By Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Moral Compassion and The Virus
Exodus 16:4-8, 13-21, 27-30 Luke 4:1-4, 13-15 Galatians 6:1-10
I am truly thankful for the capabilities of technology which allows us to reach out to each other across the barriers we have imposed upon ourselves in order to stay as well as we can and not to add to the number of our fellow citizens who have become sick. Mary and I are fine as we hope all of you are.
If you crave human connection, this social isolation becomes a bit of a challenge. I heard of a guy who managed his problem by starting up a conversation with a spider. He found out that he was a web designer.
Humor aside, there is a sickness we all are fighting right now, beyond the scourge of the virus. There is a shredding going on, a choking, of the bonds of community and trust. That’s what pandemics do. In an opinion piece David Brooks said it well: “Dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.” He provides some descriptions from history.
Consider this comment made by Giovanni Boccaccio from his book The Decameron about the plague that hit Florence in 1348: “Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinfolk held aloof, and never met…nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate.”
Daniel Defoe, well-known author of Robinson Caruso, also wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, on the 1665 London epidemic. This is what he reports: “This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others….The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.”
Recent studies of the aftermath of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 underscore the way people emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued because of what harsh things they had to do to stay alive. It was a shameful memory that had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.
This pandemic is forcing us to realize how just little we control our lives. The coronavirus is like a giant mirror held up to let us see who we really are. How will we behave in the situation of possible imminent death? Will our behavior come with a double wallop of fatalism that paralyzes our moral compassion? Will be become abusive, greedy, or downright evil? Or will our behavior show just how much we need one another?
The Bible welcomes us coming to it with these questions. The stories of the Bible are there to speak to what is on our hearts. They want to be interpreted to help us see that our situation, however dire it is, is still answers to the sovereignty of God.
Look at the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. You could say that social distancing was the way Jesus started his public ministry. After his baptism, Jesus spent almost 7 weeks in seclusion. He was led by the spirit into the wilderness for his 40-day withdrawal from society.
He ate nothing in his period of self-exile. How he survived, I do not know. But it is plain to see that when the time was up, he was at his wit’s end, he was crazy with hunger, and he would do anything to find something to eat. Satan reminded him that he had the power to create bread from stone. That he could turn all the rocks in the wilderness into loaves of bread. That he could become known as the Mrs. Baird’s Bakery of the world.
Why didn’t he do it? we want to know. Jesus fends off Satan’s temptation by saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus, of course, is using “bread” in its most generous symbolic meaning of all the stuff that we must have for our livelihood. Even in the pangs of desperate hunger, Jesus will not make bread—all our stuff—take the place of God. Jesus answers to God.
This painful decision has real time consequences for us. There are preachers in our day who want to make a buck off the virus. They preach a prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel puts stuff in the place of God. One of the most prominent preachers, Paula White, who leads President Trump’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative, is now linking her prosperity gospel with our pandemic. She asks followers to send her “seed” money of $91, promising that a prosperity harvest will then be returned to the giver. “Maybe you’d like to send a $91 seed,” she suggested, “that’s just putting your faith with Psalm 91.” Look it up and you’ll read in that psalm a promise to be saved from “deadly pestilence” and “plague.” For $91 given to Paula White you can buy a charm, a fetish, an amulet. Is this the way the Trump administration has chosen to send a message of comfort to a scared American public?
When Jesus emerged out of the wilderness from Satan’s temptations he had a clear vision that God is sovereign and will not let any one of us become lost. In our wilderness, this is the Jesus we need to hold on to with both hands. As this pandemic is making unmistakably clear, we just cannot know and control and expect. To privilege God over bread is to embrace the uncertainty of our days under the certainty of God. There’s a strange uptick that comes with that recognition. David Brooks comments insightfully, “There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life. When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.” When plans are ripped away, there remains you, a beloved child of God.
As this pandemic stretches on, more and more temptations will present themselves promising a quick fix, or a spell to ward off the contagion. We will be egged on to go rouge, to take matters into your own hands. To stop thinking about your neighbor. We will be beset by beguiling conspiracy theories; fingers will be pointed at our political opponents in order to help us escape from taking responsibility. Telling the truth in the time of the pandemic will struggle against the desire of looking good. Moral compassion will be discarded.
All of this tears at the fabric of our already highly polarized country just at the very time we need solidarity. And we are going to get solidarity whether we want it or not. The pandemic is the giant leveler, it is the great income transfer agent, it is the respecter of no one’s station or age. Is this the way God is saying to us how much we need to do the right thing by each other, how much we need to be in solidarity even as we are in solitude?
Think about it! How downright silly and pointless are our pompous polarities! How absolutely essential are the establishment folks, the deep state folks, the institutional folks, the experts to combat this disease!
The tribes of Israel certainly had to learn this lesson of solidarity. Israelites entered into a massive social distancing in the wilderness as they were escaping Egypt under Moses. They ran out of food—something that scares the be-jesus out of each us and drives binge shopping and hoarding. The Israelites were all reduced to one level. God gave them food in the form of manna. God gave them food under very careful restrictions. The purpose was to make them learn to operate in solidarity.
How did they behave? Most did what was required for all to stay alive. They took only what was they could eat that day. But some tried to hoard their manna. Maybe they thought they had to take matters into their own hands. Maybe they thought they could corner the market and make a lot of money. What their surplus did, though, was to rot in their manna bowls, and the stench revealed to their neighbors just how anti-solidarity they were. Most did what was required to stay alive. They gathered on the sixth day double portions and it lasted throughout the next day, the Sabbath. But some went out to look on the Sabbath. Maybe they could get a little more. Sabbath shoppers stuck out like sore thumbs, and they were scolded.
There is only one outcome to this story. God is sovereign and no one will get lost. Therefore, take your share, look-out for your neighbor, and stay in solidarity. And finally, rejoice and take your rest on the Sabbath as we move through this wilderness. Prepare to be a changed person when we emerge from this wilderness. God will still be in charge, and we will have a renewed sense that life really does depend on our being morally compassionate people.