AS THE virus crept up on us, I started reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. It is a kind of docudrama written in 1722 about the outbreak of the plague in London in 1665. So many of the trends that we are seeing in our current pandemic were evident then. Anxiety and fear stalked the streets, rumours and conspiracy theories abounded, and the poor and the homeless were hit far harder than the well-off: they had more cramped living conditions and fewer opportunities to escape.
A discordant note for the modern reader, however, is struck by the idea that the plague is the judgement of God upon a faithless people, and, equally, that its departure is due to the mercy and kindness of God. As the plague begins to dissipate, the author reflects that this release “was evidently from the same secret invisible hand of him that had at first sent this disease as a judgement upon us”.
He presumably has in mind the Old Testament plagues that are also seen as visitations of God on a faithless people: an idea taken up in the collect for a time of plague in the Book of Common Prayer: “O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
If plagues were the judgement of God against the sins of a people, they naturally gave rise to calls for lamentations, confession of sins, and the rest. Defoe’s reporter describes how “The government encouraged their devotion, and appointed public prayers and days of fasting and humiliation, to make public confession of sin and implore the mercy of God to avert the dreadful judgement which hung over their heads.”
TODAY, we are distinctly uncomfortable with such language of plagues as divine judgement, leading to the need for confessing our sins. Christian commentators have rushed to avoid any suggestion that God has sent this plague deliberately on us — and with good reason.
In most strands of Christian theology, the doctrine of Providence is the idea not that everything that happens is part of the original divine will for the world, but that, through everything that happens, God’s sovereign will wins out in the end.
It means that God is capable of weaving into his ultimate plan for the world not only the normal good course of events in created time, but even damaging events that work against his will. As a result, even sickness, disaster, and death can become, in the providence of God, a means of achieving his purposes. This does not mean that God causes sickness, disaster, and death (how could the Creator God will the destruction of his creation?), but it does mean that none of these are beyond his power to transform and even to use for his glory and his purposes for the goodness and final salvation of the world.
What, then, of the biblical language of judgement and the confession of sins? Can this mean anything for us today? The Greek word commonly translated by our word “judgement” is krisis. It could be translated “crisis”, “verdict”, or even “decision”. A crisis is a significant moment, a providential heightening of tension, the drawing together of many strands of life and existence to create a sense of emergency — bringing things to a head, as it were. A crisis, a judgement, is an opportunity for decision, for decisive action.
Divine judgement is, then, a moment of crisis, where events come together in such a way that something significant is revealed about the society, person, or period of time which is under scrutiny. The deliberate visiting of sickness on a people is more characteristic of Norse gods such as Thor, with his thunderbolts, or the capricious gods of pagan Greece or Rome. Judgement, in Christian understanding, is, perhaps, better understood as when the deformed shape of the world as we have fashioned it is revealed in all its brutal reality, when the final truth about us is displayed. Pestilence, therefore, may have more to tell us about ourselves than it does about God.
The Day of Judgement, a common theme throughout the Bible, is the day on which all secrets will be laid bare. On that day, all will be revealed, as Jesus says: “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”
There is a reason that the great book of judgement in the Bible is called the book of Revelation. The Greek title of the book is “Apocalypse”, from the first word in the book — Apokalupsis. Judgement involves revelation: an uncovering of the true nature of things, in the light of God’s self-revelation in Christ. When people in the Bible cry out for judgment, such as the importunate widow or the Psalmists who suffer under unjust regimes or the assaults of their enemies, they are asking, on the one hand, for things to be put right; and, on the other, for evil to be revealed as it truly is — for the perpetrators of evil to be brought face to face with the consequences of their actions.
WITH this perspective in mind, the coronavirus can, perhaps, be seen as judgement, or a moment of krisis, in the sense that it reveals and concentrates attention on some disturbing truths about our way of life.
So, for example, the most likely explanation for the virus’s entering human circulation is that it has crossed from certain animal species by those animals being eaten by humans. The details of this “jump” into the human food chain are as yet not fully understood, but questions have been raised about the management and sale of various types of animal, as well as how they are then consumed. While there remain many questions, it clearly shines a spotlight on the way in which we relate to the animal world, and how we treat other forms of animal life.
Or another explanation: over recent years, we have become entranced by a virtual world, connected with people online through Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and the rest. Over the past few weeks, we have been reduced to this as the only way in which we can communicate. While it has been a lifeline to many, and brings new dimensions to human communication, it reveals how much we need face-to-face contact. Endless Zoom meetings are no substitute for real physical contact, the full body language with which we communicate with each other, such as a handshake, or a hug.
Pictures of the clean air in northern Indian cities, enabling the Himalayas to be sighted for the first time in a generation, the precious way in which we are using our one bit of exercise a day, the environmental impact of far fewer flights over our heads — all are alerting us to a better way of life when we finally get out of this. At the same time, the way in which the virus is hitting the poor hardest, with cramped housing conditions, close proximity leading to the faster spread of the disease, and less access to food supplies, alerts us to the inequalities of our world.
Above all, it highlights the fact that we are not in control. Much of modern life is built on the illusion that we can manage our future and control nature, with enough technology, science, or politics to stem the tide like Mrs Partington with her broom. Yet this virus has us face to face with death, grief, and mortality. It reveals the fact that, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “those who think that they rule the world are in the grip of a deep delusion.”
PERHAPS the coronavirus is, after all, best seen not just as an inconvenient annoyance to be “overcome” so that we can get back to normal, but, instead, as a krisis moment: a judgement on us for our way of life, for the way in which we treat each other and the natural world. Maybe the call for confession of our sins when we are suffering under the effects of the plague is not so far off the mark as we think.
Defoe’s reporter was not sanguine about the effects of the plague of 1665: “I wish I could say that as the city had a new face, so the manners of the people had a new appearance . . . but except what of this was to be found in particular families and faces, it must be acknowledged that the general practice of the people was just as it was before, and very little difference was to be seen.”
The question for us is whether we will face the mirror that the coronavirus holds up to us, or whether we will miss this unique opportunity to change our ways.
Dr Graham Tomlin is the Area Bishop of Kensington in the diocese of London.