Lent is supposed to be a time of honest introspection in which we ritually imitate Christ’s journey to Jerusalem and the cross that awaits him there.
The COVID-19 pandemic offers us a fitting chance to reflect theologically on what is going on in this difficult time and how to respond to it in faith.
Some have said God is using this pestilence to judge the nation for its sins. Some are saying it is a test of faith and so we should gather on Easter to demonstrate our faith in God.
Cherry-picking biblical texts and historical precedents is easy, but theologically and practically problematic, if not irresponsible.
What other responses in faith might there be?
To name and repent of our sins is one response.
One sin is our individualistic, self- and nation-centered focus. COVID-19, as a global phenomenon, reminds us of the interdependence of all human life – even of all life, as we are beginning to see self-quarantining is giving creation time to renew itself from the ways we have damaged it.
This could be a time to reject finally the fiction of the imperial self, whose seemingly heroic voice we hear in the poem, “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
Instead, we can affirm, with Alasdair MacIntyre, that we are, at most, co-authors of our lives and that we are dependent, rational animals.
Another sin is placing our trust in neoliberal economic fictions for economic salvation that justify destructive inequities in wealth across the world – inequalities exposed by this event and that have complicated our responses to it.
A second faithful response is to take this opportunity to make technology serve us, not it (or its hidden masterminds).
We have all laughed at cartoons that show people together around a table each engrossed in a device rather than talking to one another.
In these days of physical distancing, human and humane interaction is more important, and we see how technology can serve that need for connection, but also its limits.
Perhaps when this is over, we will remember technology exists to serve a human way of life, not hinder it.
A third faithful response is to honor, protect and reward the profound sacrifices of people who are mostly invisible and significantly underpaid for what they do: Our front-line health care providers most obviously, but also grocery workers, delivery drivers, garbage collectors, mail carriers and hosts of others.
A fourth faithful response is to make sure the most vulnerable in our society are cared for.
A final one is to use the economic package that is coming out as an opportunity to restructure the economy in ways that allow for both reasonable profit and living income for all.
Some are interpreting COVID-19 as God’s judgment and a test of faith. At a superficial level, there may be something to that, but talk of God’s judgment and testing of faith is cheapened by conservatives (and too much ignored by liberals).
People who talk that way may claim, like the apostle Paul, that they are simply being fools for Christ.
But as one of my mentors is fond of saying, “There’s a difference between being a fool for Christ and a damn fool.”
If the virus is God’s judgment – and that is a big if – it is also the grace of God: an opportunity to repent, to change course, to embrace and live into the good life that God has for us – a good, as H. Richard Niebuhr reminds us is “not the good which we desire, but the good which we would desire if we were good and really wise.”
The virus offers grace: to proceed in trust that the arc of the universe does indeed bend toward resurrection – just as Jesus trusted, though not without struggle, that the way forward to new life was through crucifixion, not around it.
May God help us to respond in such trust to the opportunities that God is giving us as we make our own journeys toward Jerusalem this year.
Paul Lewis is Professor of Religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.