Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed
with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that
these men must have been more sinful than all the other Galileans, because
these things happened to them? No, I tell you, but unless you repent,
you will all die in the same way.
“Or the eighteen men on whom the Tower of Siloam fell and killed them: do you think they were more sinful than all the other people who live in Jerusalem? No, but unless you repent, you will all die in the same way.”
(Luke 13, vv.1-5).
Here the text appears to contradict itself. The first half of each paragraph makes it clear that individual misfortune has nothing to do with divine judgement. You cannot assume (as Jesus’s hearers clearly did) that just because a bad thing has happened to someone, they must have done something to deserve it. Some people are just unlucky. Both these two groups of men were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But the second half of each paragraph implies that it does have something to do with judgement after all. If such things are just individual bad luck, why on earth would Jesus recommend a general act of repentance to protect us from them?
Modern preachers who have to deal with this text generally use it as an opportunity to denounce those who are judgemental about other people’s misfortunes, perhaps with reference to Job’s friends, who famously made the same mistake. In other words, they preach on the first sentence in each paragraph and quietly ignore the second. It’s hard to see what else they can do within the limitations of a 15-minute sermon.
My own parish priest has been quick to write that covid-19 is in no way a divine judgement on anybody. And he is right to stress that point, when the virus has killed some of the best and bravest of us, who picked up the infection (often in a heavier dose than their immune systems could cope with) while tending the sick. Meanwhile many others have had a light attack without doing much, if anything, to earn such good luck. Wouldn’t we expect divine judgement to be better targeted?
Curiously, most of what the Bible has to say about God’s judgements does not refer to individuals at all but to societies. The very concept of an “individual” was hazy at that time. People were seen predominantly as members of a family, a tribe, a village or a nation. This was not peculiar to the ancient world; it was true in the Middle Ages as well. In fact Jonathan Sacks has suggested that the modern idea of the autonomous individual only came to the fore when the state had become powerful enough to take over the job of protecting people from accident and adversity, making it possible to loosen other, more traditional bonds. So the idea that divine judgement might fall predominantly on societies rather than individuals makes a certain degree of sense. Of course if that happens, individuals within those societies are going to be affected in a more or less random way.
And now suddenly, the words of Jesus make sense to me. Because of the way societies hang together, it is not possible for God to target individual wrongdoers or unfailingly protect the righteous other than by constantly working miracles (which would completely destroy the point of having created an autonomous universe). But the societies that those individuals belong to may well have to face a collective judgement if they fail to repent collectively of the selfishness and greed that are built in to their systems.
Consider the institutions that the current pandemic has brought to a screeching halt. For a start, there are no more fleets of jet planes flying around the world! Of all the causes of global warming, air travel is the most refractory. Cars can go electric, homes can be heated by electric heat pumps rather than boilers, and electricity itself can be made from renewable sources. But planes need hydrocarbons to fly. And what has driven this destructive traffic is the apparently innocent desire of ordinary people to take holidays in exotic locations and to eat fruit and vegetables out of season.
That desire will probably wither now. Even when the pandemic is over, few people will any longer want to take the risk of holidaying outside Europe, now that they have seen it how easy it is to get marooned there with no way of getting home again. And who will still want to go on luxury cruises now that “cruise liner” has become a synonym for “plague ship”?
We shall probably learn to take our holidays in more accessible places. We may well rediscover the joys of “going to the seaside”, and a considerable number of English seaside towns that are currently hotbeds of unemployment, poverty and despair may become prosperous again.
Industry will learn to prioritise continuity of supply when sourcing parts and materials rather than just going for the lowest cost. It will no longer appear reasonable to ship freshly caught shellfish from Scotland to Thailand to be shelled by low-cost Thai labour and then back to the UK to sell. In the same way, cheap throwaway clothes made in Indonesia will probably give way to better quality clothes made in Europe and the UK, which will cost more initially but will last longer and so be cheaper in the long run. And hopefully we shall all learn to eat food that is in season in our own country month by month rather than claiming an inalienable right to buy strawberries in midwinter.
Another casualty of the pandemic may be the idea that the value of an individual depends on how much he or she earns and can therefore spend on goods to make the economy go round. We know now who the real key workers are, and they turn out to be doing many of the lowest paid jobs in society: the carers, the delivery drivers, the shelf stackers and cashiers in our supermarkets. When all this is over, I think the public are going to demand that these people get the dignity and financial security they deserve.
There will also probably be a huge backlash against all those high earners who have for so long bamboozled us into thinking that they were key workers but have been shown to be nothing of the kind. Again and again they have justified their astronomical salaries by claiming that “you have to pay the market rate for expertise” and “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. The whole thing has turned out to be nothing but a gigantic con trick.
A huge amount of money is being spent on fighting the virus and keeping people fed and housed while we do it. All this will have to be paid for eventually. Since governments have no money of their own, they will need to tax those who do have money. Until recently, countries actively competed for the world’s rich by offering them low tax rates, because high spending by individuals was a way to boost the economy. Any government that fell out of step could see all the money drain out of the country overnight. But now, all the world’s economies are going to be looking for tax money to pay the costs of the pandemic. It’s quite possible that suddenly there won’t be any more tax havens because no country can any longer afford to provide them.
In short, it looks as if our whole crazily luxurious, planet-destroying way of life has been judged and found wanting. What decades of publicity about climate change, pollution and the loss of biodiversity failed to achieve, coronavirus just might finally have brought about.
At the same time, we have seen and heard a Conservative prime minister telling us that there is after all such a thing as society. Margaret Thatcher would be turning in her grave! We have seen a Conservative government effectively nationalising the railways and taking over the responsibility of paying workers whose employers’ businesses have been shut down by law.
We have seen people volunteering in their thousands as auxiliary health workers, and neighbours rallying round to shop for the elderly and vulnerable. We have seen apparently impossible things being done overnight — new hospitals being set up, ventilators of new design rolling off repurposed production lines, brewers churning out industrial alcohol for hand sanitising — simply because there was a communal need for those things. I wonder if all those people will simply go back to the old dog-eat-dog ways as soon as the emergency is over. Or will they accept the judgement of God (or of Gaia!?) and demand a completely new social compact as they did in 1948?