FAITH IN THE TIME OF THE PLAGUE Meditation 3 WHEN WILL WE EVER LEARN?

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Genesis 6:11-14; 9:1-7; 11:1-9; Hebrews 6:1-6

 “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

                                          “They are crucifying again the Son of God.”

Some of you may recall Pete Seeger’s anti-war folksong “Where have all the flowers gone?” with its haunting refrain:

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards everyone
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Seeger was cited by the US Congress in 1956 for refusing to co-operate with the Un-American Activities Committee in their investigations of subversive activities.  Sound familiar?  If you blow the whistle take cover – the powerful seldom like the warning words of prophets whether in Ancient Israel or today. 

Among more recent prophets was Albert Camus, the French-speaking author and Nobel Prize winner, whose novel The Plague, written in 1947, tells the story of an infectious disease which suddenly erupts in Oran, a town in Algeria, leading to a rapid and spiralling death graph. The town is locked down, many people die, a courageous doctor and devout priest serve the sick but largely in vain, and medical supplies are soon depleted.  Camus fought for the French Resistance against Nazism. He knew the horror of war and its consequences, among them deadly plagues that catch us unawares just when we think we are on the road to recovery. The Plague ends on a sober note.  We may think we have defeated the enemy and can get back to normal, but the virus is always lurking in the shadows, erupts again because we did not learn from what happened and change our ways. 

The season of Lent is about changing our ways; that is the meaning of repentance.  An acknowledgement of our sins and a turning around with determination to do better.  Fortunately, some people do change for the better.  In fact, more people today are committed to doing justice, working for peace, and caring for the environment today than in earlier times.  And it is remarkable how, in times of disaster, there are many who selflessly serve the victims of fire, flood, violence and plague.  Just think of all the remarkable acts of kindness, courage and heroism that are occurring right now during the Corona-virus pandemic. 

Even so, as a general rule, we don’t always learn from the failures and sins of history and change.  We keep on repeating the patterns of the past.  For all our creativity, scientific advances, cultural achievements, moral courage, goodness and compassion, we are flawed creatures.  This has perplexed philosophers and theologians from the beginning.  Why are people and nations often their worst enemies?  Why do we seldom learn from our mistakes?  Why do the powerful become corrupt despite promising to do better?  Why is there a lack of political and personal will to act responsibly?  Why is it so that wars continue, that despite combatting corruption it persists, and why is it that once the plague is defeated, the great powers still probably spend more on weapons than on overcoming poverty and providing adequate health care for all? Why do the masses follow dictators to their own detriment, and why do our welcome Hosannas on Palm Sunday turn to shouts of crucify on Good Friday?  And why do we blame others for our mistakes, failures and sins, even God?  Why did not God create us as perfect as robots without the freedom to choose and act responsibly?

In response to such questions in the fourth century when Rome was in the process of decay and collapse, St. Augustine famously developed his doctrine of “original sin” which, despite its problems and bad press, contains profound truth about the human condition.   Whatever truth, goodness and beauty we exhibit and leave future generations, we also hand on attitudes, values, tendencies, and the deadly consequences of arrogant and hateful actions.  Adam’s primordial sin so graphically described in Genesis 3, has become a spiritual virus that one generation passes on to the next.  Instead of Cain loving his brother Abel, he kills him, and the worst is yet to come.  Not a great start to the human story told in Genesis where sin reproduces itself as rapidly as Covid-19.

As part of my lockdown (and Lenten) discipline I have been re-reading Genesis and have been struck again by the profound truth that lies within the narrative.  Consider the story of Noah and his Ark, and the Flood that threatened to destroy everything God had made.  Taking the story literally or in jest we wonder how so many animals managed to squeeze into the Ark, whether the mosquito was among them, and what Noah and his extended family had to eat over forty days and nights without refrigeration!  But the story is really a prophetic warning. If people live in ways that are destructive of the earth and the social fabric, the consequences will be severe. Humankind was the problem, not creation; if we transgress the boundaries that sustain and enhance life, we will suffer. As the story puts it: “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” 

Fortunately, the “righteous Noah” saved the day.  But no sooner had the Flood ended than his reputation was dented. He was discovered drunk and as naked as Adam!  So, the world got back to “normal” and on a global scale, the nations competed to become the greatest.  To demonstrate their superiority, the arrogant rulers of Babylon built “a tower with its top in the heavens” and said, “let us make a name for ourselves.”  Make Babylon great again, they shouted to popular acclaim.  But great was the fall of the Tower, and greater still the confusion that made communication and trade among the nations impossible and war inevitable. Time and again, the Genesis narrative reminds us, that this is a moral universe in which everything that undermines truth, justice, love, peace, and care for the earth, eventually leads to disaster.  We should not blame either the Creator or blind fate, only ourselves.

That is why we need to listen to the prophets, both ancient and modern, who are warning us that once the Corona pandemic is over, we dare not return to what we once regarded as “normal”.  This would also be a denial of the Lenten call to repentance and, says the letter to the Hebrews, we will “crucify the Son of God” again.  That is the sobering message as this Maundy Thursday during this time of the Plague.  Will the world ever learn?  Dare we hope that this time perhaps we will?  And learn we must if the planet is to be saved and the plague overcome.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed,  Maundy Thursday, April 2020  

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