In the weeks and months following the global economic shutdown due to the novel coronavirus and the international quarantines and shelter-in-place orders, people struggled to make sense of the pandemic. Whose fault was the virus? What was its purpose? How could people keep their faith when they couldn’t worship together in churches?
New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, “I heard some people in America were saying that the pandemic is a sign the Lord is about to return or a wake-up call telling people to repent of some social evil. But I thought, ‘Hang on, that’s too cheap. There must be a better biblical reaction [to the pandemic] than that.’”
Instead of relying on overly simplistic theologies or easy platitudes, Wright—a research professor New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; the former Anglican bishop of Durham, England; and the award-winning author of over 80 books—went to scripture for answers on the Christian response to pandemic. The eventual result was his new book, God and the Pandemic (Zondervan Reflective), which includes chapters on the importance of lament, the Christian response to suffering, and moving forward into the future. Although less than 100 pages, the book offers powerful and concrete suggestions for how to interpret the pandemic through the light of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Will you talk a little about how you interpreted the story of Lazarus in light of the pandemic?
It’s a fascinating story in John, Chapter 11, one of the all-time great scriptural stories. John is such a brilliant writer. Like a great novelist or playwright, he doesn’t put everything on the surface of the text. He leaves you to do some of the hard work yourself so that you’ll gradually realize what’s going on.
For me, one of the amazing moments is when Jesus comes to the tomb of Lazarus, who is this good friend of his, and he tells them to take away the stone from the tomb. Martha, the dead man’s sister, says, “There will be a smell. He’s been dead for days. You can’t do that.” But Jesus says, “Take away the stone.”
When they take it away, John wants you to think, “So, was there a smell?” But Jesus doesn’t comment on that. Instead he just says, “Father, I thank you for hearing me.”
Hang on: We haven’t been told that Jesus prayed a particular prayer to his Father. But if you go back to the beginning of the story, you see that Jesus heard Lazarus was really sick and he stayed where he was for some days before going to see him. It wasn’t until Jesus heard Lazarus was dead that he went. He must have been praying during that time that he would be able to go and raise Lazarus from the dead. Wow.
So Jesus comes to the tomb. It’s not an experiment to see if he can raise someone from the dead; Jesus is sovereign here, and he knows what’s going on. But there’s a strangeness about that sovereignty.
This is one thing that grabs me about the gospels again and again. The gospels are about the kingdom of God, about what it looks like when God takes charge. People imagine that this looks like God marching in, getting rid of this, doing that, sorting that out, etc. Instead, what it looks like is Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend. Out of those tears and the prayer Jesus has already prayed comes new creation.
There is something about tears—Jesus’ tears and Mary’s tears—as the place where new creation happens.
It’s very interesting that when we get to Jesus’ own tomb on Easter morning in John, Chapter 20, we see Mary Magdalene weeping and Jesus appearing to her. There is something about tears—Jesus’ tears and Mary’s tears—as the place where new creation happens. John says, in effect, this is how God is taking charge.
Wow. That’s very different from the picture people ordinarily have of Jesus just striding through and doing miracles here and there to show how clever or powerful he is. It’s that vision of the powerful but tearful presence of God that I find so important and that is at the heart of the Lazarus story.
How does this tie into the tradition of lament in the Hebrew Bible?
There are two different strands of lament in the Hebrew Bible. On the one hand, there is lament that says, “We really messed up. It’s all our fault, and we’re terribly sorry. Please can we come out now?”
You can see this in the Book of Lamentations, which recognizes that all the wicked things the Babylonians have done to Israel are a result of Israel breaking the covenant. But there is also a promise of restoration.
You can also see this type of lament in Daniel, Chapter 9, one of the great prayers in scripture: “You promised this would happen if we broke the covenant, and we did. Now please, we’re sorry.”
The other strand of lament takes no responsibility for suffering. You can find this type of lament in Psalm 44: “All these bad things have happened to us, but we haven’t played fast and loose with your covenant, we haven’t worshipped other gods. So what on earth is going on?”
You can also hear this lament in Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes in Matthew 27 and again in Mark 15 when he is on the cross: “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” There’s no answer in terms of, “Well, because you deserved it.”
These two great strands of lament—the one saying, “We deserved this; you warned us and it’s happening,” and the other saying, “No, we didn’t actually deserve this”—converge on the cross.
Jesus is the place where the curse of Deuteronomy is finally meted out, according to Paul in Galatians 3, but Jesus is also the innocent sufferer. So it’s not surprising that in John 12 Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled and what shall I say? ‘Save me from this’? No. ‘This is the reason for which I have come.’”
This tradition comes through into the early church when Paul talks about suffering, lament, and the Spirit groaning within us as we groan with the pain of the world.
Jesus transforms the lament tradition. Through the Holy Spirit, he gives lament to his people, so they can learn to be people who lament with and at the heart of the suffering world’s pain. It seems to me that this has always been central to the church’s vocation, something we need to relearn in every generation.
What does it look like for the church to lament with the suffering world today?
The lesson of Romans 8 is that the Holy Spirit groans inarticulate groanings within us. These groanings can’t even come into speech, because they are a response to pain too awful to think about and without words to express.
Our world is in pain over continual structural racism, and the church is realizing its complicity in that.
