How an ancient perspective helps us deal with the present
“These are the times that try men’s souls.”—Thomas Paine.
The epigraph that opens this essay first appeared in the pamphlet “The American Crisis.” Written by Thomas Paine, the pamphlet was published in the Pennsylvania Journal on December 19, 1776—the year the American colonies declared their independence from Britain. Four days after Paine’s pamphlet was published, “Like a modern-day football coach seeking to inspire his team, General George Washington had Paine’s words read out loud to his [dispirited] troops at McConkey’s Ferry on the Delaware River. Paine had written the words during the army’s retreat from New York.”1
Though written during the Revolutionary War, the words are often appropriated to describe other “trying times,” such as the one in which the world currently finds itself. The nation is gripped by fear and anxiety; shaken by deep uncertainty—perplexity even—much of it induced or laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides the pandemic, citizens are appropriately engaged in protesting against generations-long discrimination and inequities. We are worried for ourselves, our friends and loved ones, the most vulnerable members of our society, and the poor and dispossessed in developing countries. For no one is immune to the virus, which as yet has no cure and lies stealthily waiting to return with a vengeance if we relax or waiver from following scrupulous hygiene practices and other self-protective measures.
We tire of our physical isolation. Some six months after the virus is thought to have come ashore in this country, some of us still feel disoriented. The things we’ve depended on to locate and anchor ourselves physically, psychologically, and perhaps spiritually seem no longer dependably available. We’ve had to adapt and change. This process of adaptation has been less fraught for some than for others. If we were living on a financial knife’s edge before, the pandemic has caused some to fall off that edge. Some of our fellow-citizens are suddenly, belatedly, and begrudgingly considered “essential,” when before they might have been ignored, taken for granted, mistreated.
A Christian Response?
I share a philosophy of life and worldview that is a Christian one. That is the frame for my identity; it informs my personal choices, and it is from within it that I engage the world. It is to the Christian tradition that I look for help to “make sense” of events of the time, or regain my footing amid the noise, confusion, and general humbug that characterizes the popular culture.
But it turns out that the community that identifies itself as Christian is peopled by individuals with an interesting, contradictory, frequently infuriating, and puzzling mix of interpretations and expressions of our shared tradition.
So, as the theologian N. T. Wright says in his essay in the March 29, 2020, edition of Time magazine, I fully expected “the usual silly suspects” to tell us why God is doing this to us, that the pandemic is a punishment, a warning, a sign. And, as if right on cue, a well-meaning relative sent me the Internet link to a video (curses on WhatsApp and YouTube) by a “pastor” purporting to be the recipient of dreams marking out significant milestones of the country’s progress through the COVID-19 pandemic. Most alarming for me was what his night “visions” predict will take place in the United States come September and November of this year. His visions were one thing; his counsel as to how Christians should prepare for the coming conflagration—specifics it would be irresponsible of me to repeat—was positively odious. Praying was hardly mentioned, and when it was, it was as an “aside.”
Is it any wonder that the Time editor titled Wright’s article, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To”?
Thank God for saner prophets and pastors than the prophesying pastor. The N. T. Wright essay reminded me that the start of the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus coincided with Lent, that most significant event in the annual calendar of many Christians that climaxes with Christ’s passion and His resurrection, the Christian symbol and reality of hope.
In his article, Wright draws an analogy between the Lent that ends with Christ’s resurrection and our COVID-19-imposed Lent. To quote him: “There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment. And this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.”
Warning us against knee-jerk, would-be Christian reactions (such as the pandemic being a punishment, warning, or a sign), and working his way to, what for me is, a more fruitful, spirit-enriching posture in these times, Wright counsels: “Perhaps what we need . . . is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond self-consciousness about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?”
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines lament as “a passionate expression of grief.” Prayers, poems, and songs are vehicles for such expression, and we find a wealth of such in the hymnbook that is the Psalms. “Sometimes we have nothing to offer in our prayers but complaint,” says Philip Yancey in his book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?2
To which N. T. Wright would add: “The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness, and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible. . . . It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not be able to explain—and to lament instead.”
“O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror” (Ps. 6:1, 2, NRSV).3
1 National Constitution Center.
2 Zondervan, 2006.
3 Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.