Where the virus abounds, so does pontification much more abound. But thankfully so do scraps of genuine expertise, some informed analysis, and a lot of common sense, keeping pace with panic.
Occasional words of wisdom bob to the surface in the oceans of commentary on the COVID-19 virus. Stephen Williams knows something about crises after many teaching trips to Eastern Europe and a long professorial career at the Union Theological College in Belfast. He recently offered the sobering reminder that much of the world’s population lives every day with the kind of uncertainties that the lucky few in developed economies are experiencing only now because of the pandemic. (Think of life in eastern Congo; Syria; northern Iraq; refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan; the Rohingya in Bangladesh; Uighurs in western China.)
Another friend, Grant Wacker, was asked by his North Carolina Methodist church to prepare a lecture on the pandemic historically considered. He did so by comparing today’s unemployment figures (as bad now as during the Depression, but that decline lasted nearly a decade); today’s death toll to the toll of earlier pandemics (much, much worse in the Middle Ages from the Black Death and in 1918–1919 from Spanish flu); and today’s death toll to the toll in America’s various wars. (There have so far been more deaths from the COVID-19 virus than American fatalities in World War I; more than American fatalities in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined; but far fewer than in the American Civil War.) His conclusion sidestepped pontification entirely: “However the statistics cash out, God reigns; history is in God’s hands.”
Margaret MacMillan, a distinguished historian of British imperial history at the University of Toronto, has stated succinctly what many others have concluded when they look beyond daily demands: “France in 1789. Russia in 1917. The Europe of the 1930s. The pandemic of 2020. They are all junctures where the river of history changes direction.” Surely MacMillan is correct. But where is the river turning, how fast, and in what direction?
The Impossibility of Prediction
It is simply impossible to answer such questions with any degree of confidence. Historians routinely disappoint interviewers who ask, “On the basis of your study of x, y, or z, what do you think the future holds?” The mumbled response usually includes something about how difficult it is to understand past events with unambiguous clarity, even with time to pursue documents and sift alternative assessments. How much more challenging to look ahead where there is no documentation and when antithetical predictions proliferate? Still more, because they spend so much time digging up material about past generations, historians know beyond doubt how rarely predictions actually forecast reality.
George W. Bush and Neville Chamberlain compete as prime examples. When Chamberlain returned from Munich in September 1938 to announce “peace for our time,” informed opinion agreed that he had dealt successfully with Adolf Hitler. President Franklin Roosevelt spoke for many others in congratulating the British prime minister for this diplomatic triumph. In the moment, Winston Churchill’s naysaying only reinforced his reputation for eccentric willfulness. Somewhat more skepticism greeted President Bush’s speech aboard an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003, with the bold banner in the background proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” Yet it would be months before trickles of doubt about the pacification of Iraq became torrents of dissent.
Misguided confidence in the ability to predict, and thereby control, the future has been perpetual. In the winter and spring of 1989, I was preparing for a summer visit to Romania, where for several years Wheaton College professors had offered courses in theological education for Baptist laymen and women. As part of the preparation, my reading included all I could find on the Soviet sphere of influence in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, New Republic, and several academic journals. Many articles highlighted serious difficulties in the communist bloc; none that I can remember predicted what actually came to pass in the second half of that year. Joseph Tson of the Romanian Missionary Society was helping with our preparations; as a lonely voice he spoke with bold assurance about the imminent collapse of the whole Soviet system. Joseph was not a figure to challenge directly, but I remember rolling internal eyes at such nonsense because I was informed by those who knew better.
The parade of predictions gone awry is endless. Responsible observers knew that the Continental Army under George Washington was nearing collapse as it huddled at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777–1778. The Confederate South exulted in the certainty of independence secured after the first and second battles of Bull Run. In 1922 a Polish visitor to the United States published Impressions of America, a book explaining how Woodrow Wilson had bought about a new and better world. Konstanty Buszczyński also announced with great relief that “in defeat Germany will once more take its place in the civilized world.” The election of Barack Obama in 2008 meant that the nation’s long racial trauma was at last coming to an end. The stock market’s strength in January 2020 assured a bonus for pensioners’ Required Minimum Distributions in 2021. As Woody Allen is supposed to have once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
The Imperative to Predict
But is it really so pointless trying to predict the unpredictable? Probably it is, if the predictions are spoken with assurance, if they are meant to end rather than stimulate debate, or if they are taken as infallible mandates for immediate action. If, however, they are advanced with humility, in order to think more carefully, and as respectful suggestions to discern possibilities, maybe they have a place. Above all, if trying to figure out the future clarifies present conditions, present duties, and present responsibilities, then maybe the effort is not entirely pointless.
Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, recently wrote that “in the coming months, we need to think about what the crisis has brought out of darkness into the light.” That injunction, because it focuses explicitly on what can be known, along with its implied encouragement to plot future steps with care, points in the right direction. That right direction is to concentrate on what responses to the current crisis reveal about ourselves right now. In looking ahead, it asks what can be learned for immediate purposes from earlier responses to similar situations. Such questions certainly involve preparation, but they lead in the here and now to self-examination, self-assessment, self-criticism, and even self-redirection.
Policy-makers try to discern the right government responses to the crisis, and the rest of us chip in. My own admittedly partial grasp of the past, present, and future possibilities of American health care inspires the hope that the COVID-19 virus might accomplish what Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Mitt Romney (when governor of Massachusetts), Hillary Clinton, and even Barack Obama could not bring off—a more universal health-care system. Historical responses to much more localized health crises give wing to that hope. In 1910, when Tommy Douglas was six years old he emigrated with his family from Scotland to Winnipeg. Soon thereafter Douglas faced the amputation of a leg, but a local surgeon donated his services and the limb was saved. A generation later during the Depression, now a Baptist minister and leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan, Douglas witnessed children dying because their families could not pay for medical treatment. Another generation on in 1962, and with much help from many others, Douglas as the Saskatchewan premier secured legislation that guaranteed doctor and hospital service for all. Within ten years all of Canada followed suit. Lessons from a painful past plus persistence eventually paid off. Legitimate questions remain, but from that point in Canadian history, later crises in health care, including the current pandemic, have raised serious issues concerning how, what, and where, but not who.
But, for almost everyone, even those in positions of authority, policy decisions going forward remain less existential than character decisions. To encourage the latter decisions, the past offers a luminous cloud of witnesses.
In mid-March, Bruce Hindmarsh found himself in a contemplative mood as his airliner flew high in the skies above Greenland. He was returning to home base, Regent College (Vancouver), after a sabbatical in England was abruptly terminated by the virus. Mix a historian in a contemplative mood with a long flight and a battery-powered laptop, and the result, in this case, is a brief but edifying reflection, “Coronavirus and the Communion of Saints.” How did Christian believers in other times react when facing crises like the world now experiences? Many times, it appears, they rose to the occasion. Gregory the Great (pope, 590–604) presided over a church very much in crisis, not least from the plague that carried off a third of Rome’s population during his tenure. His response mingled prayer with attentive care to the sick, refugees, and the poor. (Gregory’s treatise, The Book of Pastoral Rule, remains good reading for those today who are called to the care of souls.) He managed to commend (and practice) contemplation while carrying out an extraordinary range of active duties that included dispatching the missionary to England who would become known as Augustine of Canterbury. Centuries later, St. Francis disregarded rules for social distancing to attend, clothe, and even embrace the lepers who lived close by in enforced isolation. “Because Jesus became poor and outcast for our sakes,” Hindmarsh summarizes, “Francis saw each leper as an icon of Christ crucified.”
More centuries on, as the plague ravaged central Europe, Elector John Frederick ordered Saxony’s sole celebrity (and chief money-spinner) to flee for refuge into the countryside. Martin Luther disobeyed the order. Instead, he remained behind to open his own home as a hospital-of-necessity and to inform a correspondent: “There are battles without and terrors within, and really grim ones. . . . It is a comfort that we can confront Satan’s fury with the word of God, which we have and which saves souls even if that one should devour our bodies. Commend us to the brethren and yourself to pray for us that we may endure bravely under the hand of the lord . . . be it through dying or living.”
Hindmarsh takes care not to leave his historical reflection up in the air as if to champion a mindless spiritual heroism: “The strange thing about this new communicable disease today . . . is that the Christian instinct to care for the suffering and embrace the outcast means, at least initially, doing the opposite” of what Gregory, St. Francis, Martin Luther, and other self-sacrificing believers have done. “Instead of physically embracing the sick and dying, Christian charity means protecting the vulnerable from the deadly, silent transmission of the coronavirus. . . . Social distancing is now one of the ways to love our neighbour, at least initially.” His admonishment for the present concludes, “We must be especially creative to find other ways to bring the love of Christ to the suffering and the outcast.”
