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. This is part 11 Conclusion.
Brueggemann asserts that God is doing a new thing “in, with, and under” the COVID crisis (57) There is a difference, he argues, between causing the virus and using it. Brueggemann sees the possibility that God is “checking arrogance and curbing hubris” (57). He writes: “We now see curbed the absolute world of technological certitude that faces a mystery beyond calculation. We see that our immense power is unable to fend off threat that is for the moment beyond our explanation. We see that our great wealth is not able to assure us of security.” (57) And the outcome? Brueggemann hopes for “a new neighborly normal.” (57)
Brueggemann has been describing a process that has been moving us into ourselves as we have needed to isolate; re-evaluate our priorities; find new ways to go to school; go to work; adapt without work; gather – worship and minister as church; be family and neighbor. If despairing, we collapse in upon ourselves. Divorce rates and abuse rates have climbed at pace with the rates of infection. Alcoholism and drug use have risen. Risky, careless behavior has enabled the virus to spread. However, rethinking, risking, re-imagining, we have been able to hope for “a possible world not yet in view.” (58)
Governments have provided financial supports for businesses, industries, small businesses, and social programs. “Daring imagination” is becoming “historical possibility.” There is emerging a “moral imagination” that is “congruent with God’s hope for neighborliness.” Brueggemann writes, “That moral imagination is rooted in promise; at the same time it is grounded in the realities of dollars, laws, natural resources and social conditions. The prophetic task is to submit our awareness of dollars, laws, natural resources, and social conditions to the hopes of the creator God. Such imagination is indeed, ‘The assurance of things hoped for the conviction of things not seen’ [Hebrews 11:1] (58)
We could surrender to self-protectionism, seeking to insure our own well-being and safety at the expense of others. But that really is not security or safety or freedom. And when this COVID crisis finally recedes, the greater climate crisis will still remain. We cannot go back to normal. We are becoming a people with a new future. “The new thing God is making is a world of generous, neighborly compassion.” (58)
But this is going to be costly. It will be dangerous. There will be “labor pains, cries and demands.” (61) Christians would call this the way of the cross. “This process (emphasis his) … is a process of pain that is very deep, so deep that it cannot be lived through quietly or serenely, perhaps not by either the creator or by the creation.” (62)
Brueggemann has written elsewhere about the theme of “neighborly compassion.” He has also written before about the necessity of “breaking the silence.” This goes al the way back to the story of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. God confronts Cain asking, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10) The Hebrew children cried out in Egypt, groaning in their slavery. (Exodus 2:23). In defending his innocence, Job invited the land to cry out against him with weeping and thorns and weeds, if he were guilty. But such an outcry was not necessary. (Job 31:38-40) When some Pharisees challenged Jesus to have his disciples stop their ministries, Jesus replied saying, “I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:39-40)
There must be an outcry. As these passages illustrate, the silence must be broken to accuse the guilty, defend the innocent, share the anguish and proclaim the expectation of God’s deliverance.
So, as we have seen in these weeks of reflection, the virus draws us into ourselves, but then we are drawn beyond ourselves, into the Other and then beyond the holy Other into the one shared wholeness and well-being of all the others.
The change God is seeking is not the next step of progress. It is neither a technological given, nor the evolution of human dignity. Brueggemann calls it a “mystery shrouded gift from God.”
He writes, “The truth of newness from the human side is that God’s gift comes at huge cost, the cost of acknowledging that old creation has failed and is dysfunctional, the awareness that new creation requires disciplines, intentional reception. As a result, the move from old to new entails bewildering loss of control that comes in relinquishment.” (65)
He continues, “The move from an old creation marked by rapacious acquisitiveness to the new world of justice, mercy, compassion, peace and security is one that in socio-economic, political terms necessitates renunciation, repentance, yielding, and ceding of what has been.” (65)
Brueggemann reminds Christians that in the ritual of baptism we are asked, “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” Barely audibly, we respond, “Yes, with the help of God.” But Brueggemann also reminds us of “a renunciation of economic and political dimension that will be experienced as deep loss and that will evoke deep groans of a quite concrete, practical kind.” (65-66)
If we cannot shout out loud, “Yes! I renounce them!” then we must at least groan as deeply and as loudly as is required. “The groan is the mark of shock, bewilderment, and recognition that stands between the old world of death and the new world of life…. The Groan is the gate to the future of God’s new creation.” (66)
There must be an outcry.
It is possible to have a groan with no future. Here there is pain and despair and disillusionment. There are no gifts. There is no justice. Instead of going ahead, we go back, to the familiar, the normal, the exploitive and unjust. We act too late. We do too little. The tipping point is reached. There is no recovery. Creation, though not destroyed, becomes intolerable.
It is also possible to have a future with no groan. We continue with a global economy, with no denial, no cost, no global fair share, no investment in change.
But Brueggemann sees something more. “It is known among us that the new creation, from the human side, is a new network of care that requires the end of domination and exploitation, the end of controlling truth and monopolies of certitude, the end of an oil- based comfort that makes every day one of ease, comfort, luxury, extravagance and self-indulgence. That new network of care depends upon a willingness to think of creation not only as a wondrous gift but also as an uncompromising limit.”
So, as I take the vision of Brueggemann the prophet to heart, I ask, “Are we groaning enough?… Who are we groaning for?… Who are we groaning with? …”
This virus can draw us into a deeper relationship with God. Or not. And when the COVID crisis wanes, the environmental crisis remains. This is an even greater crisis. A more urgent summons. With deeper, more desperate groaning.
When we answer the summons to lose ourselves – to live more deeply, more simply, less selfishly, we will find ourselves more deeply related to God. And more deeply relating to God, we will find ourselves more deeply relating to others – all others, human and non-human, creatures and elements, above and below, beside and within.
But we must join the chorus of groaning. And, by grace, the groaning will become less about noise and more about chorus.
“Owwwwwwww!” becomes “Wowwwww!”
They sound the same.
But they begin differently.
And end differently.
“My God, how long?!” becomes “My God!”… becomes
If you have followed this whole series, these eleven blogs, it has taken a long time to get here.
God issued a summons, an invitation.
No, you RSVP to an invitation.
You show up to a summons.
We have not known how long this virus was going to take to get here.
To the Incarnate Christ, time means everything.
To the Cosmic Christ, time means nothing.
Time takes what it takes
for the care of creation….