Reflections in this blog and in those that follow, are based on Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety (Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon), 2020. Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Colombia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.
The sequence was broken by a timely story that needed to be addressed. American Catholic Bishops were advocating that President Biden be denied Holy Communion because of his responsibilities that appeared out of synch with Catholic thought and teaching. It gave one pause.
This is Part 5 in the reflections on Brueggemann’s Virus as a Summons to Faith. And here we turn a corner and move toward that development of his theme of inspiration, transformation, and renewal in relationship with self, neighbor and the Divine.
The last blog began by asking, “Who can explain the mind of God? Through the first four blogs we have considered three ways that scripture explains God’s use of pestilence. God uses the horrible work of nature to punish sin. Frequently God cautions humankind threatening that in response to sin, God will punish with sword, famine and pestilence. There are consequences to disobedience. And there are rewards to repentance. God’s wrath will not last forever. God restores and heals.
But is this a useful explanation for COVID 19? It is inadequate for several reasons. The scope is too broad. Too many innocent people are suffering. One could also observe that many who deliberately flaunt restrictions seem to go unharmed. Or perhaps they remain asymptomatic. If the horrible work of nature is just, how can this be just?
There is another explanation. God may use the horrible work of nature in a focused way to achieve a specific purpose. The example is the use of plagues to get Pharaoh’s attention and break Pharaoh’s resistance in order that the innocent children of Israel may be set free. Again, perhaps this may explain the deliverance from Egypt. But applying that explanation to COVID, can we say that the poor of the developing world are being delivered; the starving and homeless, the people of color who suffer disproportionately the consequences of toxic waste, those who are denied access to treatment because of the unaffordability of health insurance – are they soon to be delivered from suffering, intolerance and exploitation? Not yet. Again, if God is focusing judgement on the high walls of affluence, defense, and urbanization, God’s aim seems more than a little off.
Maybe, (this is the third explanation) God’s ways are not our ways and we must simply kneel in humility and helplessness before the holiness of God. Again, not a helpful explanation, offering neither consolation, motivation, nor justice.
There is no explanation for the mind of God. Reason can only describe so much. Reason can only be applied so far to research and technology. Then there is mystery. We just don’t know. Or, we know only so much – in this manner.
Now Brueggemann turns a corner. Science and reason are not the only ways of knowing. Brueggemann now appeals to the preachers reading his thesis, calling on the revealed knowledge that come through imagination, poetry and narrative. There is more to know. There is more to say.
So Brueggemann turns to story.
Brueggemann writes, “I do not think for one moment that there is any ready transfer from this narrative (the story of David, to be considered momentarily) to our real life crisis with this virus. The Bible does not easily ‘apply.’ The Bible does, however, invite an open imagination that hopes for the best outcomes of serious scientific research, At the same time, it affirms that deeply inscrutable holy reality is in, with, and under, and beyond our best science.” (25)
A story is told in 2 Samuel 24: 1-14, and again in 1 Chronicles 21:1-13, that adds another perspective to our limited explanations. King David has ordered a census. God is angered. Perhaps David needs to reconsider his tax base. Perhaps David needs to recruit another army. In either case, David is more reliant on himself and his own means and less dependent upon God. God is angry. God will punish. But he will allow David to choose his punishment from three options: three years of famine or three months of warfare or three days of pestilence. The effects of famine cannot be experienced evenly or equitably. Somme communities may get by; others will be destroyed. Warfare, David knows too well, can be brutal. David will take his chance with three months of pestilence, because only by God’s own hand may David have a chance at mercy. (24:14).
David knows he has sinned. David knows he deserves punishment. Those realities are not in question. But guilt and punishment, the threat of pestilence, draws David back to God. Perhaps God will be merciful.
It’s a story. We do not know all the motivations or the outcomes. But we know that pestilence brings with it the opportunity to renew the relationship with the Divine, to seek God and be sought by God.
Reason will not reveal that. Only imagination.
There is more….