Plagues

By The Very Revd Hugh Dickinson, 14 April 2020

For two thousand years and more it has been the custom of the Christian Churches during Lent until Easter to read the story of Moses’s confrontation with the Pharaoh, which led up to the Israelites escape from Egypt, because it was at Passover that Jesus was crucified. Passover had been celebrated by the Jews for more than a thousand years before that fateful year, which changed the course of history. So, during these two weeks we read the record of the Ten Plagues with which God afflicted the Egyptians, one of which was a pandemic, with uncomfortable echoes of our own time. 

A detached reader of this narrative must have very mixed feelings. Of course we rejoice at the liberation of a cruelly oppressed slave people. But the narrator is not an impartial historian; he is the triumphant voice of the escaping slaves, and his tale has been the banner under which many thousands of slaves have marched since then. It is hardly surprising that the disasters which struck the Egyptians are recorded with much relish, and the fact that the destroying angel passed over the Israelites in their remote pastures was told with glee. We might say that Pharoah brought it on himself by his obstinacy, but what about the hundreds and thousands of innocent peasants who lost their possessions, their crops, their livestock and finally their children? The heavy cavalry of Egypt chased after the fleeing slaves and were drowned in the Red Sea without a single survivor. Later Jewish commentators told a story about God looking down from the terraces of Heaven when he heard the angels all cheering as Pharoah’s elite troops were wiped out. “What are you cheering for?” He demands. “My children are drowning!” In the original story of course we aren’t told that God grieved when the peasants and their children were dying of the plague, because he was killing them himself or arranging for their deaths. 

The Bible is a very perplexing book. That is not surprising, because it is a library of books originating in many different places and at different times by authors with different agendas and different ideologies. The exodus narrative itself has at least four different original strands, and has been frequently edited in later generations. Although there are certainly some very ancient oral traditions, it is highly unlikely that all the narratives as we now possess them have firm roots in the historical events of 1200 BC, except in the most tenuous way. They reached their final form 700 years later, during the Exile in Babylon, at the hands of the exiled scribes, incorporating much midrash and creative expansion. The editorial attitudes we detect in the Exodus narratives are those of later scribes imposing their own theological beliefs on the tale they were telling. Their work in turn was itself critiqued by even later scribal and rabbinic traditions. For our present purposes we will leave on one side the major question about how we may read this complex book today, and concentrate on the incidental and more immediate question: How are we to read it in a time of pandemic? 

If Coronovirus is not a direct Act of God how are we to fit it into a theology of a benign, sovereign Creator?

The Bible is its own best critic. We can detect “earlier” and “later” strands, primitive and more mature, simple and sophisticated writings. That is not to say that the earlier writings have nothing to tell us about God and his faithful people. But it is clear that the seemingly punitive and capricious deity of the patriarchal period is not a good model for the Abba Father of Jesus. We should not allow the old beliefs that the disasters which we experience are Divine judgements on our behaviour, but rather accept them as instances of the random inevitability of historical causes and effects. Tyrants bring judgement on themselves as Napoleon and Hitler discovered. Free market economics causes massive poverty and rebellion. Empires fall. But not at the hand of God. 

Evangelical fundamentalists announce that homosexuality is the cause of the present pandemic, a divine punishment on a wicked world. But that belief is the result of a sectarian misreading the nature of the authority of the Scriptures, which most sophisticated Christians now find untenable; it should be clear from any detached study that there are many inconsistencies in the biblical precepts  and many different ways the precepts are read and understood. Nevertheless the image of the punitive Deity inherited from our cultural and fundamentalist past has remained firmly imprinted in the minds of the vast majority of ordinary Christian people and the folklore of our post-Christian culture, which is no doubt one reason why so many people have abandoned the Christian faith. Echoes of the Divine Judge linger on in the myths and nightmares of our society long after it is no longer believed. 

If Coronovirus is not a direct Act of God how are we to fit it into a theology of a benign, sovereign Creator? The simplest solution is to abandon the theology. It makes no sense. But the Bible is the extraordinary record of the enduring struggles of believers to make sense of the magnetism of their vision of the infinite loving-kindness, holiness and beauty of the Mystery which enfolds them,  their own inability to live in harmony with such a God, and the disastrous consequences of their own unfaithfulness.  

