By Pierre Whalon
President Emmanuel Macron of France, in a speech on March 12, 2020, described what he thinks needs to happen after the epidemic is over :
We will have to learn the lessons of the moment we are going through, to question the development model to which our world has been committed for decades and which is revealing its flaws in broad daylight, to question the weaknesses of our democracies. (My translation)
President Donald Trump of the United States, in a press conference on March 29, 2020, addressed what he thinks needs to happen:
We have to get our businesses open, we have to get the planes flying, we have to get everything going, we have to get even the cruise ships, I mean we have to get those cruise ships moving along.
The question arises, what should life look like after the COVID-19 pandemic dies down? Like some three billion other fellow humans, I find myself at this time of writing under government order to self-confine in order to stop the spread of the virus. Confinement’s “silver lining” gives us each an opportunity to do some soul-searching about who we are really, and what we hope will happen when we can finally get out and about.
Reading The Way of Saint Benedict by Rowan Williams has made me realize that there is something similar to this time in my life and the time that a monk or nun spends in a cell. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury points out, monastic life holds together two basic aspects of Christian life that seem contradictory: solitude in which to see through one’s fantasies and focus on God’s call on one’s life; and communion with others in service.
President Trump stated in that press conference that the resulting job losses will significantly increase rates of suicide and drug use. As isolation, job loss, increased insecurity of necessities and financial means drag on over weeks and months, and school closings force parents and caregivers to mind children indoors without let-up, it is easy to see that Trump’s prediction is being borne out, alas.
There have been huge expressions of solidarity across the world. This great swell of good will has been extremely gratifying to witness. I am extremely impressed with the many ways that congregations and clergy have very rapidly developed to still be church when communal worship is not possible.
The return to “normalcy” that the President so ardently wants, however, will not happen. Economic disruptions will be far-ranging. Social trauma such as that experienced when being prevented from properly burying one’s dead will leave real psychological scars, as will the collateral damage of family members and friends committing suicide or succumbing to drug addiction, not to mention domestic violence.
Macron’s call to “learn the lessons of the moment we are going through, to question the development model to which our world has been committed for decades and which is revealing its flaws in broad daylight, to question the weaknesses of our democracies,” is what needs to be done in general, not just in the aftermath of the pandemic. Growing economic inequality and divisive political rhetoric were all very present before COVID-19 emerged to torment humanity.
Every economy in human history has had in fact two different but interlocking economies, the basic consumer economy of buying and selling goods and services, and the productive economy that provides those goods and service. Since the invention of money, a third basic facet of any economy emerged: the redistributive or financial function. What needs to be changed now is how globalization has disastrously re-jiggered the relations among the three. Finance itself has become an industry, “producing” money that has fabulously enriched a narrow class of people.
If humanity is entering a new cycle of decline — and it would seem so — then reversing that movement requires a full-throated diagnosis of the nature of decline.
The Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan’s theory of history includes such an understanding of the difficulty of reversing decline:
A civilization in decline digs its own grave with a relentless consistency. It cannot be argued out of its self-destructive ways, for argument has a theoretical major premise, theoretical premises are asked to conform to matters of fact, and the facts in the situation produced by decline more and more are the absurdities that proceed from inattention, oversight, unreasonableness and irresponsibility.
One does not have to look far today for absurd “facts.” The comedian Steven Colbert invented the word “truthiness” for the impulse to take for fact that which one wishes to be true based on some intuition or emotion, and not to allow real facts to change one’s opinion.
In this time of plague, people are rediscovering Albert Camus, especially his book La Peste (The Plague). Camus’ atheism was an indictment of the absurdity of human life, but with a glimmer that humanity could do better.
That “glimmer” was not based on trust that technology and science will rescue us. It is rather that the human heart desires better, wants to know, feels we can improve, senses that there is more to life than eating, drinking, and making merry. What frustrates the basic desire of the heart today, among other things, is what Pope Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm” in his major encyclical Laudato Sì’. The technocratic paradigm rests upon our illusion that God uses the creation willy-nilly for divine purposes and therefore, like God, so can we. The Cain and Abel story points to the murderous consequences of acting on that delusion. In terms of the encyclical, however, the sinful interpretation of 1:28: “subdue the earth and rule over [all the animals]” is responsible. Humans created in the image of God (1:27) are to be the stewards of creation on behalf of the Creator, not its despotic masters.
Given the huge drops in crime and pollution during our internment, it might occur to an alien race to confine us permanently to our homes! But the present danger also offers a way forward. Lonergan’s analysis of decline points to another reality as well, which is that the love of God creates all that is, and that love cannot be thwarted in the long run. If we attempt to determine what should come after the pandemic without it, we must be pessimistic. “Inattention, oversight, unreasonableness and irresponsibility” are in the long term just too overwhelming for humans on our own.
Creating a better reality than before can only come from people whose hearts and minds are firmly fixed on reality: God loves us all and offers each of a sacrificial way forward through the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is God’s Word on evil — not “natural evil” that is the result of universal processes, like infectious viruses or hurricanes, but human evil and its seemingly infinite repercussions. And his resurrection is God’s ultimate “yes” to us in all of our inattention, oversight, unreasonableness and irresponsibility.
Anything that we Christians do that does not grow out of our conviction that God loves the whole creation, including us humans in our subordinate role as wayward stewards, falls under judgment. This does not mean that we shall magically overcome inattention, stupidity, false judgments, and wrong actions. However, it does mean that at every level, individual, communal, national, global, we do indeed have the grace to change: to become and act as Christ.
Every one of us is involved in improving the lot of all. Surely this has come home to us in novel ways, as we navigate food shopping and getting medical care during confinement. How to move forward once I, once we, can move again?
People around the world should be asking what kind of capitalism is necessary? In the abstract, capitalism remains the most efficient way to distribute goods and services, but in practice this twisted, superbly wasteful capitalism is responsible not only for unacceptable inequalities but also the inexorable rise of more and more calamitous climate change. Finance should not rule the world: it should serve. While production of goods will require fewer workers, due to automation, concentrating means of production in a few regions has led to all kinds of other imbalances. There is no need to be fatalistic: we can change. We can strive to ensure that all economic actors are as free as possible to add to it and benefit from it, because only in this way can there be real flourishing for all.
Now we should spend time daily praying and meditating on Scripture. For if decline is the fruit of “inattention, oversight, unreasonableness and irresponsibility,” then flourishing must require that we pay attention, gather and weigh information, ask questions, entertain insights, imagine concepts, marshal our evidence, and figure out how to tell fact from fancy. And once we are on to a truth, we are responsible for communicating it to others. For what is true, what is good, is always concrete, not an abstraction.
The churches as institutions are currently facing challenges not unlike those faced in times past under enemy occupation: we are unable to meet physically, and our finances are in a very precarious position. In other words, we have been here before, and we survived. I believe the after-COVID period will in fact see a new growth in the churches, as those who found ways to reach out beyond themselves as well as maintain contact with their flocks will attract new people seeking fresh and authentic communities of followers of Jesus.
From the local to the global, each of us is being enlisted and empowered by the love of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit into freshly transformed, transformational communities of faith — for the life of the world.
Whether we Christians act on that reality will determine what is actually going to happen after COVID-19.
The Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon was bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe from 2001 to 2019.