On January 12, something remarkable happened during a live-broadcast of CNN. During a visit to a Los Angeles hospital, the reporter broke down in tears while reporting on the “New Day” program. Sara Sidner had interviewed Juliana Jimenez Sesma. In the space of eleven days, this woman lost her mother and her stepfather to Covid-19. Her mother’s funeral service had to be conducted in a parking lot. Sara could not hold back her tears when she told the viewers that this was the tenth hospital she had visited, and that she had heard this kind of heartbreaking stories everywhere. “It’s really hard to take! Sorry!” she said between her sobs.
I must confess that it deeply touched me when I saw this. More so than other pictures that we regularly see on TV, of overcrowded ICUs in hospitals, of rows of refrigerated containers being used as temporary morgues, and of fields with hundreds of freshly dug graves. Here was someone, who was used to seeing tragedies, but was now overwhelmed by emotion. It reminded me of two moments in the life of Jesus, when he was overcome by feelings of compassion. In Matthew 14, we read how Jesus tried to find some peace in a remote place. However, a large crowd was determined to see and hear him. When Jesus saw a “large crowd,” he “had compassion on them” (verse 14). A few chapters earlier, the emotion of Jesus as he saw the people around him is described even more poignantly. After Jesus had “passed through all the towns and villages,” proclaiming the good news in the synagogues and healing “every disease and every ailment,” we read, “He saw the crowds”, he had “compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:35, 36).
In this time of Corona many things do not leave us unaffected, even if we ourselves have not been physically affected by the virus. Events like Sara Sidner’s tearful reporting touch us deeply. And for very many people, this also, again and again, raises the question of God’s role in this Covid-19 pandemic, which has now claimed more than two million lives worldwide.
N.T. (Tom) Wright, the British theologian who for a time also served as a bishop in the Anglican Church, wrote a book about God and the pandemic. It was immediately translated into Dutch. If you expect this author to have the definitive answer to the question of the exact role of God in this and other disasters that have affected humanity, you’d better keep the 15.99 euros that the book costs in your pocket. Many things that happen in our imperfect world are inexplicable. But before we blame God for anything, we must remember that the condition of this world is the result of what we as humans have done to our planet. In doing so, we cannot ignore the fact that many epidemics belong to the category of so-called zoonotic diseases that may “jump” from animals to humans. Covid-19 is one such zoonosis. There are still many questions about what exactly happened with respect to Covid-19, but, in general, we can say that the way we keep, trade, transport and consume animals poses enormous health risks.
Of course, such an observation does not begin to settle the question of God’s part in all the misery, including during the current crisis, that afflicts the world. But, says Wright, what God does in this world should never be separated from what he has done for humanity in Christ. In his compassion, God went to great lengths to restore wholeness to our human brokenness. That process, which he began in the life and death of Christ, he is going to bring to completion. Therefore, Wright continues, we should not constantly look back at what God may have or may not have done, but we must look forward to what he is still going to do about it (p. 32).
In the meantime, it’s okay to complain. A significant portion of the Psalms are lamentations, in which the poet, full of sorrow and sometimes with anger and reproach toward God, observes that an awful lot of things in the world, and in our lives, are not as they should be. And it is significant that there is even a book in the Bible called Lamentations. It is the record of the bitter lamentations of people who had ended up as disenfranchised exiles in Babylon.
The consolation that Tom Wright holds out to us, that, while things in the world are not as they originally were and should be, they will eventually become again what they should be–isn’t that a bit too meager a consolation? Or is his message perhaps a welcome and encouraging reminder that, even in this current crisis, in which even seasoned reporters may burst out in tears, many wonderful things are still happening?
As we read the Book of Lamentations, we suddenly come across in the third chapter these wonderfully encouraging words -words that we can also add to our complaints so many centuries later:
Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed,
For his compassions never fail!
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness!