As the coronavirus sweeps across the planet, infecting thousands, taking lives and wrecking economies, I find myself stuck in Antigua, Guatemala, while my wife is stuck in Albania. Initially, I came here to recover from a mental health breakdown. My wife, on the other hand, went to Albania for a research project, sponsored by Fuller Theological Seminary. We had planned to reunite with friends in the UK in April, but in March, airports began shutting down around the world and many nations were put on quarantine, including the UK, Albania, and Guatemala. We had to cancel.
There is nothing more frightening than to be separated from the ones you love during a global crisis. Thank God my wife is safe and far from the city. I am, however, at risk and my imagination fixates on the worst possibilities: Will this crisis go longer than expected? Will I get infected or, despite the statistics, possibly die alone in a facility full of military troops and medical staff? Will I ever see my wife again? And most importantly: Will I get to hear my wife say “I love you” before having to say “goodbye”? Of course, there are no answers; only questions that can’t be resolved. I am learning, however, that there is one thing we can do in the face of this kind of fear and uncertainty … and that is to hope in God in the same way that Jeremiah the prophet called the people of Jerusalem to do while they were on lockdown.
The Lord is my portion, says my soul, Therefore I have hope in him. The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the one who seeks him. It is good that [we wait] silently for the salvation of the Lord (Lamentations 3:24 – 26).
Jeremiah, to whom tradition credits this text, spoke these words after being trapped in a town during a catastrophic crisis. More specifically, he was in Jerusalem, incarcerated for about two years in a jail that was inside the king’s palace (Jeremiah 32:2-3). The politicians didn’t like the prophet’s criticism of power, so they locked him up. During those two years, Jerusalem was also confined. It was under siege by the forces of the Babylonian king, Nebudchanezzer (39:1 – 2). Nobody was able to enter or exit Jerusalem. Some folks managed to flee to Egypt for refuge before the siege, but many remained in Jerusalem, stuck, without the ordinary rhythms of public life. Instead, the people experienced an escalation of disease, famine, and violence (21:7). In fact, the famine became so cruel in Jerusalem, it affected other places outside the city (52:6). Impact ripples! And the only thing Jeremiah could do was watch his world crumble before him.
I find a lot of similarities here with the quarantines we are experiencing in cities across the world. Sure, coronavirus is not a military entity seeking to pillage our towns, but like the Babylonian forces, it is a deadly force that seeks to destroy human life. Moreover, like the forces of Babylon, the coronavirus’ intrusion into the human community has compelled authorities around the world to put their cities on lockdown. In both scenarios, the general public is stuck within the bounds of its city while surrounded by a deadly threat from the outside. Call it what you want — besiegement, blockade, or quarantine — but in both cases, you have lockdowns happening. And lockdowns come with dier social, economic, and health related consequences.
Antigua is an artsy town, known for its colonial streets and architecture, its beautiful indigenous people, and the gigantic volcanoes that surround the area. Only a few weeks ago, the town was full of tourists, traffic, and nightlife. Now on quarantine, with a curfew from 4 pm to 4 am, the town has become quiet and empty. No more tourists or traffic, only locals and an unfamiliar scene of lonely streets. My neighbors worry about the coronavirus spreading rapidly throughout the town, even though the statistics for this country of 18 million people aren’t shocking at this point: 70 cases of infection, 14 recoveries, and 3 deaths (still increasing). But my neighbors know that at any time, this virus can escalate and overwhelm the town, especially economically. It already is.
Antigua highly depends on tourism for its revenue, especially the revenue that comes in during Holy Week. Hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the country and the world visit Antigua during this week for the festivals. Locals look forward to it because it is the time when they can recuperate from debt or deficit. Others see this as a time to rack up money for the rest of the year. In biblical terms, this week is a type of economic Jubilee — people are freed from economic hardship for the year. But this Jubilee will not be happening this year. Holy Week has been cancelled. The people are now not only worried about possible infection or death, but also about economic collapse.
Officers are posted on every other block, while some patrol the streets. People caught outside of their homes are fined, put in jail, or made to run laps while chanting, “I will not violate the rules.” Folks who follow the rules, however, don’t worry about the officers, but they do worry about their families, employment, and food. One of my neighbors is concerned about the street dogs. They are growing skinnier by the day because there is no trash to eat. He puts out a little bit of dog food outside for them every morning. Now, if the street dogs are starving, can you imagine the homeless and the poor who live day by day? The struggle is real.
