Pope Francis to Samantha Power, Caleb Femi to Lady Hale, Andy Murray to KK Shailaja, Tim Berners Lee to Emma Dabiri and many more voices came to BBC radio this week to ‘Rethink’ the world after the Covid crisis. BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 Live and World Service came together to ask “How can society and our lives change for the better after the Covid-19 crisis?” In all there were thirty speakers asking “What has the Coronavirus crisis taught us and what should we, individually and collectively, change to improve our lives after it?”
They explored everything from the way we travel to how we assess health risks, how we look after the elderly and look out for the young, the future of globalisation, and who should be most valued and rewarded in our society. The essays were broadcast within news and other programmes on Radio 4, throughout the day on 5 Live and during the World Service’s Newshour and Newsday programmes. Essentially ‘Rethink‘ asked a simple question – “How has this pandemic challenged the assumptions we make about the world around us?”
I must admit that I only caught a small fraction of what was on offer, but even in that sample, there were contrasting and perhaps mutually exclusive visions. What was striking however was that because of who the speakers were, the visions on offer were not constrained by spin-doctors nor with an eye to whether or not they were vote-winning, and that was perhaps the most refreshing thing about them.
Over the last three months, we’ve heard many opinions and predictions about what should happen in relation to imposing, remaining in and coming out of lock-down. In different parts of the world, some of the approaches have proved more effective than others, only for things to be turned on their head after restrictions were relaxed. We’ve heard much being made of scientific advice and whether or not the scientists agree. So what are we to make of it all? How to we decide which vision or approach to favour?
A superficial reading of our Old Testament passage from Jeremiah seems pretty straightforward. One prophet, Jeremiah, tells the people the truth. The other prophet, Hananiah, tells the people what they want to hear. One appears as a brave preacher scorned for speaking the word of God. The other appears to be a smooth-talking charlatan over whom people fawn because he offers fairly immediate hope.
We can’t know what went on in Hananiah’s head. Did he honestly believe that he preached God’s word? Did he just preach what he thought the people wanted to hear? You and I can judge Hananiah only if we’ve never tiptoed around what we should have said – if only we’d had the courage to actually do it.
What gives this passage its relevance to the situation that we find ourselves in today in Scotland in lock-down, is that the people listened to both Hananiah and Jeremiah, as we listen to competing voices. Each prophet interprets what is going on differently and comes to entirely different conclusions about what to do.
A bit of background. They’re speaking after the initial attack on Jerusalem in 597 BCE by the Babylonians, but before the devastation of 587. The people don’t know what to think or what to do. Hananiah offers a narrative that sounds like hope. He advises resistance, trusting that Judah can repel the attack of the Babylonians and the effects of the recent attack and sense of defeat will be over in a couple of years.
It’s an appealing message. Doesn’t ‘trusting in God’ mean that ‘God will be on our side’? Won’t God fight for us against our enemies? Hananiah gives the people a plan and inspires them to stand up to the Babylonians. His message sounds strong, decisive and positive – just the type of leadership that they need.
Jeremiah on the other hand urges the people to accept what’s happened. He warns them to prepare for a long time of exile from their ‘normal’ freedom in their own land, to experience a ‘new normal’ in captivity in Babylon. Whilst he makes it clear that this isn’t what he wants, he thinks that it’s the message God has given him. His words sound more like resignation than hope. Jeremiah counsels accepting defeat and making the best of it. Jeremiah believes that God will act again, but not soon. He teaches the people to make the best of a bad situation, but not to try to get out of it. That message sounds passive and weak – not good leadership at all.
We now know, with the benefit of hindsight, that Jeremiah, not Hananiah, spoke the word that came from the Lord. The problem that we have today is we don’t have the benefit of hindsight to know which prophet is speaking the truth. Jeremiah tells us the criterion for true prophecy: which prophet accurately predicts what will happen? The problem is that the people couldn’t just wait to see what would happen in two years. They needed to decide whose advice to follow now.
There was a programme on BBC 4 this week entitled “I’m not your Negro” which examined the lives and assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers, through the words of another activist James Baldwin. Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled one of his books, ‘Why We Can’t Wait’. The title referred to the advice of people who told him, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, James Baldwin and the rest of the civil rights ‘warriors’, that racial justice would happen in time and that they just had to be patient. The advice was based on the idea that King and others were trying to rush too fast to bring about change and that would actually stop it from happening at all.
In our passage, Jeremiah counsels waiting, making the best of Babylonian domination and getting on with life as it currently is rather than how the people would like it to be. But of course, simply accepting and adjusting to how things are, can come at too high a price. Sometimes the Christian response means not accepting the status quo, not acquiescing to events as they stand and speaking out.
So where does that get us? To live in anticipation that everything will simply ‘return to normal’ after the pandemic is neither realistic nor, in the end, ethical given the inequalities that this crisis has exposed. Our hope must be a living hope that’s driven by a strong desire to learn from past mistakes and right past wrongs, to try to get closer to a realization of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Whilst it would be a rather fundamentalist theology that would suggest that Covid is God’s punishment on us (as a piece in the Northern Times a month or two ago seemed to suggest), it might be reasonable to conclude that the ‘leap’ of a deadly virus from bat to human has been triggered by human carelessness and greed. As a society have we been ‘judged’ by our reliance on growth economics, ecological devastation and the assumption of man’s right to dominance over all the good things of the earth? Have we collectively created our own version of ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ but left God out of it?
Are the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests and the incident on Friday at the Park Inn Hotel in Glasgow, where asylum seekers were moved when lockdown was imposed, simply a reflection of the inequality and injustice now ‘hard-wired’ into the way that our society is organised? Is this pandemic a reflection on man’s appallingly bad judgments about the stewardship of our planet, the way things are organised under a variety of political regimes and of the lack of fairness and justice for all of God’s creation?
This pandemic has disproportionately affected some groups in our society far more than others in terms of health, wellbeing and economic circumstances. It has revealed widespread and pre-existing discrimination against many of the most vulnerable. Why has Covid-19 hit hardest the elderly, persons with disabilities, and members of racial and socio-economic groups denied access to adequate housing, nutrition, and lifestyles necessary to maintaining good health? These are questions that need urgent answers, not endless enquiries that take many months or even years, produce massive reports, that even if they are read are frequently not acted upon.
So in our time and in our current situation, how do we discern whether to go with the prophesy of Jeremiah or Hananiah, the vision of Boris or Keir, the approach of Nicola or Jackson? It isn’t easy, but as Christians we do have the example and teaching of Jesus who:
“unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Now that seems a reasonable place from which to start that discernment and start to ‘Rethink’ the world after the Covid crisis.