The Christian Century‘s December 2, 2020, issue will contain a book review that I wrote of Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler’s new book, The Bible with and without Jesus: How Jews and Christian Read the Same Stories Differently (HarperOne, 2020) on pp. 38-39. Copyright proscriptions prevent my simply copying the review to my blog, but it is available already online (at least to CC subscribers–I’m not sure) at https://www.christiancentury.org/system/files/resources/120220.pdf. In brief, the book examines about a dozen passages from the Old Testament (or Jewish Scriptures) that are quoted in the New Testament. Levine and Brettler are both Jewish scholars, but their purpose shines through: to show both Jewish and Christian readers how both faith traditions can legitimately claim to offer reasonable and defensible interpretations, so that “possibilities” rather than polemics between the communities are called for. It’s one of the most insightful works on biblical interpretation that I have read in years. It could well serve as the basis of a series of adult education classes for a serious and engaged group of pastors and laity.
I recently read two books whose plots intertwined significantly with the history of America’s oldest institution of higher education, Harvard University. The first, Geraldine Brook’s Caleb’s Crossing, is loosely based on the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College (the “Caleb” of the title). The second is Ariel Sabar’s Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. It deals primarily with the much more recent story of how the holder of the oldest endowed academic chair in the U.S., Hollis Professor of Divinity Karen King, was duped into publishing and defending as authentic a fragment in Coptic (Egyptian from late antiquity) which quotes Jesus as referring to “my wife . . . Mary.” That main subject is not the facet of the book on which I want to comment, but the work did make for a fascinating (and cautionary) tale.
Let me insist from the first that I have no interest as a Yale grad in being snarky about the school up the road. Rather, the two books brought to my mind a struggle that has developed over the history of Harvard from 1636 to the present (and equally at my alma mater from 1701 to the present) over the appropriate ways and places to engage in what Valparaiso University’s vision statement calls “our common search for truth.”
Premodern Harvard College—Caleb’s Harvard—existed primarily to provide a learned clergy for (Protestant) Christians in the environs of Boston and, secondarily, to serve as a means of missionary outreach to the natives who then lived in close proximity. The curriculum of that school was heavy on classical languages (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), classical works in those languages, and what we today would label the “humanities.” Modern science was included (especially the natural sciences), but what we would call “social sciences” did not yet exist as distinct disciplines. In all honesty, I could recognize in this curriculum a strong family resemblance to my own pre-seminary preparation in the colleges of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in the early 1970s: lots of ancient languages and literatures and humanities, plus some science (yet by then a fair amount of social sciences, too). Discovery of truth was important, but so were its recovery, articulation, and internalization.
The Harvard University of today, of course, has a much more varied purpose and audience than at its start, to the extent that, according to the book Veritas (which happens to be Harvard’s motto: “Truth”), Harvard’s Divinity School is considered by some faculty in other fields to be a second-rate vestigial organ. (Harvard is one of very few first-rate universities that does not have a Religious Studies Department apart from its divinity school.) The part of the book that caught my eye was the author’s claim that Prof. King’s experience with the “Jesus’s Wife” fragment was in some ways intertwined with an effort at Harvard to revise the general undergraduate curriculum (which is under the supervision of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences). A revision committee had proposed that a course in “Faith and Reason” be added to the requirements. But the proposal died aborning, especially following attacks led by a prominent professor of psychology, who argued that Harvard was in the business of Reason, not Faith, and that a course with this title might be construed as placing these two putative sources of truth on a par with one another.
One of my favorite Luther quotes is that we are all like drunken peasants: if we don’t fall off one side of the donkey, we fall off the other. The psychology professor’s objection to a course in “Faith and Reason” struck me along these lines. His views are little changed from those champions of Reason in the 17th-18th century European Enlightenment who sought to lead humanity out of the superstitions and static truths of the Middle Ages (when the Church had reigned supreme) to a new era of logic and empirical, scientific truth. Their triumph was in some ways exemplified at the end of the 18th century, when Reason was enthroned in Paris’s Cathedral of Notre Dame in place of all that had been worshipped there previously.
Yet to be locked in early modernity makes no more sense to me than to be locked in late medievalism (a temptation among some Lutherans, to be sure). The rise of “post-modernism,” with its emphasis on identity, subjectivity, and context—all of which might be summarized in the phase of a mentor of mine, that there is no truth, only truths—has challenged the champions of Reason Alone from one direction. But that’s not my direction (although I have tried to learn from post-modern insights). Rather, I am minded more in the direction of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Stephen Jay Gould (late evolutionary biologist at Harvard) long argued for a theory of “non-overlapping magisteria”: reason and the scientific method to govern the search for truths of natural fact; faith and religion to govern the search for truths of ultimate meaning. I am not ready to join him in so stark a division, but I do credit him with understanding that both reason and faith are legitimate tools in the search for truth. What seems to me undeniable is that faith must have a place at the academic table, if we are serious about understanding what the ultimate Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, called “the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”
How to have faith participate in the academic conversation—whether more along the lines of religious studies (studies about faith) or along the lines of theology (studies ultimately from faith for faith) is a topic for another day. My answer is contextual: maybe one way at a Harvard and another at a Valparaiso. What I don’t think is reasonably [sic] debatable is that “Faith and Reason” makes for an honest and honorable course at any institution of higher education, including those governed by the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
When I first heard that President Trump wanted to establish a fifth branch of the United States Armed Forces, a “Space Force,” I assumed that it was one of those over-the-top ideas for which he has become famous. It would be here today, gone tomorrow. But the latest Time magazine shows that I was wrong: there’s an eight-page article entitled, “Yes, There Really is a Space Force.” Apparently, certain other nations (Russia and China chief among them) have begun to establish anti-satellite satellites in orbit, and the president (and now the Congress) think that a distinct branch of the military needs to be in place to counter the potential threat to technology on which not merely national security but everyday life depends (think GPS).
Still, I for one think that this step is madness. Why ever would the United States want to weaponize outer space any more than it already is? Even the perception that we are doing so (which can only be reinforced by having a separate branch with this name) will only undercut our already-tenuous moral authority among nations. And even if there is a credible threat to essential technologies like satellites, cannot the Air Force be tasked with caring for our security, even lacking the “air” part? The Time article notes that the 2021 cost of the new branch is for now a mere $15.4 billion (plus $2.6 billion more over the next five years) out of a defense budget of $740 billion. Nevertheless, the warning of President Eisenhower about the entrenched interests of the “military-industrial complex” comes quickly to mind (together with the more humorous but equally real remark of the late Senator Dirksen: “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money”).
What has puzzled me from the start of the discussion of this new, fifth branch has been the utter lack of a national debate on the topic. Yes, we’ve all been preoccupied with the pandemic at the cost of numerous other essential topics, chief among them climate change (although at least that got a cover article in Time’s last issue). And yes, I am aware of the satirical series on Netflix, starring Steve Carell. But to quote another American statesman (this time Senator Bob Dole, as he was campaigning against President Clinton in 1996), “Where’s the outrage?” I am deafened by the silence.
Or have I just been listening in the wrong places?
There is a long-running debate among biblical scholars (specifically of the New Testament variety) as to how to understand the one word from the cross that is reported in both the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46//Mark 15:34 NRSV). Both Gospels provide this line as a translation of the Aramaic that Jesus is reported to have called out (although there are minor variations in its spelling between the two).
No one questions that Jesus is here quoting the first line of Psalm 22, which Old Testament scholars label an “individual lament.” Here’s the debate: is Jesus expressing agony that, when his mission has at long last come to its crux (pun intended), his Father God has left him alone in the dark? (Hence, the traditional name of this line is the “Cry of Dereliction.”) Or is Jesus employing what scholars call an incipit (or “beginning”) method, by which his citation of the first line includes by reference the entire Psalm that follows? If so, we need to keep in mind how Psalm 22 concludes:
“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; / Before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, / And I shall live for him. / Posterity will serve him; / Future generations will be told about the Lord, / And proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, / Saying that he has done it.” (Ps 22:29-31 NRSV)
If this is the intent, then Jesus intends the furthest thing from expressing abandonment. He is claiming that even on the far side of death, he will be praising God (and, of course, a traditional Christian reading would even see an expectation of the resurrection in “I shall live for him”).
I’d like to float an idea in this post that may or may not have merit. I am not a New Testament scholar, nor (candidly) have I researched others’ scholarship on this verse. I am simply aware of the dispute.
My modest proposal is to split the difference between the two Gospels and the two approaches. I do not do so out of some idealization of the “middle way,” whether under Anglican or Buddhist influence. Rather, my idea comes from a close observation of the two Gospels, particularly the immediate context of the quotation and especially in what regards they differ one from another.
For starters, Mark is unquestionably the darkest of the four canonical Gospels. Three times Jesus predicts his own suffering and death (and resurrection) to the utter incomprehension of the disciples. There is no indication in the crucifixion account that any friendly parties are present; the closest is the centurion, who observes (post-mortem): “Truly this man was God’s son” (in what is, for Mark, surely an inclusio with his claim in 1:1). Otherwise, Jesus dies alone in the dark, likely enough (as many scholars have suggested) as a prototype of what some of his followers were experiencing at the time of Mark’s composition.