The Cross is the central symbol of Christianity, a paradox and scandal to every generation. Many try to make sense of it.

However if we abandon the notion of a capricious tyrant – the “god” who William Blake called “Nobodaddy” – and settle for “Kind Old Man”, is there some other Agency out of his control who is messing things up? For many centuries that is what the Church believed. Plagues are the work of the “Devil.” The Crucifixion is the work of the “Devil”. Many Christians still believe that. I don’t for two reasons. First it is intolerable to suggest that God allows Satan to get on with his dirty work unhindered. People once believed that God allowed Satan to kill Jesus because he has a trick up his sleeve. Satan failed to recognise that Jesus was an unexploded bomb. When the bomb goes off it shakes the foundations of Satan’s citadel and they begin to crumble into ruins. The Lord of the Rings has a similar plot. The Dark Lord doesn’t realise that Frodo is creeping into his realm under cover carrying the evil Magic Ring to Mount Doom in whose furnaces it can finally be destroyed. When it is destroyed Mordor collapses. But these myths are “magical” ways of thinking which fail to convince our post-Enlightenment world. Secondly, they obscure the need to give a non-magical account of the work of Christ in the crucifixion, what theologians call the Atonement. The Cross is the central symbol of Christianity, a paradox and scandal to every generation. Many different images and arguments have been deployed down the centuries to try to make sense of it. In the “honour culture” of the feudal world it was suggested that reparations for insult or injury to a noble- man’s honour had to be paid for on a sliding scale, according to the nobility of the injured party and the seriousness of the crime. Human sin has injured the infinite Divine Honour of God so only a Divine Payment of recompense can ransom humanity. The notion is memorably expressed in one of the verses of the Palm Sunday hymn, “The Royal Banners forward go”. It pictures the Cross as a weighing machine. On one side is the weight of human sin, on the other the sacrifice of God’s Son. 

Upon its arms, like balance true 

He weighed the price for sinners due,  

The price which none but He could pay, 

And spoiled the spoiler of his prey. 

C.S. Lewis  uses a similar image in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Edmund, one of the children, has fallen into the clutches of the White Witch, who can freeze anyone to stone. To rescue him, Aslan, the Lion Lord of Narnia, agrees to pay the due penalty price of redemption, buying back the boy by allowing himself to be killed by the Witch on a sacrificial slab. The “due penalty price” had apparently been established rather mysteriously in the foundational “Time before Narnia” by the unnamed Creator. No explanation is provided, for this is magical thinking. But it turns out that Aslan knows more about the Foundations of Narnia than she does. He knows an even deeper secret. If the Lion gives his own life to buy back one of the Witch’s prisoners, he will destroy the Witch’s evil power in Narnia and win it back for himself. The myth has been read and loved by millions of children, and no doubt to their benefit, because myths have a wonderful potency. But how many of those kids have stood back and asked themselves, “How come? Who gave the Witch her power. Where did she come from? Where is ‘Somewhere before Narnia?’” 

Is there a possible account for the Crucifixion that doesn’t involve magical thinking which most of the traditional statements of the Atonement do entail. The garden of Eden is a myth. The Doctrine of the Fall is a myth; there is no date available for it in deep time. The serpent is a myth like the White Witch. But we need these myths in our attempts to make sense of the Light and the Darkness, the Beauty and the Horror of our human condition; even as we recognise their mythical character we have an intuition that, like music, they point beyond themselves to a reality for which we have no words. Drama is to be enacted, not analysed.  

All the words we use for the Atonement involve myths. Redemption means buying back, but from whom? Ransom means paying a price for a kidnapped prisoner, but paid to whom? Defeating Satan and his minions – the myth of Paradise Lost – implies that God has a powerful opponent who can spoil his Creation. Magical thinking. “Sacrifice” derives from the universal practice in the ancient world of killing a valuable animal on an altar to keep the gods on side. There are elaborate recipes for sacrificial offerings in the Old Testament, recipes that were believed to be prescribed by God himself to preserve the Covenant bond with his people which was constantly in jeopardy. Still magical thinking. We can’t believe that Jesus died to keep the Father on side! We still use “sacrifice” as a secular metaphor for giving up something valuable to gain an objective, like education for one’s children, but the unspoken assumption is that it is self-sacrifice, which is its only tolerable meaning. Any suggestion that the Father sacrifices his Son is outrageous. 

