Take a breath. Let it out slowly. Repeat. 

This has been on repeat in my internal monologue these last few weeks. As I have been carrying the stress, anxiety, fear, and grief of life in a pandemic in my body (shoulders, chest, neck, temples, jaw) I have had to be intentional about trying to give it an escape route. Breathing out helps. As does sweating it out on long walks or bike rides. Or crying it out, because tears were designed just for that purpose. My own particular situation at the moment (where I am not in charge of keeping any children alive and safe, I don’t have a spouse in front-line work, nor am I am teaching so I haven’t had to scramble to move courses online or extend care to students), means I haven’t had as much stress adjusting to physical distancing, staying home, or increased exposure. There is a surprising banality in my experience of this apocalypse; here I sit writing blogs, working on my dissertation, and baking bread just as I have done for months and years. How much more difficult this is for others I can only imagine. 

Perhaps because I haven’t been forced into survival mode, where adrenaline and exhaustion dominate the day, my worries have had time to expand and settle. There’s no external force, such as the cry of a toddler or the need of a student, to serve as a tamper to worry and grief. I bring this up as a way of highlighting that the pandemic has brought into more direct clarity dynamics that have always been true but that were previously easier to ignore. It has always been true that I have had more flexibility and space than my peers who are married and parenting. The pandemic makes that gap more significant, and more costly, to those who were already harder pressed for time and resources. 

The gap between a PhD student who is parenting and one who is not serves as only one small example of what is being laid bare in this pandemic. Things that were already true—disparities in healthcare access, precarity of employment, a housing crisis—are being unveiled in raw and painful ways. Data from various states shows that America’s black population has been disproportionately affected in this pandemic, with African American deaths comprising more than 70% of those lost to COVID-19 in places where they make up 32% of the population. Workers whose jobs are low prestige and low pay, as ever, are essential to keeping us fed, clean, and healthy—but now these jobs bring increased hazards. The unhoused in our cities and towns are more at risk and more likely to have health issues compounded by scarcity of housing and food. These things have always been true. Advocates and organizers, working for years, have been trying their best to help us know and care enough to want to change things. The increased precarity of living in a pandemic makes the existing precarity in which so many were already living their lives completely untenable. In this sense the pandemic is a true apocalypse—an uncovering of the truth of the forces at work in our world. The truth is not new, but our understanding of it is made more painfully possible, rawer and more thorough, because of this event. 

There is evidence for both the best and the worst of humanity in pandemic. While these times are mostly unprecedented for those living today,[1] pandemics are not unprecedented events in human history. In the thinking (and worrying) I have had the chance to do over the last few weeks, my historian/theologian brain has been thinking back stories from Europe’s Black Death and subsequent waves of plague. The huge loss of life in Europe’s plagues had a dramatic effect on the European economy; worker shortages precipitated a great wave of reforms that undercut feudal serfdom and increased workers’ rights. We are yet in the early days here, but in calls to end substandard minimum wages for tipped workers, increased wages for essential service providers, and serious discussion about universal basic income, I see the sparks of an overhaul of some of our unjust economic practices. Reading more about past plagues, I was both encouraged and discouraged to see how true to form humans can be in the midst of a crisis. Discouragingly we see, like those in medieval and early modern Europe did, the rich fleeing the cities because they can, the poor and the racialized being disproportionately affected, spiking incidents of violent xenophobia, and religious leaders framing the calamity as the punishment of God on a sinful world. During European plagues, some people saw the waves of sickness as “a divine scourge, a retribution for the sins of [human]kind. …It was God’s punishment for new-fangled women’s fashions, for swearing and drunkenness, for heresy or atheism, for Protestantism or Catholicism, depending which side you were on.”[2] In our contemporary setting the idea that the material and length of women’s dress sleeves would serve as vectors of disease is almost laughably quaint. These are the conclusions reached by the uniformed in an attempt to have a sense of agency and control when the world appears to be unravelling into pieces. 