I have explored Mark’s theology on this matter more extensively in an article in Valparaiso University’s journal, The Cresset: “What the ‘Hell’ in the Apostles’ Creed” (http://thecresset.org/2019/Advent/Heider_A19.html). In brief, I agree with a beloved college and seminary professor of mine that, above all in Mark, Jesus is experiencing “hell” in its most literal form as the utter absence of God—all for our sakes.
In Matthew, too, Jesus dies in the darkness and without any friends in sight. But there’s a big difference, recorded in Matt 27:51b-53:
“The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (NRSV)
Right there, hiding in plain sight, is an explicit reference to the resurrection yet to be, not simply of Jesus, but also of “many bodies of the saints.” It is hard for me to avoid the idea that Matthew does not have the same level of despair on Jesus’s lips as appears to be the case in Mark. That would all make sense, if Matthew is working with an incipit understanding of Jesus’s quotation from Psalm 22, inclusive of the Psalm’s end.
So, there you have it: not a terribly sophisticated argument, but rather an idea to run up the flagpole and see who salutes.
In December 1995, at the end of my first semester as president of Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois, I delivered the address at the Winter Commencement of Valparaiso University. Little could I have imagined then that, within a decade, I would be serving on the Valpo faculty and would do so for the remainder of my career, for fifteen years. In any event, thanks to some diligent searching by staff in the VU archives, I was recently able to acquire a copy of my manuscript. I share it now for what it may be worth in our present context: brief reflections on race and racism from a quarter-century ago.
“Exorcising the Demon”
President Harre, Provost Austensen, distinguished deans and members of the University faculties, families and friends of today’s graduates, friends of this university, and especially you, the members of today’s graduating class:
It is both an honor and a delight for me to be with you today. I stand before you as one who has long admired Valparaiso University as a place of serious engagement with issues of both faith and scholarship, and now as president of another university which looks at this one, by turns, as rival, as model, and as partner in the task of Lutheran Christian higher education. True to your motto, you have looked to the divine Light for vision; going it one better, you have shared that Light with many others of us who are trying to make our way as citizens of the two kingdoms of Law and Grace.
Occasions such as this one can call forth a variety of types of addresses. Some speakers keep their remarks short and light, mindful that for much of their audience, their remarks are, at best, a diversion to be endured before getting to the real business of the diplomas and then the parties and gifts and other celebratory rituals. Tempting as such an approach is for you and for me, I’ve chosen another way this afternoon. I’d like to engage your hearts and minds just one more time as members of this academic community in what I promise will be a brief consideration of the fundamental social issue confronting us as Americans today. My objective is not comprehensive treatment, nor is it facile solution. It is rather to suggest that as you pass from these hallowed halls into your several vocations, or perhaps to still other hallowed halls, you dare not fall back into uncritical ways of thinking or behavior. For the investment you have made in your education here to have meaning, you will need to take with you and to use the values and skills and knowledge you have learned here, not merely to make a living, but to have a life.
That fundamental social issue which I mean to address with you today is, of course, the matter of race and racism. It is there, barely concealed, in so much of our public discourse and experience. It is there as an infinitely complicating force in so many of our interpersonal relationships. It is there as the greatest shame of our national past and arguably the greatest challenge to our future. It bids fair, in my view, to be characterized as the demon which haunts the American house, threatening to divide it against itself in ways exceeding President Lincoln’s most awful nightmares. Worst of all, I believe, we seem regularly to go through periods when we think it will all go away, if only we don’t talk about it. Whether or not you agree with even one of the ideas which follows, my objective, again, is to insist that you must bring to bear the best of your thoughts and skills and values as you go forth from this place, and that you must do so on this issue.
I come at the subject, self-evidently, as a white male and perhaps a bit less self-evidently, as one who spent his formative years in the 1960s in the culturally southern border state of Maryland. I do not discount that my background is part of who I am and how I come at this issue, but, then again, that could be said of us all. Most consciously, however, I approach race and racism as the president of a Lutheran Christian university who aspires to the vocation of Biblical theologian. It is above all from that perspective that I speak to you today. If race and racism are the demon which haunts America, how shall we exorcise the demon?
One of the most transformative insights in my own reflections on this issue came about five years ago, as l attended the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges in Washington. (As an aside to the deans among us, yes, those dollars spent on sending faculty to professional conferences can be worthwhile.) Addressing us was a historian, Barbara Fields, whom I knew only from her appearances in Ken Burns’s documentary series on the Civil War. Dr. Fields argued that, in fact, race has no biological basis; it is entirely a cultural phenomenon. Since then, particularly in the last year, this same argument has appeared in the popular press, and I continue to find it persuasive. All of the searches for genetic differentiations, be they based on bell curve distributions of intelligence or on, say, athletic ability, are simply nonsense. Race is a cultural construct. Racism, therefore–and here I enter as theologian–is something we have done to ourselves.
