Wash your hands! Keep your distance! By Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts

Wash your hands! Keep your distance! These seemingly simple actions have become symbols of the world in which we find ourselves today. These two orders – for that is what they have become – must inevitably be received with disbelief and resentment amongst the millions of people living in the shanty towns, shacks and favelas around the outskirts of places like Johannesburg, Nairobi and São Paulo. Water and space are so very limited in these cities that there is no way these orders can be obeyed.

It is hard to imagine that much that is good could possibly come from this virus; it has already taken too many lives. It has, however, highlighted the economic and social disparity between the Global North and Global South, firmly knocking on the head – once and for all – the notion that we are “in it together”. For those who have contracted the virus in the shanty towns of South Africa, where water, space and resources are in such short supply, they would protest that we are not “in it together” at all. Their experience is yet another inequality added to an already unequal world.

The virus is, we have come to learn, no respecter of class, gender or ethnicity. The respiratory tracts of the 9.5 per cent of the world’s population that controls 85 per cent of the planet’s wealth are in no way protected by their wealth. For the remaining billions – most of them residing in the Global South and the abandoned cities in North America – there have begun a series of exponentially growing dilemmas made inevitable by the lack of social protections, workers’ rights and decent working conditions. For such as these, suffering will continue way beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In the early centuries of the Christian movement, many argued that God was in some sense protected from suffering. Their emphasis was on God’s detachment and distance, immune from feelings of pain as we understand them. They saw God as being somehow beyond the vulnerability that accompanies emotion, pain and suffering. No doubt they thought they were protecting the sovereign power of God. Their conclusion, however, is not how most of us think about God today.

The story of the crucifixion reminds us that the pain of all those living with extreme loss matters immensely to God – and continues day after day to break God’s heart. The Cross smashes the caricature of God resting in some kind of ‘celestial deckchair’, while hungry millions starve to death. If God’s full and final self-revelation was made known in Jesus, then emotion and pain cannot be anything other than an authentic reflection of God’s responses to suffering.  Mindful that Jesus ‘wept’ with grief, ‘snorted with indignation’[1] and ‘wept again for Jerusalem’, we have become aware of a God who genuinely weeps with the weeping, and laments with all those who lament.  

Christ more than embraces the suffering of those who suffer. He fully inhabits the world of their fears and longings, living in complete solidarity with those who suffer. Only the God who is capable of suffering is also the God who is capable of loving, opening Himself to the vulnerability that is always involved in love. This, surely, is what Bonhoeffer was expressing when he wrote, some nine months before his execution: ‘only the suffering God can help’.  

It is no wonder that increasing numbers of theologians – Professors Anthony Reddie and Robert Beckford among them – continue to protest against those strands of European theology, which maintain a mournful mystique around the Cross that is both passive and individualistic. Instead, seeking to relate the Cross to the contemporary world and all its social injustice, they have challenged the idea that God is untouched by the agony we have seen in Jesus’ crucifixion – as if God is to be thought untouchable. These Professors confidently argue that God is wholly active and fully participatory in the sufferings of others.

So, what comfort do we take from the Cross of Christ in a world rocked by COVID-19 and currently under lockdown? The fundamental Christian response has to be that ‘the crucified God’ – a title Jürgen Moltmann famously coined more than fifty years ago – participates in the suffering of those who are vulnerable, and shares in their lament.

It was only a few weeks ago that the police force and the local population of Lesbos were turning away asylum seekers and immigrants arriving from Turkey. Scenes, at that time focused in refugee camps for those escaping poverty and injustice, are now being played out in Italian, Spanish and British hospitals: sick people, some lying on the floors of hospitals, lacking the resources to treat them.

Before this global lockdown, the world of fleeing migrants and the world of the privileged rich were separated not only by sea and sand but also by wealth and power. Yet, for now at least, COVID-19 has forced these worlds, once so different, much closer together. As a result, we on this side of the shore can begin to understand, albeit only in part, what it feels like to be trapped by an invisible, unpredictable force, over which we have no control. Among Christians, this should spur us on to engage in the solidarity of lament, in bold and prophetic acts of truth-telling, and in public acts of grieving. In so doing, we stand alongside those who cry out to God: “Why, God, are You letting this happen?”

Lament and actions that exhibit true vulnerability are the ways we testify to the height, width and depth of the love we have come to recognise in the Cross of the crucified Jesus. In this time of loss, disorientation and pain, Christians from all over the world are called to show their commitment to those who are suffering, by embracing the Way of the Cross and the true spirit of lament that it necessarily demands.

[1] John 11:33: A more literal translation of the Greek ‘embrimaomai’ than the usual ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’.

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