I was paradoxically shocked and simultaneously unsurprised to see judgement-focused theological reflections popping up online (and in remarkably quickly assembled books). Some Christian leaders have connected the present pandemic with divine punishment for the many swaths of things of which they disapprove, rehashing ideas like “God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject him [sic] and give themselves over to sin.”[3] As I read their assessments I cannot help but think, in my uncharitable heart, that to be sure one can fully know the intent and purposes of God in the current chaos is theological hubris.[4] I have no exact theological certainty in these times other than the knowledge that God is close to those who are afraid, enraged at the suffering of the oppressed and the marginalized, and grieving with those who grieve. 

To assume that a pandemic is punishment, along with being a bit arrogant, neglects the complexity of pandemics in both our world and in the world of scripture. The bible contains narratives of plagues as punishment, most certainly (illness after King David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband as told in 2 Samuel 24 comes to mind). But these narratives are made up of more than a simple formula of “bad behaviour in, plague out.” I was reading a colleague’s previous work on John’s Apocalypse (i.e. The Book of Revelation) and found the following analysis of biblical plagues:

The issue in the plagues is not solely judgment. As Terrance Fretheim has seen, the plagues in Exodus ultimately point to disruption and decay at the root of creation. Fretheim makes the connection in the Ancient Near East between creation and the moral order, arguing that Pharaoh’s world disrupts the moral order because it is fundamentally a vision that is anti-life and anti-neighbour. As such, Pharaoh, like the sea-beast of the Apocalypse, acts as an embodiment of chaos. In the plagues, natural elements break the bounds of normal behaviour because Pharaoh has enacted policies that have weakened the fabric of creation that otherwise holds them in check. The world is returning to its chaotic state. The plagues make visible the presence of this chaos and carry it towards its natural completion.[5]

If there is any theological reading of this current plague a reading that looks to the exposure of corrupt systems, to the “policies that have weakened the fabric of creation,” seems to be the best place to start. Spiritual or theological readings that scapegoat the marginalized and the foreigners among us, victim-blame the oppressed for their circumstances, or turn with hard hearts toward hyper-individualistic explanations and away from the raw realities of systemic problems and institutional failures do not do justice to what is being unveiled right now. To appropriate a phrase of Piper’s, I hope we don’t waste our apocalypse. I hope, in its midst and in its wake, we face the raw truths now laid bare and are strengthened in our resolve and zeal to mend the cracks in our systems that are “anti-life and anti-neighbour,” but to which we had simply become accustomed. 

May we not re-veil what has here been unveiled

Be close to those who mourn

Strengthen those who seek to mend

And grant us your mercy, O God

Amen


[1] If I had a nickel for every email that’s opened with the phrase “In these unprecedented times” I’d be well off. But I would feel compelled to donate all the proceeds to an LGTBQ+ organization that most likely still remembers the AIDs epidemic was a thing. 

[2] Paul Slack, “Responses to Plague in Early Modern Europe: The Implications of Public Health” Social Research 55, no. 3 (1988): 436. Accessed April 17, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40970513.

[3] John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2020), 48.

[4] Anyone familiar with my work will be unsurprised that I find myself at odds with Piper’s reading of the current situation. Especially coming from an author like Piper, who so often reminds his audience to make humble knowledge claims (see, for example, his discussion of his cancer experience on p.16 of Coronavirus and Christ), the assertion that one can outline the six tasks God is accomplishing via the current pandemic belies an odd sort of sureness under his presenting posture of humility.

[5] Jake Martin White, “Singing with Moses and the Lamb: Social Memory and Radical Discipleship in John’s Apocalypse (unpublished master’s thesis, University of Waterloo, 2015), 83. Emphasis added. In this quote Martin White is referencing Terrance E. Fretheim, “The Plagues as Ecological Signs of Historical Disaster,” JBL 110.3 (1991): 385-396.

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