We have been told that Covid-19 is the “great leveller” as plague puts us all in the same position, reduces our power and places us at the mercy of tiny particles.
As many commentators have pointed out, this has been demonstrably false. Covid disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, the poor, the elderly and those with a host of co-morbidities. Like, if we’re honest with ourselves, a great numbers of health problems and dangers do.
It would be truer to say that Covid-19 has been the “great exposer”. In the Biblical sense the last year or so has been apocalyptic. Not so much the end of the world (yet, there’s still time), but a drawing back of the curtain, a revealing, an uncovering, a laying bare, a revelation. Though its weird to our ear, that’s what the Greek word we translate “apocalypse” means.
What we’ve seen so far in this pandemic is a revealing of a number of trends and forces in our society that were already present. The crisis has done what crises do, amplified what was already there. Want to find out what you, your culture, your community or your church is really like? Approach calamity and all will be revealed. We see, as we always have, the indomitable wonder of the human spirit and in equal and depressing measure, the depths of human depravity.
I’ve spent the last months—this is written in December 2020—watching and thinking. Here is a non-exhaustive list of what we’ve seen come to light.
We are the problem
When we’re shut into our houses and families and lives, if our eyes are open, then we noticed that the problem was not with others. It became a lot harder to pretend that it was. “Hell is other people” we’re told by those who brutalise Sartre for amusingly misanthropic ends. I’ll allow it if we first admit that Hell is me. The root of Hell grows from my heart, my selfishness, my self-centred, me-first, comfort-seeking, self-righteous sin. Like a pig in muck. The way of Jesus is the way of repentance. We preached a whole lot of repentance through the first lockdown. I really needed it.
If we don’t have religion, we look for it
Humans need religious ceremony, ritual and rhythm. That isn’t a big surprise, we’re designed to worship the almighty God. When we don’t there’s something about us that is incomplete, something that we crave. We turn often perfectly good things into objects of devotion that they cannot bear the weight of, and we grow puritanical with it. We’ve seen echoes of this for years in sport and politics, but this year in particularly we see it in the way we support or oppose Covid restrictions; in the way we treat the NHS with regular ritual devotion and shame those who don’t do alike; and in some varieties of antiracist critique of society.
We have no idea who is important
But we do have a suspicion that someone is, and that maybe it isn’t who we’re told it is. Our much-touted anti-authoritarian streak comes out in our assurance that it certainly isn’t the government or the experts we should listen to; though, if they disagree, we’re more likely to pick the experts. In the first lockdown we realised that some “key workers” are paid pretty badly and aren’t treated with much respect by other people, not you and I of course! We’re still busy comparing our worth to each other in as many ways as we can.
We don’t know what to do with death
We are sheltered from death. It used to be that people died in their family homes and were buried in clear sight outside our churches. We would all have had children or siblings die, and so we all would be used to death as fact of life. No longer is this true, we’ve medicalised dying and only speak of death in hushed tones. We have inverted the Victorian stereotype: deeply repressed about sex but happily speaking of death all the time. Our repression of our mortality is no healthier.
We see numbers on our TV screen of the number of people who die every week from Covid. The numbers are shocking. But we have little idea how many people die from a whole host of others causes that we might be equally shocked by if we went and looked up the numbers. We are deeply afraid of death—and on the one level we should be! Death is cruel, death is wrong, death is unnatural.
Layered on top of that we have lost the concept of a good death. We find it difficult to make our collective peace with the elderly who die having made their peace with God. Equally we have seen a widespread governmental disregard for people’s need to die with others as a good.
We idolise health
Our health is the highest good. Longer life is always a good thing. We take a very good thing (living) and turn it into an ultimate thing. It is not socially acceptable to suggest that there could be more important things in some circumstances than living longer.
We are individual to a fault
Individualism is our watchword, we now know that it’s as bad for our physical health as we have been saying it is for our spiritual health, but while we’re acting on behalf of others, we’ve done so by separating out into autonomous units. The cure is the disease. I get that we’re five hundred years down this road, and we cannot put the proverbial genie back in the bottle: that would be restrict his choices, after all.
We forgot that we needed to be together
Virtual isn’t real. That’s what the word means. In my opinion the really interesting bit is that we don’t believe that. We act like doing anything online is just as good. Of course, there are activities that also work mediated by screens, but when we cut embodied community or activity out of lives, we lose something real that cannot be replaced by even the best technology. We are embodied creatures; we need fleshly activities.
We cannot wait
We have been habituated to an instantaneous world by our technology. In the aim of making our lives easier, we’ve made our souls smaller. We can’t wait. That’s never more apparent than in the year when we can’t do anything and we simply have to wait it out. While we’ve abandoned our non-places as plague-ridden dens of iniquity, we have instead embraced the no-time of lockdowns. We don’t have rhythms, we can’t handle time, because we refuse to be mastered by it.
We don’t know how to grieve
The last year has been worthy of grief. I see a lot of public anger, but little grief. Much of the anger is appropriate, but we must grieve.
We lost the answer to all the above.
When the church is the church, preaches the gospel, and follows the way of Jesus, she answers all of these issues in our society.
The church laments and teaches us godly sorrow. The church waits, longs and teaches us to be mastered by time as God intended. The church is the embodied community, the gathered people, that shares a meal and a hope. The church preaches that we are never just a one, that others are to be put before ourselves and we need them to be whole. The church teaches us that health is a vapour and life to be spent. The church shows us that death is be fought and grieved and faced with a cheerful laugh, for ‘tis but a gardener. The church loves all as divine image-bearers and knows that all are subject creatures. The church offers meaning and ritual and religion in the best sense. The church agrees that we are the problem and then introduces us to her husband who is ready to rescue us from ourselves.
Friends, the fields are as white for the harvest. Preach the gospel, follow the way, see the kingdom come.