Is it possible to envisage the work of Atonement without magical thinking? We have to begin with a major assumption about the origins of the Beauty and the Horror, which is the title of Richard Harries’s fine book on our dilemma. The assumption is that, in order to create a world in which rational creatures can experience genuine freedom, the Creator has to remove himself from the cosmic field of action. His gravitational pull would swamp everything. The original stuff of the material world of Darkness and Light is undifferentiated radiation. Over 13,000 million years pure chance has clumped together complex materials and organisms in one corner of this vast universe which culminated in Planet Earth. So far we have no evidence that this complexity has occurred any where else in the cosmos. It would be hugely exciting if it has. 

The driving force behind this vast, fantastically elaborate phenomenon, is Evolution. But the origin of its cogwheels, the components and their fixed regularities is still utterly mysterious. We can map the Laws of Nature pretty accurately, but, as Newton realised, that map offers no more explanations for their configuration than an Ordinance Survey map of the Cairngorms explains their origins or ultimate destiny. Evolution is blind, but surely not pointless. It would be comforting if we could believe it was going somewhere, to some inevitable destination which would give it a wholesome purpose. But the most sober reflections on its final course conclude that ultimately it will end in the heat death of the cosmos. No light, no movement, no time. no temperature, “a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing”.  

The Incarnation is the place where the Angel gets her hands dirty. 

Our Christian belief is that it is the purposeful work of supreme, benign, Transcendent Spirit. In that case the “purpose” of Creation is not defined by its destination but by some critical apogee in the trajectory of its history where it reaches a highpoint at which a step change takes place, like the steps when ice turns to water and water turns to steam, and steam to superheated vapour which can drive turbines to create light. Light, in this analogy, is the realm of the transcendent where the Presence of the Creator, can be encountered. Evolution has no conscience, it just blinds away generating itself. It produces horrors, monsters, poisons, toxic germs with as much genius as butterflies, birds of paradise, philosophers, mathematical prodigies and Leonardo da Vinci.  

My hypothesis is that at this apogee moment “the ascending Ape encounters the descending Angel.” (Metaphor not magic.) 

It is at this point that Christian speculation can suggest that the Cosmic Spirit begins to engage in a new way with the complex phenomena evolution has produced and to steer the ship into the ocean of Transcendence. We take it for granted that Spirit has been permeating creation from the very first moment, giving everything existence and, if Rupert Sheldrake is right, a propensity or gravitational push towards design. The process is driven by intense forces. Beauty is an emergent feature in the cosmic cauldron, so is consciousness, rationality and, of course, Homo sapiens. Living species are violent battle grounds for survival and the weapons they deploy evolve into increasingly ingenious and deadly forms. Humanity itself is a battlefield (as we know only too bitterly), but so is the whole natural world, with the dynamos of sex, hunger, violent aggression and greed, thrusting up through the generations, mixed up with creativity, sociability, inventiveness, imagination,  generosity, altruism courage and loving kindness, wonder and spiritual awe. These are the raw materials with which the Spirit struggles to entice us into engagement with Divine Transcendence. The Incarnation is the place where the Angel gets her hands dirty. 

(I have in mind the experience of watching a skilled craftsman building a drystone Cotswold wall alongside a busy road. A lorry arrives, reverses into position and then tips a huge load of freestone and rubble where the waller is working. As he proceeds with his wall he has to pick out of the mound individual stones. Some of it is useless, some of it is obstructing his work, some bits serve for foundations, some for infilling, some for capping; there are occasional earthquakes, car crashes and storms, but over a period of  a year the result is a fine park wall. As an image it lacks the component of violent opposition. A better image perhaps would be Gareth Malone teaching prisoners to sing Handel’s Messiah against a background of raucous rap music.) 

 GOOD FRIDAY 

We have been pondering the age-old question: How does the death of Jesus effect a change in the spiritual environment of humanity? We have seen how down the centuries a variety of different mechanisms or analogies have been invoked to lend plausibility to doctrines of the Atonement, but every one of them involves some degree of magical thinking and other morally dubious expedients. These difficult features of Christianity have been a major obstacle to the acceptance of Christian belief by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims and otherwise sympathetic Humanists. One of the most remarkable features of the present epidemic has been the number of doctors, nurses, carers and social workers staff, of every faith and none, who have persisted in the face of great personal risk in caring for patients who have been infected and are fatally ill. Many of these heroic men and women have themselves caught the disease and died, often because of lack of PPE.  

