Editor’s Note: We will be discussing this book, along with Hanz Gutierrez’s In the Time of Coronavirus (Adventist Forum, 2020) during our December 11 Friday Forum Book Discussion. Find more details on that by clicking here.
“So what do… Jesus-followers say? They do not say either ‘This must be a sign that the Lord is coming back soon!’ or ‘This must mean that we have sinned and need to repent’ — or even ‘this will give us a great opportunity to tell the wider world that everyone has sinned and need to repent.’ Nor do they start a blame-game… to see [who]… might have contributed to this dangerous situation. They ask three simple questions: Who is going to be at special risk when all this happens? What can we do to help? And who shall we send? (31-32)
N.T. Wright’s God and Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, offers compelling arguments for a Christian response to disaster, pandemic, war, and the like. This short, yet extremely engaging, book explores biblical insights that can provide Christians with guidance as to how they might respond during times of social stress. Wright is convinced that major threats to human well-being are part of the contingencies of life. Many would agree with Wright, that considerations of what Christians should do during such times is an important faith question. Wright explores possible answers by offering a close reading of select biblical passages and stories. His take home message, in the words of Jesus, “as God has sent me, I am sending you.”
The purpose of his book is detailed in Chapter 1, “Where Do We Start?” Here the reader learns of his motivations, concerns, and his beliefs regarding the Christian response to pandemic. Reminiscent of the work of Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, he commends to us how early Christians responded to natural disasters. He says, “…when serious sickness would strike a town or city, the well-to-do would run for the hills… The Christians would stay and nurse people. Sometimes they caught the disease and died” (3). Wright argues that contemporary Christians should practice extraordinary acts of care during times of crisis. He offers the Christian response as a juxtaposition to typical responses. The well-to-do run scared or seek protection. The Christian response is to stay and render assistance to those in need.
In addition to the typical propensity to run and seek protection is the tendency to ask why. Why is this happening to us? Wright is critical of this type of question. He offers labels and descriptions to typical responses to disasters. There is what he terms the “blame game,” where people want to know whose fault it is that we face this crisis (5). There is what he calls the “conspiracy theories,” where people actually know with certainty (so they say) who caused this crisis (5). God is trying to tell us something! And then there are “the opportunists” who use disaster and disruptions to ordinary life as an opportunity to evangelize (5). This is unfortunate. Christians should be so excited about Jesus that they should always be animated to engage in outreach and evangelize, suggests Wright. It should not have to take plague or pandemic to get Christians into the world. Lastly, he discusses the “angry god” explanation (6). Pagans, and adherents to naturalistic religions, assumed that when disaster struck, the gods were angry. Some Christian also believe a version of this. Wright argues those responses are misguided. He makes a case for Christian social engagement in times of crisis. In his view, the authentic Christian response to disaster is to provide assistance to those in need.
Wright believes that Christians, during times of crisis, disaster, and perhaps other forms of social unrest should be the eyes, hands, and feet of Jesus. As equally important, he argues that Christians should not waste time giving explanations as to how we got here. He opens Chapter 3 with a discussion of the significance of Jewish Passover. Passover is one of the most significant historical events in Jewish life and culture, he posits. When discussing their enslavement in Egypt, Wright says “…nobody ever said it was as result of their sin” (30). He says they say, “We’ve heard there is corn in Egypt” (30). He notes of first century Jews, “they were not looking backwards at what might have caused the problem. They were looking forward to see what needed to be done” (31). The posture of looking forward and away from explanatory analysis is what Wright is recommending.
This is the core of his argument: when he discusses the spirit of Jesus’ followers, they are described as people who ask the right kinds of questions, not questions of “why did this happen?” They asked, “what needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help?” He thinks contemporary Christians should avoid the blame game, conspiracy theories, and opportunistic approaches to disasters. The proper response to crisis is service.
Foundational to his position is an understanding that the Bible teaches humility in the face of mystery. Because we don’t always know the purposes of God, our ignorance requires humility. The story of Job is his central example. Job’s friends held the typical theological outlook of their day. If you are suffering you must to have done something wrong. Job claims righteousness, however! God says, “Job tells the truth.” How do you explain it? God explains it: you were not there!
Wright explores two powerful but challenging stories that Jesus tells in Luke 13:1-9, regarding the importance of humility in the face of not knowing. Jesus tells a story of a group of pilgrims who were killed, on Pilate’s orders, while sacrificing in the temple at Jerusalem. Immediately thereafter, Jesus tells a gripping story of the collapse of the tower of Siloam crushing eighteen people to death. Jesus then poses a question: were they worse sinners than all the others? According to common Jewish belief these types of experiences were thought to be signs of God’s judgment. Jesus points his disciples to mystery beyond their common beliefs. Wright explores these stories to make the point that there is not always a straight-line response from sin to calamity; there are phenomena we cannot explain.
In Jesus’ day people wanted prophetic utterances of destruction, wonder, plagues, and neat signs to know that the end was near (16). In our day people look for the same — Christians want signs. Wright believes it is an affront to God for Christians to search for signs. Why? Because Jesus proclaimed that he was the final sign: the blind have sight, the lame walk, the hungry eat, and there is life for the dead. Jesus proclaimed that it showed disbelief when the disciples requested a sign. Wright contends that the search for signs is backward looking (16). The sign of Jesus is forward looking. Jesus asks his disciples to look forward to what God is doing now. The lesson that Wright believes is being taught here is that Christians should not be looking backward for explanations or causes for disasters. We don’t need to explain what is going on in natural disasters, whether we are experiencing God’s wrath, or the end of time is near.
For Wright, when calamity strikes and disaster happens, Christians should avoid arrogant pronouncements as to the intention of God, or soothsaying about the end being near, or using such crises to awaken spiritual renewal. This is misguided and inconsistent with what the Bible is actually teaching.
We need to look forward and respond to the needs that emerge as a result of disaster. Wright’s basic call to return to the life, ministry, and ultimate significance of Jesus for guidance during times of pandemic is refreshing. Wright refocuses our attention on what we should be concerned with, the kinds of questions we should be asking, and what kind of work we should be doing.
Notes & References:
 The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press 1996, Princeton, N.J.
Andy Lampkin, PhD, is bioethics professor at AdventHealth University.
Book cover image courtesy of Zondervan.
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