But what else does the Biblical theologian have to contribute to the discussion? The fact is, it is extraordinarily difficult to find anything in the Scriptures corresponding to our modem idea of race. I trust that by now we are all well past the point of seeing race in Noah’s curse of his son Ham, or actually his grandson, Canaan, and in the Table of Nations at the end of the Flood story in Genesis. It is tough to find race, but racism, or at least its motivating spirit, is certainly evidenced and confronted. That spirit moves from the fact of subdivisions of humanity along any number of lines to prejudicial treatment of individuals from another group, based on preconceived notions–and usually fears–about what members of that group must be like. It is the presence of that spirit which gives the extraordinary power to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ hearers, at very least his modem ones, are forced to face the locus of the problem. As is shown by the parable, the issue is not, “Who is my neighbor?”, that is, what are the theoretical limits of my obligation, but “Who proved neighbor to the man?”, that is, who responded to the present instance of human need with the gift of self. The implications for the present discussion are clear: if we have a problem dealing with another human being apart from some culturally defined category, it is our problem, not the other’s. And our choices are just as clear: we can confront this problem in ourselves, or we can, like another who encountered Jesus, walk away sorrowing, for we are unable to give up that which keeps us from the Kingdom of God.
In the case of that rich young ruler, the separator was, of course, his wealth. I am aware of the argument in the debate over race and racism that racism in America is entirely a white phenomenon, because “racism” is best defined as prejudice plus the power to act on that prejudice. There is much to be said for this view. There is no question that, as any number of colonial powers found, or as the Israelis are now discovering on the West Bank, sustaining the structure needed to keep another group under control is ultimately more corrosive to the rulers than to the ruled. Our best values must be temporized, and we must anesthetize our reluctance to do what must be done to maintain the status quo. I agree that we who are not daily and constantly reminded of our difference from what the popular culture sees as the norm bear a special burden for “proving neighbor” to those who cannot avoid that reminder.
However, in the end, I do not believe that it is either intellectually honest or pragmatically helpful to attempt to limit and solve the problem of race and racism by definition. The causes and effects of racism are complex and pervasive, even if not equally distributed. Ultimately, I would argue, they are theological, the most obvious modern manifestation of our inclination as humans to replace God with ourselves at the center of our universes and to see all things in motion relative to ourselves. Under these circumstances, we must each and all look first into our own eye for the beam of prejudice and then, by turns, give and accept both judgment and grace from others.
Obviously, I have not even begun this afternoon to deal with many of the fruits growing on racism’s poisonous tree or with the many difficult issues of social policy which have a racial dimension. That’s what we need to get at together, as you go out there. For now, I’d send you with a couple of observations to consider. First, it’s my experience as a theologian and more and more as a citizen that when controverted issues reach a complete impasse, it is often because the wrong questions are being asked. Focus on the questions. Second, as we seek after approaches and solutions, the real trick is to know how to combine the conceptual frameworks of the past and the values we hold as both heritage and truth with new needs and possibilities. To do that takes extraordinary vision, and the ability to gain perspective on both forest and trees.
But it can be done. The second most influential presentation I’ve ever heard on the subject of race came last year, when it was my privilege to visit the embassy of the Republic of South Africa in Washington and to meet their ambassador, the Honorable Frederick Sonn. Ambassador Sonn contrasted the multiracial vision which is increasingly prevalent in the United States with what he termed the non-racial vision which is the goal of South Africa. Obviously, there’s much more to be asked and said, and I don’t know myself how much promise such a vision holds for us. But I leave you with this: maybe there’s yet a better way for us, and maybe we’ ll have to look elsewhere, just maybe to South Africa, for the idea which, by the grace of God, those who sit where you sit in the year 2095 may see as self-evident in retrospect.
In a few minutes President Harre will confer upon you the degrees you have earned, with the challenge that you use them to the glory of God and to the betterment of society. For my part, and as part of that task, I offer you a commission as an exorcist, and I call you to drive out the demon of racism as Jesus did those of his own time, with fasting and prayer and with the moral force of those whose food it is to do the will of the Father of all the human race.
Congratulations, and best wishes to you and your alma mater in the years ahead!
As has been the case following earlier racist atrocities (such as the Emanuel 9 in Charleston just five years ago last month), ever since George Floyd’s killing, the nation has been wracked by a renewed debate regarding what to do with the statues placed in venues of public honor to commemorate the leaders and soldiers of the Confederate States of America. With every incident, the public consensus seems more clear that they must be removed from their present locations, either to be transferred to museums, where their historical significance can be placed in proper context, or destroyed altogether.
