The former Bishop of Durham offers theological and Biblical reflections on the current crisis – and how Christians should respond
‘This is a time for lament. For admitting we don’t have easy answers. For refusing to use the crisis as a loudspeaker for what we’d been wanting to say in any case. For weeping at the tomb of our friends… The initial calling of the church, first and foremost, is to take our place among the mourners…The call of Jesus’ followers, then, as they confront their own doubts and those of the world through Jesus and behind locked doors, is to be sign-producers for God’s kingdom. We are to set up signposts – actions, symbols, not just words – which speak, like Jesus’ signs, of new creation: of healing for the sick, of food for the hungry, and so on… For [these tasks] we will need the living presence of Jesus, and the powerful breath of his spirit. That is what we are promised.’
God and the Pandemic grew out of a request Wright received from Time magazine to write an article about Christianity and the Coronavirus – Wright describes it as, ‘an attempt to tease out what may wisely and biblically be said at such a time as this.’ He stresses that it is crucial to avoid knee jerk reactions – ‘we need a time of lament, of restraint, of precisely not jumping to ‘solutions’… if we spend time in the prayer of lament, new light may come.’
Wright comments that, ‘the sorrow rises from the whole world like a pall of smoke, shaping the question we hardly dare ask: Why?’ Yet it is the question, ‘what can we do?’, which has provided the best answers since March with the host of NHS volunteers coming forward, the hard work of key workers, the sacrifices of NHS staff (including some who came out of retirement to help fight the pandemic), and many everyday stories of people helping the vulnerable and shielded in their communities. Wright likens this to the early Christians whose response in times of plague was to stay and nurse the sick rather than to flee to safety, such as detailed in Acts 11 in Antioch. Rather than questioning why this is happening or what it means, the important response is to be God’s hands and feet in his world. God may not stop a disaster with a thunderbolt, Wright notes, but he sends ‘human thunderbolts’ to act for him and to meet the needs of his world.
Wright explores passages from the book of Daniel, the Psalms, the book of Job, 1 Kings and Lamentations in which people question God and lament to him. He looks at Romans 8 and its reference to the ‘groaning of creation’ and the importance of prayer, even if we don’t know what to pray for. ‘That is our vocation,’ he writes, ‘to be in prayer, perhaps wordless prayer, at the point where the world is in pain.’ He notes that a third of the Psalms contain lament – and that lament must be ‘the vital initial Christian response to this pandemic’. Like the fearful disciples in John 20, our mission must start with tears, locked doors and doubt, but this time of lament must also be a time of prayer and hope, and ‘out of lament must come fresh action’. So where is God in the pandemic? On the front line, responds Wright – working through flawed human beings as he has done time and time again through history to make things happen.
Wright also considers the arguments for and against reopening churches in this time of ‘exile’, which is particularly relevant in terms of the latest government guidelines about reopening churches.
‘This is classic Tom Wright. It is accessible to almost anyone asking questions, and yet it manages to be demanding for those who think they know the answers. It is superbly written, utterly Bible based, and leaves one satisfied at having learned and yet wanting to know more. I read it in a sitting with pleasure, provocation and profit. Do not hesitate!’
Archbishop Justin Welby
About the author:
Tom Wright is Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He is the author of over seventy books, including The Day the Revolution Began (2017), Paul: A Biography (2018), The New Testament in its World (with Michael F. Bird, 2019), History and Eschatology (2019) and The New Testament for Everyone (2019).