After a long time, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. (Exodus 2:23)
In a very real sense, slavery is an apt metaphor for the current coronavirus. We are suffering under the tyranny of a power beyond our control. The relentless emotional and physical restrictions are oppressive. Exerting personal will and discretion endangers both ourselves and others. Escape comes at incredible risk. And we are all in this together; no distinctions between rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, religious or irreligious, exist. Certainly, many in our culture are more at risk than others, but for the first time in recent memory, our entire planet is facing the same challenge and threat at the same time.
There has perhaps never been a time in our Western culture when the Hebrew scriptures have had more relevancy to our day-to-day living. The majority of the citizenry of the United States have not lived in constant concern for food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, employment, education, and survival. Our mainline churches are predominantly middle class, and it is difficult to relate to much of the story of our Jewish forebears. Yet, the story of the children of God – the children of Israel – is quickly becoming our story.
For much of the first four millennia of Jewish history, God’s people lived in captivity or exile. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome took turns conquering and ruling the Chosen people. During these times, and most of the intervals in between, the children of God lived short lives of struggle in poverty, illness, desperation, and danger. A reading through the Torah, the Psalms, and the Prophets gives a stark lesson in the suffering of the Hebrew people. Yet, through it all the people lived in covenantal hope of God’s redeeming power.
For Christians today, we empathize with the Israelites and understand that we have much more in common that at any other time in memory. We are a suffering people, acknowledging our own limitations and powerlessness, and coming to a heightened awareness of inequalities and the need for cooperation and commitment to the common good. This is unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory for many of us.
Predominantly, we look to science and government to solve the current crisis and return us to “normal.” We want the problem to go away, and we do not want to face the possibility that we have encountered something that science, money, and political power may be inadequate to deal with it. Our Hebrew testament reminds us that this is the situation humankind has found itself in time after time throughout most of history. And when human solutions fail, people of faith turn to God.
Our Jewish and Christian history has great grace to offer us in this time of global pandemic. First, we know that our growth and faithfulness come to us through sacrifice. To get to a Promised Land, we must travel through wilderness; to get to Easter, there is always a Good Friday. But in the vastness of wilderness we know there is a Promised Land. In the darkness of Good Friday, we know that Easter is coming. Our faith affirms for us that no matter how bad things seem, God’s grace and blessing awaits us on the other side.
Second, both Judaism and Christianity are corporate faiths, the good of the whole people is more important than the good of any individual. Individual rights, entitlements, and personal preference are hallmarks of the thinking of many privileged people in the United States. However, our foundational identity as a nation committed to the common good is often lost to individual demands. Yet, true freedom is not a competition between who gets what, but how we all rise or fall together. We are God’s people, God’s children, together. What is best for the least of us is best for all of us. The more time and energy we give to caring for others allows us less time to worry about whether we are getting what we want individually.
Third, we are a people of transformation. When we emerge from this pandemic, we will not be returning to “normal,” but to the new reality that will define a very different future. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19) If we trust in God’s redemptive power, restorative vision, and consistent promise, then we know that where we are heading is a place we’ve never been before. We have seen ways that our world was prepared for this current crisis, but also the many painful ways we were completely unprepared. By God’s grace, we will have learned much and we will make sweeping changes as we move forward.
It is not always easy to see the silver lining to the oppressive clouds that cover us. We bristle and resist the current limitations on our lives. But I ask us all, as modern-day Israelites, to turn to God in prayer, and to trust that God will do “a new thing.” These days are difficult, but our God is good. Have faith. Live your faith. Witness to your faith as God reveals the new reality that is to come.
Grace and Peace,
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).