For what it is worth, I have come to the conclusion that this growing consensus is correct (I favor the museum option). I write these words as a son of the South (if you’ll allow that of my youth in southern Maryland). Those who fought for the Confederacy did so for one chief, undeniable purpose: to preserve or even to extend the practice of chattel slavery of other human beings, despite the foundational proposition that “all men are created equal.” This “peculiar institution” was a contradiction of our expressed values. But it was always more than that. It was a moral abomination. (For the record, Old Testament scholars do not toss about the term “abomination” lightly.)
I believe this to be true even of statues commemorating an individual who remains, by many accounts, a man of noble character (albeit a slaveholder himself): Robert E. Lee. Certainly, by comparison with some of his counterparts on the Union side (Grant and Sherman come to mind), he excels as a man. But he chose to decline President Lincoln’s offer to command the Grand Army of the Republic and to lead the army defending slavery instead. For that decision, his statues, too, must go.
Still, as in most any historical debate, there have been some excesses even on what I consider the side with the better argument. One is the repeated charge that those fighting for the South were “traitors” (see, for example, the New York Times editorial of 6/19/2020 at https://www.nytimes.com/search?query=statues%2C+traitors). The term is simply anachronistic: one of the subsidiary issues of the war was to determine whether or not a state could opt out of the Union after having opted in. It was, in fact, states in New England that had earlier raised this issue (although they had not gone to war over it). The war resolved the question in the negative. But at the time of the war the issue was in dispute, as Lincoln’s own 1865 Second Inaugural (posted earlier today) suggests (although he had no doubts himself). As many historians have noted, it was only the Civil War (not the “War Between the States,” pace one of my eighth-grade teachers) that changed our grammar from “the United States are” to “the United States is.”
Secondly, one of ironic upsides that has emerged from the murder in Minneapolis and the protests that have followed is the recognition that American racism is not a problem distinctive to the South. Yes, it was the South that featured de jure segregation, Jim Crow, and poll taxes. But what of the North? There’s the de facto segregation of redlining and similar boundary-drawing practices. I am old enough to remember the riots in the South—South Boston, that is—over court-ordered busing in the late 1960s. I have seen more than enough Confederate battle flags in the North—north Michigan, that is. I have never forgotten the day that an African-American young woman in one of my theology classes at Valparaiso University (in northwest Indiana) listed off for the class the nearby towns where she would never be caught alone, especially after dark.
So, we’ve all (but particularly my fellow Caucasians) got plenty to listen to and learn, plenty to repent of, and plenty to change, if we’re to have any hope of forming a “beloved community” in keeping with the expressed values of our country.
But for now, the statues have to go. And those of us who are lifelong, ardent fans of the Washington Redskins have additional reckoning to do. But that’s a subject for another post.
On this Independence Day at a time of extraordinary stress and division in our country, it is well-worth recalling the most profoundly theological (and gracious) address ever delivered by an American political leader at a moment that, if anything, was an even more fraught than ours. Here it is, without further commentary (or editorial corrections to the manuscript):
Transcript of President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865)
At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the enerergies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it — all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissole the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern half part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said f[our] three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
The post that follows is longer than usual, because I wrote it as a column for the “Being Lutheran” series of Valparaiso University’s journal, The Cresset. Unfortunately (and ironically, given the article’s subject), the pandemic has compelled the University to make many fiscal cutbacks, among them the suspension of The Cresset‘s publication for at least the next two years. The journal’s editor, Heather Grennan Gary, has kindly given me permission to post the article to my blog site. Please note that the article was written over three months ago; I have not sought to update it.
There is a certain risk in writing on a topic that is dominant in the news now (late March 2020) for a publication that will not appear for at least a few months yet. Still, I shall give it a go. If what follows is by the time of its appearance (and by the grace of God) a “period piece,” so be it. I shall argue in what follows that there are still lessons to be learned and points to be taken. On the other hand, every present indication is that we are apt to be dealing with this pandemic for some considerable while. If so, I offer the following in the hopes that it may be analogous to what Baltimore Colts great Johnny Unitas said of his passes: not thrown directly to readers, but to readers where they will be when the ball gets there.
My title is, of course, adapted from the celebrated 1985 novel by Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. But the impetus for my reflections comes from a non-fiction work that I just finished reading: Frank M. Snowden’s Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. To be sure, Snowden’s “present” is 2018, so he concludes with reflections on SARS and Ebola, not COVID-19. But as I processed his account through the lens of my present, I came to see that there is much that we have failed to learn from our past. So, in George Santayana’s oft-quoted epigram, we are condemned to repeat it.
