My maternal grandparents were 10 and 11 years old when the so-called “Spanish flu” spread across the globe in 1918. (It’s highly unlikely that the virus originated in Spain.) According to historical records, the devastating flu killed nearly 675,000 people in the United States, more than 10 times the number of casualties that this nation suffered in the First World War that was ending as this pandemic was beginning. Estimates put the death toll worldwide at 50 million or more.
At the height of the crisis, life expectancy in the U.S. plummeted by a dozen years. There was a shortage of coffins, morticians and gravediggers. Medical students were pressed into service as doctors, and public health directives closed schools, churches, restaurants and theaters. Funerals were limited to 15 minutes to stem the spread of the virus. Photos from the time show police officers patrolling the streets wearing white masks in an effort to enforce stay-at-home orders that became common.
Both of my maternal grandparents were gone by 2006, with my grandmother having outlived my grandfather by 14 years. This was the last generation that might have even had a vague childhood memory of the new reality that we are now facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that (at the time of this writing) has struck every continent except Antarctica.
While the stories are distinct in many important ways, the historical parallels are striking. The challenge before us is to find a way through it, much like the generation of our great-grandparents and their children did.
“We need to stand together in spirit and in truth, and repent.”
Unlike the flu pandemic of 1918 (which struck most heavily in the autumn), we find ourselves “at war” during a most peculiar season: Lent. For Christians, this is a season of reflection and repentance. Today, repentance means so much more in the context of the novel coronavirus than it ever could have meant apart from it.
It is inevitable at times like these to hear comparisons to the biblical “pestilence” and the idea that we are suffering right now because God is judging us for our sins and expressing God’s supernatural anger by way of a natural calamity. We would do well to avoid that sort of thinking (and theology), as we will quickly find ourselves falling off a cliff if we go too far in trying to ascribe other-worldly rationales to wholly worldly circumstances.
I do not believe that the COVID-19 virus itself has emerged as some kind of divinely unleashed pestilence to punish us. I do not believe and will not assert that God has actively willed for over 27,000 people to die (as of March 27) as some sort of retribution for our wicked ways.
But what I do believe, and what seems clear to me is this: It is not the disease itself that has revealed our sin, it is the ways we have responded, as a global people, that have condemned us to our current misery and suffering.
We have been victimized by the secrecy, incompetence and, at times, rank ignorance of our own leaders. As may have been the case more than a century ago, this virus first emerged in China, and the Chinese government hid it from the world for two weeks, refusing to be transparent about what they were dealing with and how serious it was. They hid it until their own people started getting sick by the thousands, and then dying by the hundreds. They kept it secret because they did not want to lose face or admit any measure of infirmity in the presence of their rivals who might seek advantage from their misfortune.
The choices of Chinese leadership meant that the rest of this planet’s inhabitants lost precious time. Because they kept that secret, some of those sick people kept traveling around the world and exposed other people, squandering any opportunity that we might have had to nip this thing in the bud rather than planting the seeds of a global pandemic.
But it doesn’t stop there. Italy is worse off now than China ever was because that country’s leadership didn’t want to take things seriously either, and until the last few days, Italian citizens were dying at a terrifying clip, with nearly 1,500 in one weekend, bodies stacking up in the morgue and the whole nation at risk of utter and total collapse.
Meanwhile, in the United States President Donald Trump, true to form, spent weeks claiming that this coronavirus was a hoax, then calling it the “Chinese virus” (invoking racist language rather than accurately describing it as a virus that originated in China) and telling folks that everything was under control. Now multiple states – from New York to Louisiana, from California to Washington – are facing doomsday scenarios of public health disasters without enough hospital beds, medical supplies or doctors and nurses to handle all the sick and dying. Much of the impending disaster could have been avoided or mitigated.
Our wicked ways were not revealed in the virus itself, but instead in the mess that we have made of it. The lessons of how South Korea handled this pandemic – in contrast to the rest of the world – make it plain that this global catastrophe could have been a big molehill. But we have made it into the mountain of all mountains. Shame on us! Shame on us all over this world!
Remember the lessons of recent history in this country.
Hurricane Katrina wasn’t just a natural disaster. It was a racist disaster because we left all the poor black people behind to drown when the levees broke. And then we shot the ones who made it through the flood and tried to survive in what remained of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
“Our wicked ways were not revealed in the virus itself, but instead in the mess that we have made of it.”
The fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 wasn’t just a terrorist attack; it was a terrible failure of U.S. foreign policy that had systematically looked the other way for years as elements in Saudi Arabia became more and more radicalized. We chose to look the other way because the oil was flowing freely from that country, and we did not want to risk interrupting access to that pipeline. Even if it might one day cost nearly 3,000 lives.
We need to repent. We need to repent from that past, and we need to repent from the present. In this season of Lent, in this season of sickness, in this time of tribulation, in this moment of lamentation, we need to turn from our wicked ways, ask God for forgiveness and repent. We need to stand together in spirit and in truth and repent.
It’s the only way that we will be saved. It’s the only way that God will hear us. It’s the only way that God will heal the land. We cannot wait any longer.
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