Take the Black Lives Matter movement, which the church is grappling with today. Many Western churches have been shocked to be reminded that many of us have been structurally racist for a long time. With white churches in one part of town and black churches in another, we’ve been able to ignore it for a long time. The two churches may wave at each other and meet on great occasions, but mostly we do our own thing.
But now our world is in pain over continual structural racism, and the church is realizing its complicity in that. To lament with the world is to say that we too are feeling this pain. Instead of saying, “Oh no, not our problem. We are above it and not going to bother with that,” we acknowledge what is going on. We mourn with the rest of the world.
We are called to be the place where the Holy Spirit can lament within us. This is part of the church’s core. It’s fuel for liturgy, for private prayers, and for small prayer groups. We should be prepared to take the psalms of lament and list before God the places where we are in pain as a community, as a family, or as a nation.
Then, having listed those places, we can pray through Psalms 44, 42 and 43, 73, 22, 88, or any of the different psalms that have this note of lament or sorrow. In doing so, we have to be patient and prepared for God to say and do new things in and through who we become.
What comes after lament?
Lament and action go together very closely. I love the passage in Acts 11, when the disciples in Antioch are told there’s going to be a great famine in the whole world—presumably meaning the whole Middle East.
The disciples don’t say, “Oh dear, what have we done wrong? Why is God angry with us?” Instead they say, “Who will be at risk? What can we do to help and who should we send?” They do that prayerfully and cheerfully, and send off Paul, Barnabas, and Titus with money to the church in Jerusalem.
In this story, action emerges from lament. Genuine lament is not simply laying back and wallowing in sorrow and never doing anything.
Many of the psalms of lament come through and out the other side into a fresh sense of the purpose of God. But often that is something you can only get to after experiencing the dark tunnel of lament. Action should not be a knee-jerk reaction. Obviously, in an emergency something has to be done to save lives. But there are many actions where we should pause, ponder, and pray before acting.
In my new book I quote T. S. Eliot, who is quoting from St. John of the Cross: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” There are cases where if we act too quickly we’ll get it wrong; our response will be self-serving. Sometimes, acting involves waiting, which demands humility and patience, both of which are characteristic Christian virtues and both of which we find really rather difficult, to speak for myself.
Out of that waiting will emerge a sense of vocation in what actions follow. We all have our different vocations. Some people are called to pray for long hours every day. Some people are called to say their prayers in the morning and then say, “Right, let’s sort this out. Who’s going to do which bits? How are we going to make that happen?” To each their own: This is part of being the body of Christ.
Speaking of the need for lament and prayer before action, you write in your new book that if we fail to go through this process, there will be a “Jesus-shaped blank” that we attempt to fill by overinterpreting other events (such as the pandemic). What did you mean by this?
In the four gospels, we see not just a Jesus who came to save people from their sins so they can go to heaven, but a Jesus who embodies God coming to people to sort out the mess. That is woven into the fabric of the gospels: Every story is about the kingdom of God and how God becomes king in and through and as the person of Jesus.
Over the past 200 to 300 years, when people think about how God runs the world, they tend to think of providence. God is running the world and doing things, and Jesus is sort of over on the side somewhere. If God runs the world like this, and humans are sinful and need to be saved, then the kingdom of God simply means going to heaven when you die. Through this lens, really all Jesus was coming to do was to show people a way of ultimate salvation.
Action emerges from lament. Genuine lament is not simply laying back and wallowing in sorrow and never doing anything.
But Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” If we really take that seriously, then we realize the Christian story is not about how humans get from earth to heaven. It’s about how God comes to live with us in the new heaven and the new earth. These will be combined: The last chapters of the Bible in the Book of Revelation aren’t about saved souls going up to heaven. They are about how the dwelling of God is now with humans.
I sense that most Christians in the Western world are telling this story the wrong way up. When we’re faced with an event like a pandemic, it’s as good a time to reflect on this as any other: We urgently need to tell the story the right way around. Then we will discover the sense of vocation to be kingdom people on earth as in heaven, right here and now.
How is exile an apt metaphor for our current moment in history?
Exile in the Bible, of course, is primarily the Babylonian exile of the people of God after the great disasters of the sixth century B.C.E. Even when some of them come back and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, there is still a sense that evil is still going on in the present and that God has not yet done what Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel said God would do. That image of exile haunts the whole biblical narrative.
Where we are at this moment, with many of us unable to go into church buildings, is like a further reflection on that. In the United Kingdom, it’s only in the past couple months or so that we’ve been able to go into church buildings. We have to keep our distance from one another, use hand sanitizer, etc., and there’s no singing.
For those of us for whom regular church attendance, sometimes several times a week, has been a way of life, being unable to meet with fellow Christians for worship feels like Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.” How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I log on to a church service and see a recording of a church full of people singing one of my favorite hymns, it brings tears to my eyes. I miss it. How can I celebrate the Eucharist when I’m sitting at my own table with a computer screen in front of me rather than being with my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ?
The answer is that we can, but it’s at a distance. It’s like in the Book of Daniel, when Daniel keeps a window open toward Jerusalem when he prays while exiled.
And, of course, God is not fooled by this. God is out and about. I saw a sign outside of a church recently that said, “The church is shut, but God is doing home visits.” God isn’t limited to inside the church building.
What we’re going through isn’t like the great exile in Babylon, but I find it easier to cope if I say, “Yep, this is exile. It’s not surprising that I feel like this.” It reminds me to get used to the feeling, to grieve, and to remember that we will come through it.