Of all the doleful chapters in Snowden’s book, the one that most caught my inner eye was his account of the successful, American-led effort to eliminate malaria on the Italian island of Sardinia in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In a nutshell, the campaign (and it was conceived and executed in terms of a military operation) focused on a single vector of attack: the application of copious amounts of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (a.k.a. DDT). The objective was to eliminate the Anopheles labranchiae mosquito whose bites transmit the parasites Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax that, in turn, engender malaria in humans. In ways considered comparable at the time to the Allies’ complete victory over the Axis in 1945, the war succeeded by the early 1950s.
However, as Snowden goes on to explain, there were numerous aspects in which this “victory” must be termed narrow at best and more aptly Pyrrhic.
First, the world community (led by epidemiologists at the time) learned many wrong lessons from Sardinia, beginning with the assumption that what had been done there was scalable to the point that, given enough DDT, the world could be rid of malaria, just as it was on the way to eliminating smallpox. Not so. To put the matter bluntly, Africa (where malaria to this day is most virulent) is a considerably larger island than Sardinia. It is also much more diverse as one confronts the “facts on the ground.” Scalability was only the tip of the iceberg faced by those with the hubris to imagine that Sardinia could be replicated on a continent-wide canvas—to say nothing of a worldwide one.
Along these lines, those who wrote the reports on the Sardinian campaign conflated the most obvious and important factor in the elimination of malaria (i.e., DDT) with its being the sole factor. At least two other changes corollary to the campaign played notable roles. First, the DDT had to be applied, so numerous Sardinians were hired and paid a good wage (by local standards), so that poverty and its concurrent dangers to health were reduced. Secondly, the limitation of the range of the mosquitoes and their malaria enabled more land to be cultivated. Increased food supplies (and farmers’ income therefrom) also made a difference.
Thirdly, often lost in the telling of the story was an official, Italian effort that had been underway since 1900 to eradicate malaria on Sardinia through the administration of quinine and the establishment of rural medical centers and schools to serve and teach Sardinians about the nature of malaria and how the new drug fit into its suppression. The American postwar campaign did not land on an insula rasa. Snowden notes that this earlier, more holistic effort had mixed success for a long time, but at very least it prepared Sardinian hearts and minds to support the DDT-based campaign.
As a final note by way of summary, Snowden has the integrity as an historian not even to mention what was later learned of DDT, viz., that it both wrecks the ecosystem to which it is applied and is carcinogenic in humans. Fashionable as it is these days in some circles, retroactive criticism via 20/20 hindsight can be mean and unfair. In this case, most famously, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did not appear until 1962. Still in all, so much the worse for the American-led Sardinian campaign against malaria.
So, to quote the rabbinic sages, “What does this teach us?” I am no scholar of public health, nor a medical researcher, so my evaluation of the technical, medical steps underway now and in the coming months must yield to those with scientific expertise. However, a humanist (yea, even a theologian) may still dare to contribute to the conversation, as I shall attempt in the points that follow.
First, we are all caught between two realities: quarantines and cordons sanitaires do help slow down the spread of disease, but they cannot stop it, regardless of how draconian a regimen is enacted. Otherwise put, national and state borders are one place to attempt to draw proverbial lines in the sand, but like the waters of the presently overfull Lake Michigan that have devastated the little beach at our home, germs have little regard for political or even natural boundaries, and once they have transgressed those borders (as they will), the most that exclusion regimens can hope for is to buy time (or, in the phrase du jour, to “flatten the curve”). The upshot is that we truly are all in this together. As Snowden put it toward the end of his chapter on Sardinia: “Malaria, like all epidemic diseases, is a crisis not of nations, but of humanity.” (Snowden, 384)
Secondly and as a corollary, while I would not go so far as to claim that an epidemic is a cultural construct (nor do I read Snowden that way), times like this do offer humanity a chance to reflect on our place in the world. Genesis 1 tells us that humanity is unique in being created in the image of God and in being delegated the responsibility of stewardship of creation. Situations like the present one remind us that we may be stewards, but we are not gods, and that, mindful of the many ways in which we humans have betrayed our trust in God’s ecology (and economy, in the classic sense of “plan”), we are very much both in creation and of creation. In fact, a favorite quotation of mine from the otherwise utterly gnostic tale of the 1999 movie The Matrix reminds us that, from a certain perspective, we have more in common with the enemy whom we now confront than we would readily concede. The following words come from “Agent Smith,” a representative of the powers that would shield humanity from reality, to “Morpheus,” a leader of those who would bring the truth to light:
“I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague, and we are the cure.” (The Matrix IMDb)
Reframing the present pandemic as virus versus virus ought at least to provoke our reflection on the larger picture of our place in the world, beyond present directives to “shelter in place.” Which will win out, numbers or wits? And what does it say of our self-absorption that the entire coronavirus affair, which threatens (so far as I know) only one species on Earth (i.e., the ones with the “wits”), has all but driven from our consciousness the larger threat that we have wrought to the continuation of life as we know it on this planet? The approaching “tipping point” was only, finally coming to our full, global awareness when we all got distracted.
