There’s a sympathetic throwaway line in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead that speaks to our human susceptibility to seemingly random misfortune: “pirates could happen to anyone.” Indeed, none of us are immune to the vicissitudes of life. I’ve always thought of Matthew 5:45 as a biblical version of this sentiment, the gospel-writer’s reminder that God “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Everyone gets caught in the rain from time to time, and all of us fall prey to setbacks and struggles that are beyond our control. Pirates could happen to anyone.
I’m writing this on Day 20 of our family’s COVID-19 quarantine, and from our vantage point in Southwestern Ontario it feels like the pirates are almost here. Many of our global neighbours and even some of our local ones are already under attack. A family in our Christian school community is reeling from one of the first COVID-19 deaths in our area, a sudden, unexpected and devastating loss. My wife works at one of the local hospitals, and every day there are more Covid-related admissions. With them come new emergency protocols and increasingly restrictive safety measures, as well as palpable clouds of uncertainty, anxiety and fear. Will there be enough respirators? Will there be enough masks? Will I get sick? Will I bring it home to my family?
Even those of us who aren’t on the front lines are feeling strained. Some have lost jobs or income due to the quarantine, and we’ve all read news stories about how global supply chains are threatened. There are dire predictions of hyperinflation and economic collapse, and no one really knows what’s going to happen in the coming months. More immediately, what if a loved one ends up in the hospital? We wouldn’t even be allowed to visit. By the time you are reading this, things will probably actually be worse.
How we respond
I’ve always been drawn to post-apocalyptic literature, film and television, and in these stories when people are confronted by the metaphorical pirates of pandemics or zombies (probably the two most frequent fictional reasons for large-scale social collapse), their response is often to become pirates themselves. We’ve certainly seen this behaviour from a few anti-social jerks who are hoarding toilet paper and disinfectants or ignoring social distancing guidelines to go to the beach or a backyard BBQ. But on the whole, I’ve been impressed with the general sense that we are in this together. As far as I can tell, most people seem to be following the rules and doing what they can to help each other out.
For now, the pressing concern is to come together and get through COVID-19. But I actually think this is the easy part. Here’s Stoppard again: “Audiences know what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to believe in.” The challenge of the post-pandemic world will be to find the insight, creativity, bravery and compassion to imagine a world beyond our current expectations. Disruptive social and cultural events have the potential to shock us into positive social change. Not overly long ago, we had an opportunity to re-envision after the financial collapse of 2008, but instead chose to double down on a series of destructive policies and patterns of mind that have led further down the path toward dramatic economic inequality and environmental degradation. We can’t afford to make the same mistake twice, and perhaps COVID-19 will help us tone our collective muscles of kindness, empathy, compassion and solidarity.
Reasons for hope
There are some preliminary reasons for hope. This time, in Canada at least, the bailouts are for people as well as corporations and seem mostly geared toward helping everyone land on their feet. Maybe the Canada Emergency Response Benefit of $2,000 per month will serve as a large-scale pilot for universal basic income? Maybe some of the CEOs who are voluntarily slashing their pay right now in order to support their workers will come to the conclusion that, even at the best of times, we could all benefit from a more equitable distribution of wealth? And maybe as organizations necessarily embrace remote work, we’ll come to realize that this is a sustainable way to maintain productivity in many industries while drastically reducing our carbon footprint?
I was reading a commentary the other day that suggested the rain in Matthew 5:45 is actually a good thing. I don’t know why this never occurred to me, but in an agrarian society rain would be seen as a blessing, a nourishment, a gift. Another way of reading this passage, then, is that God showers his goodness on everyone, blessing both the righteous and the unrighteous with the hope and sustenance they need to carry on. Whatever happens, let’s be encouraged by this in the months ahead. And when the time comes, let’s use this principle of indiscriminate blessing and love to make the post-pandemic world a closer reflection of the perfect one God intended.
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