Thinking on COVID-19

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Thinking on COVID-19

Howard Gregory

Monday, March 23, 2020

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There has never been anything of the likes of this novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) which the entire global community now has to confront. So, here we are in Jamaica facing the worst threat to the life of our people and our economy which we have ever had to confront. Yes, we have faced hurricanes and have rebounded from their impact, but COVID-19 is a different kind of creature with consequences for the loss of human life, economic disaster at a global level, and devastation for the lives of those who already live on the margins of society and with limited economic and social security.

It is quite easy to succumb to anxiety, panic, and despair in face of this reality and the projected trajectory. However, for people of faith within the Judeo-Christian tradition, experiences of this nature have always been part of the narrative of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In this regard, I invite us to reflect on passages of Scripture from the Book of Joel, and especially chapter two.

Joel's precise identity is unknown, but what is significant about him is the fact that he was the voice of sanity and hope to his people when they were facing a devastating plague. Notwithstanding the existence of interpretations that suggest that the image of the plague was symbolic for another kind of invasion, I would like to stay with that school of thought which sees the plague as one of locusts/grasshoppers which was destroying all their crops.

It was not an industrialised society, and so people's life and sustenance depended on the crops they grew. Here were locusts destroying before their very eyes all that they had produced (1:4), leaving land, animals, and the populace groaning in travail.

Joel is like many of us Jamaicans, and unfortunately some Christians, who see in every disaster the hand of God bringing judgement upon people. Joel interprets the plague of locusts as a symbol of the approaching end of history, the day of the Lord, an image which you will hear articulated by many Christians today. He therefore issues a call to repentance in very dramatic and awesome language:

Blow the trumpet in Zion;

sound the alarm on my holy mountain!

Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,

for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near —

A day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness!

Hearing a word like this in a time of disaster is enough to deepen despair and hopelessness as people survey the destruction before their eyes. And yet, to read Joel as one to be dismissed is to miss the word of hope which he had for the people in the midst of a plague, and which is no doubt the reason his prophecies have been preserved for all ages.

So, let us walk through with a re-read of this prophecy and see what it may be saying to us in our present coronavirus-inflicted crisis:

1) The first thing to note is that Joel summons the community together. He saw the pain and the despair that had overtaken the lives of citizens and so he summoned them to a communal engagement and shared expression of facing a common calamity. There was no town crier or social media to summon the people together and so the trumpet sounded the rallying call, because if there was to be a way forward in addressing their calamity it was going to be through communal engagement.

One thing must be obvious to all of us, and it is the fact that our ability to deal with the coronavirus cannot be marked by individualism, selfishness, and the indiscipline, which have now characterised much of our national life. Neither can it be the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Health or the Government. Yes, they must offer guidance and policy direction, but we as citizens must respond with a collective spirit. We must heed requests to self-isolate or be quarantined; adhere to instructions to assemble in prescribed numbers and situations; adhere to instructions if living in a community which is quarantined; and we must understand that if we hoard all the cleaning agents and sanitisers for ourselves we are no more secure if others are left infected with the virus.

In this regard, I must point out that the decision to close congregations at this time is not an expression of any lack of faith in God, as some would suggest, but out of a concern for the way in which our personal faith positions and actions may hold serious or deadly consequences for the life and well-being of other citizens.

2) A second thing to note is that in face of the plague Joel does not call them together so that they can share horror stories or to see who can tell the funniest stories in a time of disaster. Rather, Joel called them together for a time of reflection. His call for reflection was not on the basis of the consequences of the plague for the economic indicators and the gross domestic product (GDP), but in terms of their relationship with the God of providence. It was a basic question about how they were doing as a people living out their covenant relationship with God. Joel offers his assessment of the onset of this plague, describing it as an expression of God's judgement on the people because of how they had structured their lives and that of the nation as a whole.

3) We may find Joel's language as unsavoury as we find the language of contemporary preachers who may make similar assertions. What we cannot escape is his call, then and now, to make this moment one of reflection on the way our life and that of our entire society is structured, and how this impacts the life of the most vulnerable. A focus on the most vulnerable in our society at this time, primarily those whose economic survival is a day-to-day challenge, must lead us to face the fact that every day for some of our people is a 'coronavirus day'. They live on the edge. The virus has brought about a levelling experience in bringing each of us to a point at which we live with them on the edge.

Will we return to business as usual when the virus is gone? Perhaps Joel's call to reflection and repentance may not be as irrelevant as we may assume.

4) The prophet's message is divided into two parts. The first deals with the devastating impact of the locus plague and the call to reflection and repentance, while the second makes a shift to a message of hope and reassurance. While it is the case that Joel's call to reflection is one which sees repentance as the appropriate response to the current predicament, he does not — like some of the other prophets, Amos and Hosea — lean to a strong advocacy of social justice as the way forward, though it is implied. What he emphasises, however, is the character of God as the foundation for hope in going forward.

5) Whatever be the calamity of the moment, God is never absent from the experience of God's people. The prophet is clear that there is a moral quality of life which God desires of His people, but he is equally clear concerning the benevolent and merciful nature of God which leads him to speak of a future of transformation from plague to blessing. In chapter 3:16 he speaks of God as a refuge and stronghold, which are powerful images of protection. There is also the image that God will be present in the midst of his people to bless them in going forward. Additionally, there are images of fertility of the land in sharp contrast to the devastation they had experienced before — the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, the streams that often go dry shall flow with water.

What is clear from these images of fertility is that the plague does not define the people as condemned to the fate they are currently experiencing, for the best days are ahead of them with God. It is natural for us to see only the predicament of the moment and to let it define our view of life. For the Christian, there is no denying the reality of the moment, but there is the clear message that no moment in life is experienced outside of the presence of our God, and, furthermore, with God, the best days are ahead of us when we are prepared to live with integrity, honesty, truth, and justice as a people, having come to terms with our insights gleaned from the experience of life's “plague”. As one commentator expresses it, “[B]ecause God's character is to be faithful, the horizon — dark and gloomy with storm clouds of judgement as night falls — can now shine crisp and clear with the Lord's favour, when morning dawns.”

6) So, our churches will reopen, our economy will bounce back, and hopefully we will commit to finding new and creative ways to take forward with us the most vulnerable in our society, so that their daily life will not be one on the edge as permanent victims of our corporate neglect, having learnt from the coronavirus that the condition of each impacts the welfare of the many.

May the God of goodness and love be manifested to all who are faced with fear, anxiety, and distress as our nation confronts the coronavirus pandemic; the caregivers be possessed by God's spirit of compassion; the infected and afflicted find relief; and this pandemic be turned into an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of love and service which bind individuals, communities, and nations together.

Howard Gregory is Anglican archbishop of the Province of the West Indies, primate and metropolitan, as well as bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.


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