Thirdly, if we learn nothing else from our adventure in Sardinia seventy years ago, it should be that there can never be a “magic bullet” to solve pandemics like the present one. Even if an inoculation were issued tomorrow in sufficient quantity both to cure those with the coronavirus disease and to prevent anyone else from getting infected (a contrary-to-fact conditional if ever there was—or is it “were”—one), we would simply be “kicking the can down the road” until the next go-round with another microbe. So long as those Dickensian waifs who stood concealed beneath the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present, i.e., ignorance and want, are still alive and in our midst in quantity, humanity will not be safe (Dickens, 94-95). As of this writing, the depredations of COVID-19 have largely been felt in the northern hemisphere (where, to be sure, ignorance and want are plentiful), but the ghastly consequences of its dispersal among the peoples of the “Two-Thirds World” of the South (which is just now getting underway) beggar the imagination. Just think malaria. Or Ebola. Or HIV/AIDS.
Science fiction (which I often assigned to my students, explaining that it was really about this world) is full of stories of humanity finally (and too often temporarily) united only when an attack from outside the Earth confronts us. (I think of a work beloved by one of my children years ago, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.) Can we, even at this late date, find the will to rise above finding rolls of toilet paper for our own private stashes to make a dent in issues that really matter for the world and its people? Snowden’s concluding paragraph pulls together much from his historical recounting. He is writing of the international effort to counter Ebola in West Africa from 2014-16, but he could as well have placed the same paragraph at the end of nearly any of his chapters (or, I would argue, the chapter that we are now all writing):
“Epidemic diseases are not random events. As we have seen throughout this book, they spread along fault lines marked by environmental degradation, overpopulation, and poverty. If we wish to avoid catastrophic epidemics, it will therefore be imperative to make economic decisions that give due consideration to the public health vulnerabilities that result and to hold the people who make those decisions accountable for the foreseeable health consequences that follow. In the ancient but pertinent wisdom, salus populi suprema lex esto—public health must be the highest law—and it must override the laws of the marketplace.” (Snowden, 505)
I am neither a pessimist nor an alarmist by nature. But we could do a whole lot worse in the present circumstance than take up Martin Luther on his plan for the day before the end of the world: go plant a tree.
Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. NY: Tor, 1985.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Orig,. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. Citation from NY: Garden City, 1938.
Márquez, Gabriel García. Love in the Time of Cholera. Orig., El amor en los tiempos del cólera: Columbia: Oveja Negra, 1985; Eng trans.: NY: Knopf, 1988.
The Matrix IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu (consulted 3/24/2020).
Snowden, Frank M. Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. New Haven: Yale, 2019.
I do not claim expertise in any of the martial arts. But one that has long intrigued me (at least insofar as I understand it) is jujutsu (or jiu jitsu), first developed as an actual means of combat in samurai-era Japan. The aspect that I find most interesting is that among its fundamental principles is the application not so much of brute, offensive force, but rather the diversion of the opponent’s force of attack to his (or I suppose her) own disadvantage.
This principle came to me as I was reflecting on Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 8 regarding the eating of meat sacrificed to idols (see also Romans 15 and 1 Corinthians 10). As almost any commentary on 1 Corinthians notes, ancient meat markets were full of the surplus from sacrifices that had been offered at local temples of Greek (or Roman) gods to “images” (or in Greek eidōla, idols) of those gods. Paul states at the outset of his remarks that, since idols represent nothings (or no-god “gods”), there is nothing intrinsically wrong with consuming meat that may have come to market by way of such sacrifices. But he adds immediately, there may be other Christian believers who lack this knowledge, as their worldviews may still reflect a belief in the existence of the old gods. These believers Paul calls the “weak,” and their faith might be undermined to the point of loss, if they were to witness fellow Christians eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (thereby effectively participating in idol worship in their minds). So, the only thing to do is (adapting an old burger ad slogan) to let them have it their way. Paul’s ultimate point is that love must trump knowledge for the sake of the other.
But exactly here is where the argument gets interesting for me. Given Paul’s fundamental principle (love of others must trump knowledge—truth!—that one possesses), then a corollary is that to insist on one’s own way is to place oneself among the “weak.” Who wants to do that? Here enters Paul as jujutsu sensei.
Of course, we cannot simply absolutize Paul’s argument to every disagreement. Paul is speaking here of actions that can either be done or not be done without sin (which is not to be simply conflated with error). But when we think about it, how many issues in today’s church and world do not fit this pattern?
