Perhaps the most vital question of all, and one which should be near the top of serious conversations at the highest level between Church, state and all interested parties, is how we move back towards whatever the ‘new normal’ is going to be. Some people have expressed the pious hope that when this is all over we will have a kinder, gentler society. We shall pay our nurses much more. We shall be prepared to give more in taxes to support health services, and we shall give much more help to the hospice movement. We shall have enjoyed the fresh air so much, unpolluted by thousands of cars and planes, that we will want to travel less, and spend more time with family and neighbors. We shall celebrate our emergency services, our delivery companies, and all the people who have looked after us.
I wish I thought this were true. I fear, however, that as soon as restrictions are lifted there will be a rush to start up again such businesses as we can – and, in all sorts of ways, that is quite right and proper. Nobody who is desperate to avoid bankruptcy is going to think twice about using the car again, or the plane, if it will help. We are told on all sides that the economic effects of the lockdown are already catastrophic and could get worse. The problem is then quite like the tragic decisions which leaders face during a war: think of Churchill during the Blitz, deciding whether to sacrifice that unit for the sake of rescuing this one, and whether to send coded messages to the enemy which will make them bomb those houses instead of these public buildings. At the time of writing we have been concentrating entirely on ‘staying safe’ – at a massive cost in terms of bankruptcies, unemployment and social malaise. The huge government handouts to those in need as a result will, sooner or later, have to be paid for. Certainly if the debate is conducted between those who see death as the worst of all possible results and those who see economic ruin as the worst of all possible results the end product is likely to be an acrimonious dialogue of the deaf.
As in the ancient pagan world, a plague makes people say, Which gods are angry? And how can we appease them? As today’s secularism is more and more revealing its pagan subtexts, it is fascinating to imagine our present dilemma as a clash between Asclepius, the god of healing, and Mammon, the money-god. Mammon, of course, regularly demands human sacrifices; that is why the poorest of the poor are most at risk in the present medical emergency. Perhaps it’s no bad thing for Asclepius to have his turn, though Mars, the god of war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love, are never far away. Certainly it won’t do to cut back on the imperative to healing, just because we hear our favorite god Mammon calling to us from the other corner, looking forward to more of those human sacrifices.
If all this is approached purely pragmatically, as though the machinery of state were, well, machinery, rather than the wise working interrelationship of fully alive human beings, the result will be predictable. The weak will go to the wall again. They usually do. After the 2008 financial crisis, the banks and the big businesses, having accepted huge public bail-out money, quickly got back into their old ways, while the poorest parts of Britain just got poorer and stayed that way. Someone needs to stand up and read – perhaps not the riot act, but Psalm 72. This is the list of priorities that the Church should be articulating, not just in speech but in practical proposals to go at the top of the agenda:
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son…
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor…
[The righteous ruler] delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life, And precious is their blood in his sight.
— Psalm 72:1–4, 12–14
This too could be mocked as wishful thinking. But it is what the Church at its best has always believed and taught, and what the Church on the front lines has always practiced. In the early days of the Church, the Roman emperors and local governors didn’t know much about what Christianity really was. Yet they knew this strange movement had people called ‘bishops’ who were always banging on about the needs of the poor. Wouldn’t it be nice if people today had the same impression?
So what does that mean in a world where some of us find being locked down a minor nuisance while others are still crowded in refugee camps or in third-world cities where ‘social distancing’ is about as easy as flying to the moon?
In all this, I return to the theme of Lament. It is perhaps no accident that Psalm 72, setting out the messianic agenda which puts the poor and needy at the top of the list, is followed immediately by Psalm 73, which complains that the rich and powerful are getting it their own way as usual. Perhaps that is how we are bound to live: glimpsing what ought to be, then struggling with the way things actually are.
However, the only way to live with that is to pray with that; to hold the vision and the reality side by side as we groan with the groaning of all creation, and as the Spirit groans within us so that the new creation may come to birth.
What we need right now is someone to do in this challenging moment what Joseph did at Pharaoh’s court, analyzing the situation and sketching a vision for how to address it. We urgently need statesmanlike, wise leadership, with prayerful Christian leaders taking a place alongside others, to think with both vision and realism through the challenges that we shall face in the coming months. It could be that in the days to come we will see signs of genuine new possibilities, new ways of working which will regenerate old systems and invent new and better ones, which we could then recognize as forward-looking hints of new creation. Or perhaps we will just go back to ‘business as usual’ in the sense of the same old squabbles, the same old shallow analyses and solutions.
If we simply sit and wait to see, and wring our hands either because our churches are locked, or our golf clubs are shut, or our businesses have been put on hold, then it is all the more likely that the usual forces will take control. Mammon is a very powerful deity. Our leaders know what it takes to appease him. If that fails there is always Mars, the god of war. May the Lord save us from his clutches. If we are to escape those dark forces, we must be alert to the dangers and actively, prayerfully taking other initiatives. The garden is far less likely to grow weeds if we have been planting flowers.
It isn’t for me to tell Church leaders, let alone leaders of other faith communities, how they ought to be planning for the coming months, what they ought to be pressing upon our governments. Yet those of us who watch and wait and pray for our leaders in Church and state must use this time of lament as a time of prayer and hope. What we hope for includes the wise human leadership and initiative which will, like that of Joseph in Egypt, bring about fresh and healing policies and actions across God’s wide and wounded world:
O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me Let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy;
And I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
— Psalm 43:3–5
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Excerpted with permission from God and the Pandemic by N. T. Wright, copyright Tom Wright.
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How do you feel we the Church can help bring the “new creation” to pass during and after this pandemic? How can you personally continue to use our present moment as a time of prayer and hope? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!