The message from noteworthy historical exemplars might be read as encouragement to pray the psalms more existentially—to take words from the page as the staff of life: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (46:1). “You shall not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that walks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday” (91:5–6). If such prayer leads to deeper love of God coming to expression in a purer love to neighbours, the future will not thereby take care of itself. But it should not paralyze or terrify, whatever comes.
The necessary balance in Hindmarsh’s historical reflection came from his sober recognition that the past provides as many warnings as encouragements. The Black Death that ravaged Europe from the mid-fourteenth century, and from which the continent did not recover for more than a century, remains a prime case in point. That health crisis produced among Christians a great outpouring of conspiracy mongering, desperation, finger pointing, despair, violence, and self-flagellation—all, except the self-flagellation, responses we have witnessed during the current outbreak. The scapegoating of Jewish communities—as in the two hundred Jews incinerated at Strasbourg during one day in 1349—remains a permanent scar. This scapegoating reinforced the pattern that Luther would also strengthen when as an old man he turned ferociously on the Jews.
Research of my own has led me to another time and place, when a health crisis stimulated responses with particularly notable effects. In the fall of 1793 yellow fever decimated Philadelphia, then the United States’ largest city and also its temporary seat of government. The poignancy of the occasion for present consideration includes the wider context. In the early 1790s the denominations setting the religious course for the new country were making unusually strong demands for ending the American slave system. Together, national Presbyterian and Methodist assemblies, along with many local Baptist associations, had gone on record appealing for all but immediate abolition.
In September and October 1793, the disease descended with a speed and a fury anticipating the worst of what virus hotspots of our day have experienced. Within six weeks a sixth of Philadelphia’s population perished (about five thousand out of thirty thousand). A city historian has captured some of the distress: “The hospitals were in a horrible condition; nurses could not be had at any price: to go into a house in which nearly every bed contained a dead body, and the floors reeked with filth, was courting death in its most dreadful form.”
As President George Washington, the Congress, and the city’s wealthier residents fled to the countryside, a few prominent citizens stayed behind. The nation’s best-known physician, Benjamin Rush, became the Anthony Fauci of his day. He led the fight with a regimen of increased sanitation, bloodletting, and calomel (a mercury compound). While bloodletting and calomel were actually counterproductive as treatments for many diseases, they had some positive effect against yellow fever. Other Philadelphians criticized Rush for not simply trusting God to end the epidemic; some blamed the outbreak on refugees from an ongoing revolution in Sante Domingue (Haiti). Rush replied that God intended natural evils to be met with natural remedies, as well as with prayer.
Because Rush also believed that African Americans possessed a natural immunity, he asked the city’s black leaders, William Allen and Absalom Jones, to enlist their community for tending the sick and sanitizing homes and streets. Jones would later found the first African American Episcopal congregation, while Allen became the propelling force behind the nationwide African Methodist Episcopal Church. Blacks were in fact not immune, as the death of about 250 of their small number showed. But with Allen and Jones in the lead, and with very few leaving the city, African Americans sustained a great share of the city’s nursing, cleaning, and burying.
In a word, black altruism during a crisis seemed for the moment perfectly positioned to move the ideals of the nation’s founding (“all men are created equal”) closer to reality.
The scourge came to end in late October when (as later epidemiologists concluded) an early frost killed the mosquitos responsible for the disease. Almost immediately, an energetic young printer capitalized on the moment to publish A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia. Mathew Carey had recently immigrated to the United States from Ireland. As a printer of great energy and market savvy who knew how to cultivate influential connections, he had already published the country’s second complete edition of the Bible, and the first to be commercially successful. This Bible was a Douay-Rheims translation for the nation’s tiny Catholic population, but within a decade he would also become the country’s leading publisher of the much more popular King James Version.
Carey’s report did commend Allen and Jones for helping during the epidemic, but he also went out of his way to highlight black malfeasance, especially when he described black nurses as extorting huge sums for tending the sick and criticized others for looting: “Some of them were even detected in plundering the houses of the sick.”
Allen and Jones took immediate steps set the record straight, but the damage had been done. When they responded to Carey with their own pamphlet, A Refutation of the Censures, Thrown Upon them in some Late Publications, they acknowledged a few instances of abuse. But most of their rebuttal recorded specific names, places, and actions where African Americans, despite danger to themselves, selflessly served the city. One recorded the efforts of “an elderly black woman” who nursed a white householder back to health and, when asked about payment, replied “a dinner master on a cold winter’s day.” “And thus she went,” continued Allen and Jones, “from place to place rendering every service in her power without an eye to reward.” They also published a balance sheet showing that the city’s black organizations had spent nearly twice as much money to provide coffins and burial services as they received in official and informal payments. Carey from his pamphlet was about the only Philadelphian who made money out of the yellow fever.