To give a religious example, I’ll say plainly that I am not a fan of individual cups in communion. Rather, I favor a single, wiped-off common cup. Lutheran Christians believe that when we celebrate the sacrament, we should do so in as like a manner as possible to what Jesus did when he said, “Do this.” Furthermore, every biblical reference to the “cup” involved in the Supper is singular. (There are also studies regarding hygiene, but I’ll stop.) I think I’ve got “knowledge” on my side here.
My preferred compromise (at least absent a pandemic that makes the preparation and sharing of the wine in any mode problematic) is to employ a “pouring chalice”: a single cup with a pouring lip that the minister uses to pour into individual cups as people come forward. But would I insist on a common cup or even on my compromise, if it would keep people away from God’s altar? Unless I had good reason to think that the validity of the sacrament was at stake (and I do not), No. To insist on my perspective, I would have to be, in Paul’s words, “weak” or else, conversely, willing to sacrifice those who lack my “knowledge.” But love trumps knowledge.
Or how about in the secular sphere? Since Paul was addressing himself specifically to behavior among Christians, let’s start there. Take, for example, a Supreme Court case from a few years ago, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. I’ve written more fully on the case elsewhere: http://tif.ssrc.org/2011/10/27/the-supreme-question-in-hosanna-tabor-v-eeoc/. The long and the short of it is that I think that the justices’ 8-0 vote in favor of the church’s right to choose its ministers, even at the expense of the fair employment rights of a teacher at its school, was correct as a matter of law. But I feel equally strongly that the church in question probably (i.e., based on what I know) wronged the teacher. I remain troubled that, as I see it, knowledge trumped love in her case.
There are surely a host of issues on which reasonable people, including non-Christians, may differ civilly. So, what do you think: is Pauline jujutsu more widely applicable in our nation and world?
Yet. Still. Once again. Our nation has witnessed another of what has become an horrific sequence of vile and violent acts against black fellow-citizens. This time it was the extra-judicial killing of Mr. George Floyd by a sworn officer of the law while on duty. Among Floyd’s final words were, by an awful irony, the expression of what many African-Americans have long felt and tried to say: “I can’t breathe.”
From a certain perspective, now is a time to listen, not speak (or write). I have tried to follow that wisdom, at least by reading a great deal and attending with especial care to the “Can you hear me now?” that has at long and tragic last managed to put even the current pandemic to the side. Yet speaking (and writing) is what I do by vocation—by calling—so that to remain silent at this moment would be its own violation.
What we surely all must acknowledge by now is that this terrible incident was not an exception. Unlike what appears to have been the case in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis—Minneapolis!—was not a premeditated act by civilians acting as what can only with the greatest charity be called “vigilantes.” Arguably even worse, it was policemen following Standard Operating Procedure who proved deaf to the pleas of a dying man.
And with that we seem to be coming close to the root of the problem: our inability to recognize a “we” when we see a person who for any reason whatsoever doesn’t fit with the group that we de facto define as our own. Specifically, until a much larger preponderance of Americans than is now the case recognize that “Black Lives Matter” (or BLM), then repulsive acts toward those guilty of “Living While Black” (or LWB) will persist.
In other words, what our African-American brothers and sisters have been trying to say to us white folk gently for a long time is true: racism is, at its heart, a systemic issue, not merely an individual one. I accept that truth (including its implications for my own part of the problem). At the same time, I reject as unhelpful definitions of “racist” that include anyone who benefits from “white privilege” (which is quite real, but what’s unhelpful is that what’s true of all whites by definition is by definition going to be well nigh impossible to address). Systemic change will require the strategy of “how do you eat an elephant”: one bite at a time. We might well begin in the current circumstance by asking just why is it that people of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and then by strategizing what to do about that.
Finally, I feel compelled to say a word about the violence that has taken place in addition to the many peaceful expressions of discontent with the status quo. First, I have seen and read enough to be reluctant to assert that we’re talking about the same groups of people (the peaceful and the violent). (In this connection, reports of white anarchists adding to the mayhem are particularly troubling.) Second, I welcome what I have read by way of explanation of why some minorities might feel moved to violence, but I cannot accept these accounts as excuse. (I even read an essay this morning that compared recent violence to Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple. But, for starters, Jesus didn’t make off with the coins from the tables.) It has been, after all, all too many oft-minority-owned small businesses in poor neighborhoods that have borne the brunt. Then again, it should not surprise those immersed in a pandemic that sickness begets sickness.
Indeed, why can we not step back at this moment and agree that, surely as with the coronavirus, what we’re facing with racism is a public health crisis, only of vastly longer duration and with nothing approaching “herd immunity”?