are doing it because we have forgotten where the true key to understanding is now to be found. (21)
Trying to jump from an earthquake, a tsunami, a pandemic or anything else to a conclusion about ‘what God is saying here’ without going through the Gospel (21) story is to make the basic theological mistake of trying to deduce something about God while going behind Jesus’ back. (22)
…the modern myth that the early Christians expected ‘the end of the world’ very soon is a straightforward misreading of the relevant first-century texts. Jesus insisted that God’s kingdom – God’s sovereign, saving rule on earth as in heaven – was being inaugurated through him and his work, and that ‘some standing here’ wouldn’t die until they had seen it happening ‘in power’ (Mark 9.1). (24)
The point is this. If you want to know what it means to talk about God being ‘in charge of’ the world, or being ‘in control’, or being ‘sovereign’, then Jesus himself instructs you to rethink the notion of ‘kingdom,’ ‘control’ and ‘sovereignty’ themselves, around his death on the cross. (25)
So here is the paradox, which I suggest as a vital clue for how we should approach the whole question of understanding our present predicament. The Jesus who has prayed, who is taking charge, who knows what he is going to do – this Jesus weeps (26) at the tomb of his friend (John 11.35). (27)
4 Reading the New Testament
The New Testament refers back constantly, as do more or less all Jewish writings to the great foundational events of Passover,… (30)
They [The Antioch Christians] ask three simple questions [during a famine]: Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? And who shall we send? (32)
Here we stumble upon one of the great principles of the kingdom of God – the principle that God’s kingdom, inaugurated through Jesus, is all about restoring creation the way it was meant to be. God always wanted to work in his world through loyal human beings. (32)
…the programmatic statement of God’s kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) isn’t simply about ‘ethics’, as people often imagine in our shrunken Western world. It’s about mission. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit… the meek… the mourners… the peacemakers… the hungry-for-justice people’ and so on. We all too easily assume that Jesus is saying ‘try hard to be like this, and if you can manage it you’ll be the sort of people I want in my kingdom’. But that’s not the point! The point is that God’s Kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort. (34)
The Groaning of Creation
cf. Romans 8.37-39
Suffering, it seems, is the inevitable path we must tread, even though, as Paul quickly adds, this suffering is small and trivial compared with ‘the glory that is going to be unveiled for us’. (40)
| Just to be clear once more,… The ‘inheritance’ is the whole renewed creation, the complete heaven-and-earth reality, renewed from top to bottom, as in Revelation 21, with corruption, death and decay abolished for ever. (40)
It means that, when the world is going through great convulsions, the followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain. (42)
So where should the Church be in the middle of it? … | … Paul says that the followers of Jesus are caught up in the same ‘groaning’. (43)
Here is the dark mystery to which our present situation might alert us: the one thing we know from all this is that ‘not-knowing’ is itself the right place to be. (44)
We expect God to be, as we might say, ‘in charge’: taking control, sorting things out, getting things done: But the God we see in Jesus is the God who wept at the tomb of his friend. The God we see in Jesus is the God-the-Spirit who groans without words. The God we see in Jesus is the one who, to demonstrate what his kind of ‘being in charge’ would look like, did the job of a slave and washed his disciples’ feet. (44)
So what are we saying? Not only do we, the followers of Jesus, not have any words to say, any great pronouncements on ‘what this all means’ to trumpet out to this world (the world, of course, isn’t waiting eagerly to hear us anyway); but we, the followers of Jesus, find ourselves caught up in the groaning of creation, and we discover that at the same time God the Spirit is groaning within us. That is our vocation: to be in prayer, perhaps wordless prayer, at the point where the world is in pain. (45)
cf. Romans 8:28
That seems to be the point here. God works all things towards ultimate good with and through those who love him. (49)
It is a call to recognise the truth of what Paul says elsewhere: that we are called to hard work, knowing that God is at work in us. (50)
Paul is not, then, proposing a Christian version of Stoicism. He is offering a Jesus-shaped picture of a suffering, redeeming providence, in which God’s people are themselves not simply spectators, not simply beneficiaries, but active participants. (51)
5 Where Do We Go from Here?
Why Must We Lament?
The initial calling of the Chruch, first and foremost, is to take our place humbly among the mourners. (53)
| Grief, after all, is part of love. (53)
How Do We Talk about God?
How Do We Live in the Present?
The Church’s mission began (according to John 20) with three things … It began with tears; with locked doors; and with doubt. (59)
Tears, locked doors and doubt seem to go together. (60)
What, in particular, might it mean to say that ‘as Jesus was to Israel, so the Church should be for the world’? (60)
The call to Jesus’ followers, then, as they confront their own doubts and those of the world through tears and from behind locked doors, is to be sign-producers for God’s kingdom. (64) We are to set up signposts – actions, symbols, not just words – which speak, like Jesus’ signs, of new creation: of healing for the sick, of food for the hungry, and so on. This means things like running food banks. working in homeless shelters, volunteering to help those visiting relatives in prisons, and so on. (65)
In following this vocation, we will thereby be doing what Jesus told his followers in John 16: in the power of the Spirit, we will be holding the world to account. (65)
First, church buildings are not an escape from the world, but a bridgehead into the world. … We should therefore celebrate every way in which the living Lord whom we regularly worship in church buildings is out and about, bringing healing and hope far beyond the visible limits of church property. (66)
For the last three hundred years the western world has regarded ‘religion’ (the very word has changed its meaning to accommodate this new viewpoint) as a private matter: ‘what someone does with their solitude’. The Christian faith as a whole has been reduced, in the public mind, to a ‘private’ movement in the sense that – so many say – it should have no place in public life. … The danger with e-worship is that it can turn into P-worship – the Platonic vision of ‘the flight of the alone to the alone’. (68)
[via: This reminded me of a Jim Wallis axiom, “Always persona, never private.”]
In the Bible the word ‘joy’ signifies something you can hear. …cf. Nehemiah 12.43. (69)
How Do We Recover?
Certainly if the debate is conducted between those who see death as the worst of all possible results and those who see economic ruin as the worst of all possible results the end product is likely to be an acrimonious dialogue of the deaf. (72)
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son…
May the mountains yield the prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor…
[The righteous ruler] delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
And precious is their blood in his sight.
(Psalm 72.1-4, 12-14)
This too could be mocked as wishful thinking. But it is what the Church at its best has always believed and taught, and what the Church on the front lines has always practised. (73)
O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me
Let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy;
And I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.