FAITH IN A TIME OF THE PLAGUE Meditation 8 BACK TO NORMAL, BUT WHOSE?

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“You have heard that it was said in those ancient times…but I say unto you…”

I vaguely remember the Second World War. We lived in Pretoria for the first few years, and some nights we had to shut the blinds just in case Japanese bombers came looking for new targets after their army had swept through south-east Asia.  There was hushed news of South Africans killed on military service; my father was often away doing essential work for the government, and there was rationing. We moved to Cape Town in 1943 where much the same applied except that the “yellow peril” was replaced by German submarines off the coast.  The enemy was always close at hand.  Then came VE Day.  Rationing eased and, my parents probably said we could now “get back to normal.” But what was normal?  They were born during the Anglo-Boer Wars, they lived through the First World War in which family and friends were killed, the Spanish Flu which ravished Cape Town, the Great Depression, and the rise of Nazism.  What was normal for them?  As I grew up even after the war we never went on holiday, or ate at restaurants, there were few cars on the streets, I had a bicycle without gears but as we lived on the mountainside I had to walk long distances to school. That was my normal. Then came apartheid, the “new normal”, however abnormal it was. 

The end of apartheid and the Cold War promised a new and better normal. But then the HIV pandemic struck without a cure, 9/11 and the “war of terror” shattered global peace, the financial crash of 2007 dashed hopes of prosperity, and corruption became normal as did global warming. President Trump’s election promise was to get America back to its normal greatness, but his election made fake news and white supremacy seem normal.  Now we ponder getting back to normal after the pandemic, but whose normal? Are the hopes of the tobacco industry and the oil barons to normalize the economy the same as that of the trade unions and environmentalists?  Is living in poverty in a shack, violence against women and children, unequal education and health care, to remain the normal for the majority?

So, let us be a bit more thoughtful in talking about getting back to normal after the pandemic.  In any case if, as expected, the virus hangs around the new normal might be very different from what we might wish or want. It probably will mean no hugging, kissing or even shaking hands.  Normal might be a hundred people watching rugby in a stadium designed to house 50,000?  Hopefully normal will make it possible to meet friends in a coffee shop, and allow students to get back to campus, but it might require us to wear a mask like my father wore a hat to work.  Normal body temperature will remain the same as will mathematical norms, but not weather patterns will probably never be normal.  Even the hallowed laws of cricket might change! Whatever happened to tradition, the custodian of what is normal?

Someone recently noted a book on my coffee table entitled “Theological Ethics.”  “What is that?” he asked, “I thought that there was only one kind of ethics, that ethics was ethics.”  In a sense, he was right, because, as some philosophers have argued, “the good” is an absolute.  But what is “the good”?  The Ten Commandments tell us not to lie, kill, or steal.  But what does it mean to tell the truth in exceptional situations?  Does the prohibition on killing apply to war or the abattoir?  Should someone whose children are dying of hunger be condemned for stealing a loaf of bread?  Yes, we might say that ethics is ethics but what is normative for some societies or religions may not be so for others, or what might apply in ordinary times might not be appropriate in extraordinary situations. When we talk about justice, whose justice do we have in mind?  Justice is not always blind as most African-Americans tell us.  Ethics, you see, is about the norms that people believe are necessary to make life normal, but these norms often differ from one context to the next.  So where does that leave us?  Back to theological ethics, that is the attempt to provide a basis for ethics that derives from faith in God who, for us Christians, is revealed in Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not talk about what is normal, but he did say much about the norms of the kingdom or reign of God, and these often clashed with what was taken as normal by others in his society.  Like other prophets, he was critical of religious and cultural traditions that were contrary to God’s kingdom. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’” but, says, Jesus, we should not be “angry with our brother or sister!”  For Jesus, what was normative and therefore what was meant to be normal, was God’s justice and peace, the love of neighbour and enemy, the fair distribution of wealth and the upliftment of the poor, the building of community rather than individual self-interest.  So, the question we must ask is not: “when will things get back to normal”, but what kind of normal do we need to get work for, both during and beyond the pandemic? And, if we are Christians, we must surely seek answers which reflect the norms of God’s kingdom and therefore not miss this opportunity to bring about necessary changes in the way we live and the way the world works.  Our task is to make the normal more just.

Yes, of course, getting back to normal is about getting back to work, getting back to school, getting back to having a meal with friends and family.  But the Corona virus pandemic is forcing us to think again about what that normal should be, not the normal we have come to take for granted.  What norms should guide our lives and determine the way in which we live together as societies, nations, and the global community?  What should a normal church look like, that is, a church guided by the norms of God’s kingdom of justice and peace?

I, for one, do not want to go back to my parent’s normal, nor to the normal of apartheid, or for that matter to the pre-pandemic normal.  The “good old days” were sometimes good but often bad.  We are always in need of a new and better normal and maybe that will be at least one consequence of this beastly pandemic.  But we cannot take that for granted.  After all, the struggle for a better normal has been going on for a long time as the Old Testament prophets and Jesus remind us.  It is not a struggle to go back to what was normal, but the ongoing struggle for a just world, a just country, a just society, a sustainable planet, and therefore a world at peace.  So, the question facing us is not, when will we get back to normal, but what should become normal.  What norms will determine the kind of world in which we will live?

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 14 May 2020

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