God and the Pandemic, N. T. Wright. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2020.
Summary: Reflects both upon our quest to know “why the pandemic?” and how we should then live.
Many of us have tried to make sense of “why the pandemic?” For some, we’ve resorted to conspiracy thinking, pointing to this country and that, this political leader and that. For some believing people, the response has been to see this as a retributive plague, God paying us, or others, back for their sins. This idea of retribution has a long history, expressed most tellingly in the friends of Job who contended that Job’s losses and sufferings had to arise from some sin in Job’s life from which he needed to repent.
N. T. Wright argues quite differently in this short book, easily read in an evening. Considering Job, and other situations, notably the condition of Israel enslaved in Egypt, the appropriate response was not “repent” but “lament.” Lament is the cry of dependence that doesn’t understand the why, but looks to God for both strength to bear up and for deliverance. It is the cry of “how long?”
Wright turns to Jesus and the telling scene at Lazarus’ tomb. He doesn’t engage in theodicy. He weeps, entering into the deep grief of the world. And then, foreshadowing his own work of the cross and the empty tomb, he bids Lazarus to come forth. In his ministry, the “sovereignty” of God, the coming of the kingdom is evident in the works of healing, the restoration of what was broken. This work culminates in his own crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
In the apostolic preaching, it is not natural catastrophes, famine, and plague around which the call to repent comes. It is around the person of Jesus, the one who preached, “repent for the kingdom of God is near.” The kingdom was near because Jesus was near. Then Wright turns to Paul and Romans 8 which he considers most significant for our response as Christ-followers. Noting our love of the beginning and ending of this chapter, he invites us to consider some of the less cheery verses of Romans 8:22-27
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (New International Version)
Wright comments on what this means in practice:
“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. Paul puts it like this, in a three stage movement: first, the groaning of the world; second the groaning of the Church; third the groaning of the Spirit–within the Church within the world. This is the ultimate answer to those who want to say that the present Coronavirus crisis is a clear message from God which we can at once decode, either as a sign of the End, a call to repent, or simply as an opportunity for a standard kind of evangelism.”
He then turns to Romans 8:28 which he would contend may be best translated, “God works all thing towards ultimate good with and through those who love him.” Instead of speculation around sovereignty, Paul invites us to follow Jesus in the good work God would do in, with, and through us during this time. Practically then, Wright bids us to both pray where lament is prominent, and act in the manner of Jesus to care as appropriate to our station. He reminds us through a poem of Malcolm Guite written on Easter of 2020 and reflecting on the applause given health workers in the UK each Thursday that Christ is not locked down in locked down churches. A short excerpt:
On Thursday we applauded, for he came
And served us in a thousand names and faces
Mopping our sickroom floors and catching traces
Of that corona which was death to him:
Good Friday happened in a thousand places
Where Jesus held the helpless, died with them
That they might share his Easter in their need,
Now they are risen with him, risen indeed.Malcolm Guite, Easter 2020, as cited by N.T. Wright
N.T. Wright wrote this book in spring of 2020. I’m curious what he would say today, after waves of infections, contentious debates in many countries about the measures to be taken, and the rancorous discussions on the internet. What is striking to me is his call to prayer and self-giving service is not one I’ve heard among Christians. We’ve deferred the latter to healthcare workers (many who are people of faith) who have the proper gear. There has been precious little prayer, perhaps only at the point when we learn of a sick friend. We are now in a season where the hope is that the virus will recede with the advent of vaccines and there is this unquenchable thirst to return to normal. I wonder if Wright’s book might be a good source of self-examination for us, helping us ask what kind of people we have been during the pandemic, and what kind of people will we be coming out. Will we be the contentious and the conspiratorial? Or will we be the prayerful servants of Christ, his hands and feet in the world?