The Reformed tradition reads the coronavirus pandemic in a narrowly personal and dualistic fashion, with little regard for the tumultuous realities of history. How far this falls short of the standards of the biblical witness is apparent from Walter Brueggemann’s somewhat improvised contribution to theological reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic: Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty.
The book has seven short chapters, each developing a distinctive Old Testament theme. I will focus here on the first and the last because they best fit my interest in the prophetic significance of the pandemic, but I hate to leave a yawning gap in between, so I’ve included a brief summary of chapters 2-6.
Reaping the whirlwind
The Old Testament, Brueggemann says, gives us three ways of explaining divine force.
First, the “transactional mode of covenant” says that a direct causal relationship exists between Israel’s behaviour and historical outcomes: ‘in a tightly ordered world “good people prosper” and “evil people suffer”.’ Typically, the bad outcome takes the form of pestilence, sword, famine and captivity (eg., Jer. 15:2).
Secondly, God sometimes acts forcefully in order to bring about a specific goal. For example, he sends ten “plagues” or “smitings” against Egypt in order to bring about the liberation of his people. Isaiah envisages a “day of YHWH” which will “terrorize the commercial-military establishment” in Israel (Is. 2:12-17).
These two texts taken together, from Exodus and Isaiah, bespeak the capacity and resolve of YHWH to act in massively destructive ways against any historical ordering that contradicts the intent of YHWH. YHWH, it turns out, has many tools of sovereignty beyond the force of love.
Thirdly, “God can enact in utter freedom without reason, explanation, or accountability, seemingly beyond any purpose at all”. The classic example is the “whirlwind speeches” in Job (eg., Job 38:4-11), but the trajectory is also at work in the sphere of history. YHWH does not always explain why he acts with destructive force. That’s his prerogative.
Brueggemann recognises that right now we are mostly preoccupied with the practicalities of managing the pandemic, from social containment to the application of science in search of medical solutions. But there is an aspect to human investigation that is not satisfied by administration and science. We are always looking for deeper explanations.
Our free-ranging imagination is not finally or fully contained in the immediacy of our stress, anxiety, and jeopardy. Beyond these demanding immediacies, we have a deep sense that our life is not fully contained in the cause-and-effect reasoning of the Enlightenment that seeks to explain and control. There is more than that and other than that to our life in God’s world!
So we have to find ways of naming God in this whole thing, and to Brueggemann’s mind the message is clear. The virus is God’s way of telling us that “the narrative of globalism and its conceit that we may master and use up the resources of the earth in our indifferent indulgence will fail.” It means that God will not be mocked—“not by Pharaoh or by Assyria or by Babylon or by any contemporary embodiment of hubris.”
The task of the preacher, finally, is to give expression to this deeper meaning according to our faith tradition. We may affirm that a “transactional quid pro quo” is at work: “Some practice and policies may evoke wrath.” We may say that the negative forces of creation have been mobilised to “perform the intention of the creator God”. And we must “pause before God’s raw holiness in a world that is not tamed by our best knowledge.”
It’s not that these chapters aren’t worth reading…
In chapter 2 Brueggemann looks at David’s choice of pestilence as punishment on the grounds that he would rather fall into the hand of the Lord, “for his mercy is great” (2 Sam. 24:11-14). If the virus is curbing our worst habits and slowing the world down, then perhaps we may “dare imagine with David that the final word is not pestilence; it is mercy.”
In chapter 3 Jeremiah’s vision of the restoration of social life in Jerusalem after the devastation of exile provides the template for the hope that the “new normal” will be better than the old normal.
The theme of chapter 4 is that prayer must recontextualise disaster within a relationship with God who is faithful, the outcome being the “renewal of the life of faith.”
Chapter 5 is a meditation on Psalm 77, as an act of reimagination in a culture of “consumer narcissism” in which “a religion of petty moralistic obedience goes with an economics of satiation.”
The virus is an alert about the “indifferent exploitative world of global self-sufficiency we have been making.” Against this, in chapter six, Brueggemann reads Isaiah 43:18-19 and affirms that God is “doing a new thing among us.”
Prophetic tradition knows, to the contrary, that the future does not reside in old treasured realities. It belongs, rather, to bold faithful thought that evokes bold faithful action.