Is there any way that in our struggles to make sense of Jesus’s death we can link it to the deaths of these men and women two thousand years later? 

“Making sense” of Calvary is a tough order, but there is a path through this fog. What did Jesus think he was doing? The driving force of his three years of intense activity was his total inner conviction that the Divine transcendent Love was urging him on afresh every single day. At night he spent hours recharging his batteries in communion with the enfolding Love of his Abba Father. Every day he went where Love sent him and did what Love prompted him to do and said what Love had to say at this particular encounter. Many of the people he encountered caught something of that love, thousands of lives were changed. From the first he recognised that the Promised Land had been colonised by alien occupation, not just by the Romans but also by corrupt spiritual forces, or – to use a contemporary image – contagious cultural infections, a cultural and moral pandemic which had spread throughout the pagan world as well as into Israel. “The land mourns because of the sin of my people. But as he penetrated more deeply into the complex social dynamics of his people, Jesus aroused opposition and political anxiety, because he was exposing the systemic networks of evil, the heartless oppression, wealth, corruption of the Powers which caused the appalling distress of the poor people who were gathering in thousands to listen to his promise of God’s Kingdom. His popular following and his “soft” political power increased dramatically. He knows that at some point a critical confrontation will take place, from which there is only one outcome. Nevertheless Divine compassion drives him on. There is no turning back. On Palm Sunday he deliberately provokes the religious authorities with two major symbolic actions. He enacts a Messianic prophecy by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and then strikes at the heart of the financial system by interrupting the very profitable sacrificial protocols in the Temple. Love has become Justice in action. 

Wonderful people have done what Jesus did in caring for the sick, and dying with them. Their reward will be a changed world.  

My own assumption is that Jesus planned this confrontation to occur at Passover, when the Kingdom of God was going to publicly confront the corrupt puppet regime. He seems to have accepted that he would be killed, but the confrontation would be in full view of the Passover crowds, and the issues open for all to see. In the event, he and his dream of the Kingdom were snuffed out. He died agonisingly outside the city wall on Golgotha. Unwittingly and pointlessly he sacrificed his life for the sake of his people at the wrong time in the wrong place. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” We can only speculate as to what would have happened if his plan had not been aborted, but Rome would not have tolerated any signs of rebellion. Forty years later the delayed catastrophe became a bloody reality. 

The answer to that terrible “Why?” Is Easter Day. The slogan of the Kingdom is: Love’s self- sacrifice is never unrewarded. Out of the lockdown of the tomb, the life-giving Jesus virus escapes into the world. (There are several locked rooms mentioned in the narrative.)  In spite of all the attempts to destroy this life-giving virus it became a counter-pandemic, and it is still out there in every corner of the world, motivating men and women to give their lives to the wounded world for love. This is the key to making sense of the deaths of all those wonderful people who have done what Jesus did in caring for the sick, and dying with them. Their reward will be a changed world.  

After this pandemic is over, maybe in two years time, life will go on but surely not in the old way. The Jesus-virus is spreading exponentially. New relationships are being forged where men and women have died for Love of their neighbours. Paul writes “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.” Self sacrifice is never wasted. It changes the world, in a way that no heroic, patriotic war or idealist rebellion can achieve. 

If we take Jesus at his word, being infected with the Jesus virus is an inoculation against our mortality. He says to Martha, “I am the Resurrection and I am Life”. Being “in Jesus” is being infused with his unconquerable love, bonded to him and through him to all those others who are carriers of his genes, and to the Father, the cosmicand eternal Spirit of the Universe. 

The Very Revd Hugh Dickinson was Dean of Salisbury Cathedral from 1986 until his retirement in 1996. Through his leadership and vision, governors and trustees founded Sarum College in 1995, a year after the closure of Salisbury & Wells Theological College. The photo of Hugh was taken during his address to mark Sarum College’s 20th Anniversary in September 2015 (ashmills.com).

Photographs from Creative Commons:
Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: An Allegory of the Dinteville Family, Wentworth Fund, 1950; The White Witch Sculpture, CS Lewis Square Belfast, December 2017; Pieter Balten, Christ on the Road to Calvary (1560s).

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