Some weeks it feels like most of what I do is deliver bad news. Well, not “news” — but old stories from the dismal past: nuclear crises and mutually assured destruction are coming up tomorrow in Cold War; on Monday morning my freshman seminar studied apocalyptic themes in post-World War I art; and this morning, the various crises of the Late Middle Ages were the theme of my lecture in our Western civ survey. Talking about the Black Death felt even more poignant and pertinent than ever, as I told the story of one pandemic in the middle of another. As I watched my students’ brows furrow and eyes widen above their masks, I quoted Boccaccio’s famous description of the plague that devastated Florence in 1348:
Either because of the influence of heavenly bodies or because of God’s just wrath as a punishment to mortals for our wicked deeds, the pestilence, originating some years earlier in the East, killed an infinite number of people as it spread relentlessly from one place to another until finally it had stretched its miserable length all over the West. And against this pestilence no human wisdom or foresight was of any avail; quantities of filth were removed from the city by officials charged with the task; the entry of any sick person into the city was prohibited; and many directives were issued concerning the maintenance of good health. Nor were the humble supplications rendered not once, but many times, by the pious to God, through public processions or by other means, in any way efficacious.
Admittedly, I’m more comfortable with natural explanations of such events: not Boccaccio’s astrological musings, but the insights of epidemiology, microbiology, and other sciences unknown to the 14th century. But even if I didn’t know the effects of a bacterium medievals could neither see nor imagine, attributing inexplicable suffering to “God’s just wrath as a punishment to mortals for our wicked deeds” sits uncomfortably with my belief in a loving, gracious God who sent his Son to save, rather than condemn, a sinful world.
But it’s not just pre-moderns who saw God’s wrath in human misery. Over the weekend, Jack White played a medley on Saturday Night Live that included a fragment of “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” a blues song by Blind Willie Johnson. Inspired by the influenza pandemic of 1918, it’s rather timely in 2020:
Well, the nobles said to the people, “You better close your public schools Until the events of death has ending, you better close your churches too”
We done told you, our God’s done warned you
Jesus is coming soon
“Great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere,” sang Johnson. “God is warning the nation, He’s a-warning them every way /
To turn away from evil and seek the Lord and pray.”
Here too, I resist interpreting COVID as God’s “warning.” But even as I want to listen to scientists and physicians — and criticize foolish political leaders who undermine public health measures — it’s hard not to take more seriously the theology of Johnson and Boccaccio when the daily lectionary gives us an Old Testament text that begins this way:
This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt…. the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah alone. (2 Kings 17:7, 18)
“This” is the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian empire, which carried those tribes into exile and then historical oblivion. The author of 2 Kings makes abundantly clear that, in his judgment, the people of God deserved the judgment of God: they engaged in myriad forms of idolatry, “despised his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their ancestors, and the warnings he gave them” (v 15). Indeed, the Israelites “would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been” — an allusion to yesterday’s text from Exodus 33, in which the Lord is so fed up with his golden calf-worshipping, “stiff-necked” people that he threatens to leave them entirely.
If blaming a plague on God’s judgment is a theological mistake, so too is identifying the American people with that of Israel.
But if it’s appropriate to consider how people less privileged, comfortable, and insured than me might read biblical stories of God’s judgment, then perhaps it’s not inappropriate to wonder how stiff-neckedly idolatrous my wealthy, powerful nation would have to be for God to abandon it. Not to the eternal fate our sin deserves, but to the political and cultural collapse that have been the fates of kingdoms far larger and more powerful than ancient Israel.
If nothing else, perhaps we American Christians should at least consider that God is again warning us “by every prophet and every seer, saying, ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes'” (v 13). May we not be stubborn, but listen and repent.