The matrix of groan
The new thing, however, does not come about easily. It is birthed, Brueggemann says in the final chapter, “through the anguish and demand of labor pains”. YHWH cries out like a woman like a woman giving birth before he levels the wilderness between Babylon and Jerusalem to bring the exiles home. “The process of newness… is a process of pain that is very deep, so deep that it cannot be lived through quietly or serenely, perhaps not by either the creator or by the creation.”
He then considers four biblical texts that express “such anguished groaning.” Abel’s blood cries out from the ground (Gen. 4:10). Israel groans and cries for deliverance from enslavement (Exod. 2:23). Job protests his innocence by asking whether his land has cried out against him, whether “its furrows have wept together” (Job 31:38). The earth does not accuse him of exploitation. Finally, Jesus warns the Pharisees that if they try to silence his followers, the stones will shout out (Lk. 19:39-40).
Speechlessness, note, is not a strong biblical option. Even the ground speaks out, demanding justice.
These passages are examples, for biblical faith, of “the groan of pain and the shout of hope” that precede new creation. The future does not come mechanically or automatically. “It is rather a mystery-shrouded gift of God that all the creatures are invited to receive in deep cost.”
What is the cost? To acknowledge that the old order, marked by the injustices and injuries of unrestrained greed, has failed, and actively to renounce it.
The difficulty for the modern believer is highlighted at this point, really quite starkly, I think. We can imagine a “groan without a future,” because there is no guarantee for faith. It would be very easy to think, in this secular age, that the hope of new creation is mere romanticism—that there is “no Giver behind the gift.”
It’s not what the book is about—the chapter was originally written for a different purpose—but the potential for despair is very real, and it probably drives much of the current spate of defections. “Our talk of new creation might on occasion be a bit too facile in our buoyancy,” Brueggemann says.
But more important for now is the opposite proposition—that a new future might come without a groan. Our culture is too anxious to eliminate the groan, to reduce reality to entertainment:
the ideology of the global economy and its match in buoyant religious affirmation are, in deep ways, an act of denial, a practice of getting from there to here without any acknowledgment of the trouble or trauma or the cost of newness.
The church, therefore, needs to be educated for “relinquishment and renunciation.” We must learn to do without.
What stands in the way of newness, Brueggemann concludes, are the “twin habits of denial that refuses to groan in acknowledgment of a failed creation and despair that groans but entertains no prospect of newness after the groan.”
So we must learn in this pandemic—it is not said, but that is the implication—to groan hopefully. Two biblical models are put forward. First, Isaiah’s hope for “new heavens, new earth, new Jerusalem” (Is. 65:17-25) is (necessarily?) preceded by the pain of exile. Secondly, Jesus’ cry of abandonment from the cross, in the words of Psalm 22, is the “narrative-liturgical acknowledgment that even Messiah, the bodied hope for newness, must receive newness in the exile.”
Anything to add?
The book is quintessential, distilled Brueggemann, an honest and hopeful encouragement to exercise the prophetic imagination in a time of crisis. The bias towards Old Testament texts brings the whole social-political life of God’s people in the world into focus, and that’s a very good thing.
But if we want to engage the New Testament narrative properly, I think that we need more than an appeal to the groaning of creation. It is a consistent failing of evangelical theology to jump from Jesus’ cry of abandonment straight to new creation, missing the very distinctive political note on which Psalm 22 ends:
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. (Ps. 22:27–28)
Before the renewal of creation comes the renewal of kingdom. Before the liberation of creation comes the “revealing of the sons of God” at the parousia, when the persecuted church was to be vindicated and glorified for its faithful testimony to the coming reign of Jesus over the nations of the Greek-Roman world.
We need to tease apart the narrative strands in Romans 8:19-23. The whole of creation looked forward to the vindication of the sons of God, Jesus’ many brothers, because that day would be a sign and confirmation of its own eventual liberation from its bondage to decay.1 Just as Isaiah saw the new creation potential in the restoration of Jerusalem, so Paul sees the new creation potential in the resurrection (cf. 1 These. 4:16) of the persecuted witnesses to the coming reign of Christ over the nations.
This gives us a better precedent for naming God in the large-scale events of post-biblical history. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the overthrow of pagan Rome—to the glory of the God of Israel—were part of the transactional quid pro quo and were directly foreseen. This was God acting forcefully in history to bring about his own purposes, because, as Brueggemann says, God is not mocked. In this regard, the New Testament vision is solidly of the same material as the Old Testament vision.
But the global consumerist narrative is entirely new and needs to be assimilated into the storyline. That is a crucial present task for a prophetic imagination reinvigorated by the COVID-19 pandemic.