God is 'on the front lines' of pandemic
BookGod and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, by Tom Wright (SPCK Publishing, 2020)
By Paul Barker
t has been a bewildering year. Diaries for 2020 remain unused. Future planning is fraught. We are overwhelmed with the daily numbers. Flattening curves is the new lingo, and no longer applies to diets. Normal is gone and the new normal remains unknown. We have all become expert epidemiologists, sourdough bakers and masks are no longer just for superheroes or carnivale. As doors close and curfew shuts us in, as borders close and separation hurts, as isolation takes its gruelling mental toll, we debate the political strategies and long for a vaccine. We pin our hopes, desperately, on the cleverness of science and the economics to buy their coveted solution.
It is easy to be drawn in to the vortex of a world governed by politics, economics and science. Our secular age looks for little else. We need to resist that pull and search for God.
The church in earlier centuries endured pandemics or plagues, both with more frequency as well as having a more theological worldview. The ancient collects addressing plagues repay our frequent use. While we ought to be grateful for the advances of science which have spared us, we cannot afford to pin our hopes on the secular world. On the other hand, we need to be cautious that our worldview is biblically theological, and neither superstitious nor mechanically retributive.
Tom Wright’s book, more an extended essay, directs us to such a biblical theological worldview. After an introductory chapter, the second chapter is on the Old Testament, touching on prophets and curses, laments and exile, passages that people appeal to in order to make sense of our times. They are treated with a light touch directing us to Jesus, the focus of the next chapter.
How critical this trajectory for understanding our world is. While ancient Israel was distinctively God’s people, and God dealt with those people nationally, there is no simple, post-New Testament parallel. Which is why we need to interpret our world through Jesus. Wright helps us see that from Jesus, we are directed forwards not backwards, not to analyse causes of tragedy or sickness, but forwards to what God will do and what his kingdom will bring. The Lord’s Prayer directs us to this kingdom, and urges our penitence. We do not need special events or signs to prompt us. We need Jesus. As Wright says, when we look at our world to find answers to what is God doing, but do not have Jesus in the centre, we are losing our way (see pages 19ff).
Wright argues that more than the question, “Why?”, the pandemic ought to drive us to “What?” What should we do? In Acts and the epistles, he shows examples of practical Christian love, in caring for the poor and needy, and no great theological reflection on why there was a famine or sickness or disaster. We should lament. We should pray, aching prayers in the place of pain, even without words, as in Romans 8, to a God of tears himself. We should be penitent. And we should love, doing good to all people, working with God to bring good.
Where is God in the pandemic? On the front lines. Yes, sovereign, but not mechanistically, rather demonstrated in Jesus, the crucified king.
Wright finishes with some brief comments on how the church recovers. There is more to the terrible choice between deaths and bankruptcies, which Wright insightfully likens to pagan gods. Asclepius, the god of healing, is in context with Mammon, who demands human sacrifice. Mars and Aphrodite look on. I share his pessimism that the outcome will not be a kinder society, nor a more equal one. The poor will suffer more, the wealthy will be vaccinated, safe, rich and secure.
More than ever the church needs to give leadership, to pray, lament, seek justice, demonstrate love, and fix our hope on God, actively working with him for good. I am more than happy to commend this readable, helpful and engaging book.
Bishop Paul Barker has oversight of the Jumbunna Episcopate.