Though social media has turned us all into part-time exegetes, parsing a real-life plague for meaning is trickier business than it may at first appear. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, each of us has seen more or less well-meaning memes shared by friends or loved ones (or maybe ourselves) about deer moving onto the streets of Japan or prodigal dolphins coming back to Venetian canals we didn’t even know they were from in the first place. When Sarah Ferguson shared her half-celebrated, half-notorious thoughts about “Mother Earth sending us to our rooms,” they were only the most evocatively phrased and amplified posts of a whole genre of similar online musings.
But this is just the folk festival inversion of the indefensible theology that explains hurricanes by pointing to Pride parades: natural disasters are ascribed to a supernatural force, falling somewhere on the spectrum between Vengeful Patriarch and Stern Public Radio Enthusiast, who disciplines the world in line with our pet social, political, or cultural projects. No, God didn’t send Covid-19, claiming lives by the tens of thousands — God didn’t send Covid-19 full stop, for what it’s worth — in order that we might “hit pause,” and contemplate the importance of the simple beauty of baking our own bread, or completing a puzzle as a family in the living room.
And yet: it’s not wrong, given the surrounding suffering, and the fear it brings, that we have turned to contemplating the beauty of that bread, or taken a sacred comfort in sheltering with our loved ones. Finding renewed life on the other side of mortification and death shouldn’t be a foreign idea in most churches. There’s a world of difference between morbidly retrofitting catastrophe to attribute authorship to God’s agenda on the one hand and, and on the other, turning to God to make sense of things. It’s the difference in the tentativeness that begins the Reverend Lynn Ungar’s breathtaking poem, “Pandemic,” written this past March: “What if you thought of it/as the Jews consider the Sabbath —/the most sacred of times?/Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling./[…] Center down.” There’s a whole sensibility in that “What if you thought of it as…” that points to a richer understanding of scripture and tradition, as more than just a hindsight weather app that will also judge your sex life or spending habits. As the late anti-literalist Marcus Borg counselled, they’re sources we have a responsibility to engage with actively.
Because as obscene as it would be to use the current and unfolding tragedy as a moral cudgel, it would be worse to come through a crucible like this unchanged, having learned nothing — that would be death without resurrection. But what are the appropriate lessons to draw from the current circumstances, especially when so much of our ethos, so many of our Christian symbols and shining examples, seem to run contrary to what we’re being asked to do? Share a cup — are you crazy? Was Francis a saint or an asymptomatic vector? What would Dr. Bonnie Henry say if she saw Jesus spitting into the dirt and rubbing the mud into a blind man’s eyes?!
In her most recent book, The Lost Art of Scripture, Karen Armstrong shares a theory which suggests that the Exodus from Egypt — invoked countless times by analogy all down through history to buttress movements for human liberation — may not have been all that literal to begin with. In this reading of the archeological and scriptural records, the people who became known to history as Israel emerged from a loose confederation of hilltop peasant communities who had fled the steeply hierarchical, lowland Canaanite city-states which had been under the regional control of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Following this line of thinking, the Exodus from Egypt wasn’t one ethnic or religious group’s long-distance geographical escape from another, but rather one socioeconomic class’ relatively short-distance exit from their exploitation.
I don’t even begin to pretend to know enough about the history to say whether this theory holds water — whether from the Red Sea, or the Sea of Reeds, or whether those are two different things. But anything that allows us, plausibly, to hear a long-familiar narrative in such a different way can be useful. Here we have the Exodus story in which Pharaoh isn’t a man, but a way of doing things. Which means that, as we consider the present plague besetting our Egypt, we can imagine an escape to the Promised Land not as heading somewhere the virus isn’t (in literal terms, of course, if there existed such a place, we’d be bringing it with us), but as an insistence upon doing things differently.
Having already warned against cheap shot symbolism, I’ll refrain from highlighting the pathetic fallacy of this novel virus having gotten its start in a marketplace; why, that would be silly. What wouldn’t be silly is to say that a global society which has made an idol of the profit motive (then started swapping complex golden calf derivatives) left us prone to Covid-19 and has proven incapable of saving us from it. If this seems like the same kind of just-so reverse engineering of nature’s auguries to support a political project that I condemned above, imagine the difference between saying Pride parades lead to hurricanes on the one hand and, on the other, saying Pride parades lead to temporary parking inconveniences and brisk bar sales in Vancouver’s West End. Better yet, read the work of my friend the science journalist Leigh Phillips on how the seventeen years since the SARS outbreak were squandered because pharmaceutical companies couldn’t envisage sufficient profits, and public funding bodies didn’t have the largesse, to fully develop coronavirus vaccines.
At the same time, those who have kept us alive over the past months are not only, in the words of a popular tweet by Lebanese diplomat Mohamad Safa, “not the CEOs and the billionaires” — but read instead like a list of the very people we’ve been told, over the last several decades of economic myth-making, were the most indolent, obstructive, entitled, inefficient, easily-replaced, disposable, or low-skilled: public sector employees, civil servants, caregivers, farmworkers, grocery clerks, warehouse workers, delivery drivers, stay-at-home moms. Each day, to keep ourselves afloat bodily and financially, we are having to break with every orthodoxy that’s been carefully drilled into our heads. For the first time in my life, the needs of the market are being discussed as separate from and secondary to the general social well-being. And if you’re into Exodus imagery, and want to know how long we’ve been in this wilderness — well, I’m about to turn forty.
In other words, the Exodus has already started. We are learning the lessons of this plague in the action of caring for each other through it. For a tiny minority of frontline heroes, this means high-risk, active service; for most of us, it means replacing frenetic activity with quiet and patience; loneliness, anxiety, and dread — like Ezekiel, lying on his side. It means sharing what we have. It means submitting to just authority. It means that we begin to see selfishness clearly again; not as the engine of innovation, but as a tyranny. And one we’ve escaped before.