Reflecting on the long-term impact of the Bubonic Plague (1346-1353) sweeping across Europe and ravaging his native Florence, the poet Petrarch wrote: “O happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.”
In a 2005 History Today essay, “The Black Death: the Greatest Catastrophe Ever,” Olé J. Benedictow estimated that “the Black Death killed 50 million people in the 14th century, or 60 percent of Europe’s entire population.”
He cites one chronicler who observed: “All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried … . At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up and thrown into the pit.”
Some 700 years later, a November 2020 story in The Guardian offers a hauntingly parallel report from El Paso, the Texas epicenter of the coronavirus, and confirms more than 800 deaths since March, with 400 more currently being investigated. Recently, city leaders increased the use of mobile morgues from six to 10, acknowledging that hospitals and their medical staffs are “overwhelmed.”
The paper references a near hour-long Facebook posting in which Lawanna Rivers, a visiting nurse, emotionally describes the situation: “The only way that those patients was coming out of that pit was in a body bag,” referring to the COVID unit where she was working. She concluded: “I am not OK from an emotional mental standpoint.”
As 2020 draws to a close, the number of COVID cases stands at 60 million globally, with more than 1.5 million deaths. The United States reports more than 12 million cases, with more than 263,000 COVID-related deaths, the largest numbers for any country worldwide. William Barber, director of the Poor People’s Campaign, recently observed that while the U.S. has only 4% of the world’s population, it claims 20% of COVID-related deaths.
Such overwhelmingly high statistics can numb our collective psyche, unless we’ve had the virus ourselves, or lost friends and family because of it. Yet we are not numb to the reality of lost jobs, closed schools, online worship, unceasing political antagonism, rising hate crimes and daily inconveniences.
While the news of approaching vaccines is promising, we are not strangers to the plaintive words of Jeremiah 8:20, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” Coronavirus exhaustion permeates the globe.
That reality came home to me in a recent pastoral prayer offered during Sunday worship by Glenn Pettiford, assistant pastor at First Baptist Church, Highland Avenue, our home congregation for 23 years in Winston-Salem. The service was “virtual,” yet Pettiford’s prayer was anything but. It reached across our collective hearts into the marrow of our bones.
“Please Lord, your children are dying. Lord, we’re not giving up; we can’t give up, you’ve been so good to us. We can’t give up. We’ve got to keep going.”
Like a voice in the postmodern wilderness he cried out: “Lord, some of us have lost our minds. Some of us don’t believe we need to wear a mask. Some of us don’t believe we need to social distance. Some people have more faith in their handguns than they do in their own health practices. … Lord, I’m not mad at my brothers and sisters, I’m just tired of this mess. (Some people are) complaining about children not being able to go back to school, but at the same time being more concerned about going to a football game or a bar than making it safe for the young ones. Save us all, if you will, I ask in Jesus’ name. Please Lord, your children are dying. Lord, we’re not giving up; we can’t give up, you’ve been so good to us. We can’t give up. We’ve got to keep going.”
In those moments, the pastor’s prayer became for me an imprecatory psalm, a lamentation bursting with passion and compassion, demanding, “How long, O Lord, how long,” while imploring, “O Lord, do not turn your face from us!”
For me, it seemed another Bonhoeffer moment, a challenge poured out in real time and reflecting two crucial elements of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought: a stark choice between cheap and costly grace amid a determined “will for the future.”
In his classic 1937 work, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer denounced cheap grace as “grace without price; grace without cost!” This mistaken spirituality incorrectly insists that “the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.” It means “grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares.” (A cheapjack is “a peddler of inferior goods.”)
Costly grace, by contrast, “is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a (person) must knock.”
“Such grace,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.” In German, the title of this seminal volume is simply Nachfolge, “following.”
“Costly grace and the moral catastrophes of his times put Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the test.”
Costly grace and the moral catastrophes of his times put Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the test, resulting in his execution at the hands of the Nazis in 1945, a grace from which he never retreated, and by which he kept going, ever with an eye to the future. In a 1943 essay titled “After Ten Years” which I have cited throughout this BNG series, Bonhoeffer wrote:
“It is wiser to be pessimistic; it is a way of avoiding disappointment and ridicule, and so wise people condemn optimism. The essence of optimism is not its view of the present, but the fact that it is the inspiration of life and hope when others give in; it enables a man to hold his head high when everything seems to be going wrong; it gives him strength to sustain reverses and yet to claim the future for himself instead of abandoning it to his opponent.”
Bonhoeffer concluded: “It is true that there is a silly, cowardly kind of optimism, which we must condemn. But the optimism that is will for the future should never be despised, even if it is proven wrong a hundred times; it is health and vitality, and the sick (individual) has no business to impugn it … . It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; and in that case, though not before, we shall gladly stop working for a better future.”
Reverend Pettiford, I think Bonhoeffer would agree with you, then and now: “We can’t give up.”
Come to think of it, so would Jesus. That’s the grace of it.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.