Coronavirus outbreak map as of March 27, 2020/CDC

COVID-19: Whose Fault Is It?

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By Martin Elfert

In the Gospel of John, the disciples ask a question with which you and I may be familiar:

Whose fault is it?

Whose fault is it? being an ancient question, a question as old as human beings and as old as language. This time, whose fault is it? takes the form of a question about theology and about disability:

Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?

Given that whose fault is it? is an ancient question, given that it is wired into the human condition, I’m going to venture that every one of us knows a bunch about this question, that every one of us has asked it more than once. Maybe it is a question that we are, all of us, living right now: Whose fault is it that we are enduring a global pandemic?

When the disciples ask Jesus, Whose fault is it? Who sinned? Jesus replies:

Nobody sinned. Neither the man nor his parents.

And then having answered the question in with these words, Jesus goes on. He says something more and he does something more. He says:

The man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.

And then in a startlingly intimate gesture, one that is probably shocking in our regular, 21st-Century understanding of germ theory and that is especially shocking during these days of social distancing, Jesus makes a paste out of dirt and his own spit and massages it with his fingers onto the man’s eye. Go and wash, Jesus says. And when the man comes back, he can see.

The end. And they lived happily ever after.

Except that isn’t the end. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, where the story tends to move on from miracle to miracle in an almost breathless way, John keeps the camera lingering on this scene. And as John does, we see that the follow-up to the man’s healing is hardship, it is skepticism and accusation. The man gets cross examined, his parents get cross examined. The religious authorities can’t believe or, maybe, they can’t tolerate that Jesus has performed an unscheduled and unauthorized miracle.

Even though there is healing, even though Jesus is present, brokenness and hurt remain. Jesus gives us something more difficult and more complicated than a happy ending.

What if.

What if we decide that this story is about us right now? We come to Jesus, and we say:

Whose fault is it?

Who sinned that there is a pandemic rewriting our economy and our lives?

And Jesus replies:

Nobody sinned. Not you, not your parents. This happened so that God’s work might be revealed.

And then he heals us.

And then, notwithstanding the revelation and the healing, things stay difficult and complicated.

What might that mean? How might that be good news?

Now, two caveats before I go on. First, there is no question that there are things our leaders could have done better, things that we as a society could be doing better right now. Our response has been too blasé and too selfish for too long. For four Senators to be briefed on COVID-19 and to use that information to sell their personal stocks – well, that is pathetic and selfish and unethical in equal measure.

Second, I don’t want to suggest that God caused this pandemic, that God dropped COVID-19 upon us like frogs onto Egypt. I don’t believe that God introduces suffering into our lives. But, as Richard Rohr said just a couple of days ago, I am convinced that God does use everything and that our suffering can teach us.

Those two caveats named, this whole thing is no one’s fault. As far as we know, there is no Pandora who found a can labelled COVID-19 with big red letters on the top that read, Do not open, and said to herself: I wonder what happens if I open this?

Nobody sinned, not you nor your parents.

Here is how, maybe, Jesus is healing us and will heal us, how God’s work is and will be revealed in this time of crisis, and how things will remain messy and complicated anyway. I’m going to focus on five heavily overlapping categories. Let’s call them justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath.

Justice. As with so many crises – think of the hurricane that hit New Orleans 15 years ago – the crisis that is COVID-19 is most magnified for those whom Jesus calls the least of these, our siblings. To have access to health care is a privilege. To have the kind of job, as I do, in which working remotely is possible is a privilege. To have a home and to be able to stay in it when I feel sick is a privilege. Many people have few or none of those privileges. And one of my hopes for this time is that we will remember our duty – and duty is an old-fashioned word, but it’s the one that fits right now – to those with few or no privileges.

I am enormously encouraged that, after being stalled out for 16 years, the federal government has passed legislation mandating sick leave for employees. Now, those who study legislation say that it doesn’t go far enough, that there are too many exceptions. But it remains a meaningful step closer to justice. And even if you don’t particularly care about justice, it remains a meaningful step closer to a less icky world. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be at a restaurant in which the chef is there and cooking even though they have a gastrointestinal complaint because they can’t afford to stay home.

In a similar vein, I am so heartened by the sudden and radical reduction in pollution above the factories of China, a change that we might call justice for God’s creation.

A Reset Button

What if this whole thing were a reset button and we decided that we didn’t want to go back to frantic pollution and the frantic exploitation of the poor? What if this whole thing were an invitation into deeper justice, into remembering the dignity of every human being and of all creation?

Humility. As Paul famously says, there is a deep temptation to look upon those outside of our family or city or state or country, maybe even those outside of ourselves, those who aren’t me, and say to them:

I have no need of you.

I can do everything I need on my own.

And by that what we generally mean is that there is credit limit enough on our Mastercards to pay our bills. And so we move through the world a little bit like gods, independent and in no way interdependent, in no way reliant on one another or on God.

A crisis like this one reveals that such a story was always high fiction, that autonomous individualism was always a God damn lie. We are here for our sojourn on this earth thanks to God’s pleasure and thanks to the cooperation and support and generosity and kindness of our neighbors.

Be Humble

May we humble enough to recognize that and say thanks for that.

Lament. We live in a culture that is profoundly uncomfortable with grief. That is in a mad hurry to get over loss, to get back to mandatory optimism. And there is a huge cost to living in this way. We are deprived the gifts of grief.

My friend John, who is one of the kindest and happiest and most loving people I know, describes himself as being in an apprenticeship with grief. I want to suggest that his apprenticeship correlates heavily with his kindness and his happiness and his loving nature. By giving full expression to his tears, John is able to give full expression to his joy. The two: they are inseparable. Grief is the price of admission for love.

The ancients new this. A full third of the Psalms are Psalms of lament. These are Psalms in which people of deep, deep faith say: why? Why is the world like this? Why, God, aren’t you doing your job? What if we could express that kind of lamentation? Maybe we might discover a little bit of the joy that John knows.

Community

Community. And this one overlaps pretty heavily with justice and humility – what if we rediscovered that we live in neighborhoods? What if we rediscovered our vocations as neighbors? What if we moved deeper into community as we weather this storm, deeper into relationship with the people who live next door and down the street? What if, both inside and outside of church, we asked the questions that my colleague Alissa Newton crafted:

  • How is the Physical Health of your Household? 
  • How is the Mental Health of your Household? 
  • What do you need? 
  • What can you offer? 

Sabbath. There is a beautiful poem that is making the rounds these days. It is by Lynn Ungar and it is called Pandemic. It begins this way:

What if you thought of it as the Jews
consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of
times?

I’ve lost track of how many people have told me across the years that some unwelcome and unchosen event – a car accident, an illness, a job loss, some other tragedy – was the first time that they had slowed down in years. I didn’t want it to happen, they say, but in a funny way, that time in the hospital bed was a gift. I was still enough, silent enough to understand things about myself and about the world and about God.

What if this unwelcome and unchosen event were something that kind of gift, if it were something like a sabbath for our whole culture? An opportunity to be still and to know God?

5 Ways God’s Work Is Being Revealed

So: justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath. Five ways, maybe, that Jesus is healing us and that Jesus will heal us. Five ways, maybe, that God’s work is being revealed and will be revealed. The messiness remains, the hurt remains. But if the old story is true, Jesus is with us in the messiness and the hurt alike. And that might be the best news that there is.

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Martin Elfert

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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