Tom Wright has written an Ideas piece for Time Magazine in which he argues that Christianity is not supposed to give answers about the coronavirus.
It’s our rationalist culture, he says, that needs a reason for everything, and it’s rather “silly” to ask whether the pandemic is a punishment or warning or sign from God. Sometimes you just have to accept that there isn’t a reason. So, with a nod to the poet T.S. Eliot, we have to “wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing.”
We don’t need explanations, Wright argues—and presumably we don’t need too much in the way of solid, clearly articulated hope, either. What we need is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. ‘Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer.’ It’s where we end up when we stop gazing into our own grubby navels and notice how much real suffering there is in the world.
The Psalmist is full of questions: Why are you so far off? Why do you hide yourself? Will you forget me forever? Why have you forsaken me? Sometimes an answer is given. Sometimes not and we end up in darkness.
But the important point, Wright says, is that God laments with us. He is grieved by the wickedness of antediluvian humanity, by the disloyalty of Israel. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. The Spirit groans with the groaning of creation.
So, he concludes, it is precisely part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain coronavirus.
Is he right? Is this quietist, empathetic reticence, this prophetic diffidence, the best response a Christian can offer at the moment?
I think we need to look more closely at how lament works in the scriptures, beginning with the psalms that Wright mentions.
The reason for the king’s moanings in Psalm 6 is that his enemies are causing him grief and God seems not to care. The writer of Psalm 10 is troubled that YHWH does nothing to save him, but the cause of his predicament is clear: the wicked prosper. Likewise Psalm 13.
The lesson then? That we should lament over the marginalisation of the church, the failure of God to save his people from irrelevance.
In Psalm 22 David asks why God has forsaken him when he is surrounded by a company of evil doers, but he speaks as a confident prophet in his closing affirmation that God will rule over the nations. Psalm 89 is a lament over the humiliating defeat of a Davidic king, or perhaps in its final form a lament over the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the monarchy. It closes with an appeal to God to remember his servants.
The lesson? That we should confidently expect God eventually to act to put right a bad situation.
Psalm 88 expresses the writer’s despair that the “wrath” of God has swept over him, perhaps in the form of sickness, and he is now shunned by his companions. Here, indeed, we have a proper lament for someone stricken with disease, who feels life ebbing away, who feels abandoned and isolated, who feels that God has become the enemy. But this is the lament of an individual, not of a society.
There are other lament texts in the Bible. The gates of Jerusalem will lament when the judgment of God comes on the city (Is. 3:26). Fishermen along the Nile will lament when the Lord comes to punish Egypt (Is. 19:8). The women of Jerusalem will wail and lament over the ruin of the city: “How we are ruined! We are utterly shamed, because we have left the land, because they have cast down our dwellings” (Jer. 9:19).
There is a whole book of lamentations over the fall of Jerusalem, and the author is in no doubt about the reason for the catastrophe: “the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (Lam. 1:5).
Jesus laments over Jerusalem because the current generation will pay the dreadful price for centuries of Jewish rebellion against God (Matt. 23:29-38). When blasphemous and corrupt Rome is overthrown, all who have profited from her wickedness—kings, merchants, shipmasters—will weep and wail over her (Rev. 18:9-20). There’s a lesson in that, surely!
So there are two dimensions to the theme of lament in the Old Testament—the personal and the “political”, the private and the historical.
There is lament over personal misfortune, grief over sickness and death, as in many of the Psalms, and in this case the texts may indeed struggle to provide explanations. The book of Job is a massive struggle to provide an explanation for personal suffering—or at least, for the suffering of a thoroughly righteous man.
But on the larger “political” scale there is nearly always an explanation for catastrophe and nearly always an outcome to hope for—or fear. God is grieved by the sinfulness of humanity and a devastating flood ensues. He is horrified by the waywardness of the people whom he chose to represent him in the world, so he destroys their city and sends them into exile. The Spirit inspires in God’s persecuted people something of the groaning of the whole created order, but the churches will be vindicated when Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world, and ultimately creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-25).
Wright blames our knee-jerk demand for an explanation on the Enlightenment, but ironically, I think, it is precisely rationalism which says that we cannot give theological reasons for natural disasters.
Because we are rationalists, we have a different way of talking about cause and effect, but the causes and aggravating circumstances of the pandemic are surely of concern to the living God who created the heavens and the earth.
What we cannot fail to see in scripture is that God is the God of history, he is the God of large-scale events, and the vocation of a prophetic people is to give narrative voice to that insight. Biblical traditions of lament and hope cannot be separated from larger stories of rebellion, apostasy, judgment, and concrete political or social transformation.
Grief and uncertainty have to be taken seriously, but that’s not a reason to be speechless. If we are going to express our response to coronavirus in terms of biblical lament, we also have to take the considerable risk of outlining a “prophetic” narrative that accounts for the engagement of the God of history, through a people whom he has chosen, in this whole crisis—and in whatever further chaos lies ahead.
In that respect, to speak of the pandemic as a warning or sign from the creator God, or even as a “punishment”, after the manner of the flood, for the wholesale greed and thoughtlessness of the global culture in which we are mostly all complicit, does not seem so inappropriate.
As for hope, well, let’s work on that….