But because Carey’s work circulated much more widely than the riposte from Jones and Allen, his response to the health crisis played a small part in reversing the trajectory of the churches against enslavement. Much else was involved, but by the end of the decade, the movement of Enlightenment and Christian principles propelling equal rights for black citizens stalled. In other words, Carey’s exploitation of yellow fever deepened the furrow of racial prejudice that black Americans, along with a few white supporters like Benjamin Rush, were trying to redirect. On questions of equal access, equal opportunity, and opportunities for equal service, it would be more than a century and a half before the nation returned to where Philadelphia had been in the fall of 1793.
The warning from the macro (Black Plague) and micro (yellow fever) is the same. Put in terms for today, strengthened character in response to the coronavirus is the best preparation for the future. It may contribute to the kind of positive outcome that Margaret MacMillan hopes for: “Future historians . . . will analyse the choices that individual countries and the world made. Let us hope the story shows the better angels of our nature, in Abraham Lincoln’s words: enlightened leaders and publics creating together sane and inclusive policies, and strengthening our vital institutions at home and abroad. The alternative story will not have a happy ending.”
But, historically considered, it is just as possible that responses to the pandemic will reinforce the disparities and the evils now being “brought out of darkness into light.” For better and for worse, the influence that Christian communities may exert on policy decisions in the future depends on character decisions in the present.
The Importance of What Will Come
It is certain that the circumstances of the past along with actions taken in the present will determine the course of the future. That course will be set in considerable measure by channels dug in the past, about which historians can provide some insight. But those who work directly at understanding the present will do much better than historians in recognizing how past channels may be redirected by crises like the one we are passing through.
For myself and for believing communities, I’m not aware of a better historically informed analysis than a book published a decade ago by the sociologist James Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Because Hunter’s judgments are more reserved about the future than much of current punditry, they speak more clearly to the present. For North Americans, this book is more relevant now than when it first appeared.
Hunter’s title drips with irony as he describes the historical propensity of Protestants to dream big dreams (think the American social gospel, the United Church of Canada, the post–Jimmy Carter American Christian Right). As a responsible social scientist, Hunter devotes many pages to showing that, by comparison with the funding available to institutions that dominate North American intellectual life, self-defined evangelical and Catholic institutions provide minuscule support for culture-building structures. Yet he also contends that for those who want “to change the world,” mistaken conceptions create even greater problems than insufficient funds. In particular, the “market populism” so characteristic of evangelical Protestants, which looks for change from individual actions thrust haphazardly into a supposedly free market of ideas, almost completely misunderstands the incremental accumulation of power and the massive funding that usually determine cultural authority.
Although published before the recent intensification of religious and political partisanship, Hunter’s analysis has never been more pertinent, especially the suggestion that efforts by religious groups to influence political culture have resulted in political culture shaping them. In his view, “the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians” of whatever ideological stance has all too often meant accepting “a culture that privileges injury and grievance, valorizes speech-acts of negation, and legitimates the will to power.” For Hunter, this cultural captivity is particularly tragic because it abandons the essence of Christian witness. Following in a long line of prophetic voices, he insists that when believers put their all into shaping the future, they betray the faith itself. In his thought-provoking conclusion, he points to the path God chose in becoming incarnate for humanity in Jesus Christ as the only path for those who honour Christ to live faithfully in the world of late modernity.
Practically, Hunter urges believers to set aside big dreams for big arenas, and instead pursue “a theology of faithful presence.” He means taking small steps to strengthen existing institutions, building positive relationships with those closest to hand, and treating local challenges as the primary venue for Christian witness.
Transposing the message of Hunter’s sober book to the present makes for one responsible way to think about the future. If leaders act with humility and guard against abuses of power, if they give up the delusion that efficiency, technique, and publicity can master events infallibly, their long-term policies may actually benefit from this short-term crisis. More immediately relevant for most believers, if character during these parlous days is strengthened by a new identification with the cross on which their Saviour suffered, they will make this hour a turning point toward the good.
This essay was originally published at Breaking Ground, Comment‘s partner site.