FEAR & SOCIAL CHAOS
According to scripture, the people of Jerusalem had grown calloused toward evil, even before the siege. You would think that the Babylonian invasion and Jerusalem’s containment would have provoked Jerusalem’s people and leaders to abandon their ways of oppression and corruption, but they didn’t. Instead, the crisis exacerbated their negative behavior. Jeremiah says he wished he lived in the desert so he could be far away from his people because they tended to be treacherous and evil toward each other (9:2-8). Surely, not every person behaved corruptly, just like many today are doing their best to help others. It is, however, reasonable to say that the conditions spawned by the besiegement — fear, scarcity, and disease — intensified, on a mass scale, antisocial behavior, like panic, greed, and chaos.
But isn’t this the way common people respond to social crisis, especially when leaders fail them? Jeremiah knew this, and for this reason, he continually advised the king during the containment to “administer justice every morning” (21:12) and not mistreat “the [immigrant], the orphan, or the widow”, nor “shed innocent blood” (22:3). But the king didn’t listen. On one occasion, the king obeyed Jeremiah and commanded slave owners to free their slaves. Slaves were liberated but were quickly taken back (34:8-11). Again, we cannot expect people to treat each other fairly in times of crisis when the leaders themselves are unreliable for justice. When leaders fail this task, people will do what is right in their own eyes, even if it’s wrong. No justice, no peace! Yes, the religious leaders and prophets could’ve been helpful here, but alas, instead of guiding the people, they supported the political leaders while calming the people’s consciences with illusions of safety (23:16-17).
When the coronavirus came on the global stage, many of us weren’t sure how this was going to impact our lives or our behavior. Then our cities shutdown and like the people of Jerusalem, we began to change. Within that first week of shutdown, we were bombarded by endless media coverage on television and hilarious memes that filled our social media outlets. Others panicked and flooded super markets to stalk up on food, supplies, and especially toilet paper. The shoppers weren’t always nice. Many stormed stores like it was Black Friday, greedily grabbing items and aggressively competing with other shoppers. The following week, we witnessed hospitals get overwhelmed with cases, the general public wearing surgical masks on a large scale, and authorities setting strict curfews. As the weeks continued, businesses began shutting down and unemployment rates began skyrocketing. Public tensions grew as leaders scrambled to halt a complete escalation of the virus in their cities and prevent their economies from crashing. Some leaders, however, remained stuck in their ways. In the U.S., we see many entities (human and structural) that are owed money not showing mercy to their indigent debtors; the president fixated on battling journalists in order to defend his image, claiming “total authority”; and religious leaders refusing to close churches, putting congregants at risk, some promising immunity “in Jesus name.” Outright chaos and unstable leadership! So what do the people do? They fear and panic. No wonder there’s a surge in gun sales these days. “We got to protect our families from those who might rob us,” a friend texted me, with a photo of his new gun.
The fear is real because the threat and lock down are real. And with this kind of experience, it’s absolutely appropriate to wrestle with the questions that confront most of us: Will this virus get me and my family? Will I lose my job and sink in poverty? Will will this crisis end, or will it get worse? While we may not be at the level of catastrophe that Jerusalem was in during its siege, the emotions we are wrestling with are serious. It’s okay to feel powerless, and it’s okay to cry with the prophet, “Panic and pitfall have befallen us, devastation and destruction. My eyes run down with streams of water … My eyes pour down unceasingly, without stopping” (Lam. 3:47 – 48).
HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND?
There is so much more to say about Jerusalem’s besiegement and the pandemic that holds us hostage. But I want to narrow our focus on Jeremiah’s message to those stuck in the city. While most of the pages in the book of Jeremiah are devoted to critiquing nations and kings, many pages contain words with positive direction for the people of God, words that can benefit us today.
I have gathered these words and summed them up into five points. First, the prophet calls for deep reflection: What is happening? What idols need to be forsaken that would otherwise distract us from discovering truth? What does this crisis and the encroaching new world mean for the people of God? Good reflection helps us discover ourselves and our roles in the midst of crisis. Second, Jeremiah calls for honest lamentation for pain and loss. I say “honest” because people often hesitate to express their real feelings to God and don’t like to admit their powerlessness. But Jeremiah, who’s a pro at lamenting, assures us that God desires to hear our cries and isn’t offended at strong emotion (ex: anger). Third, Jeremiah calls for repentance, that is, to feel remorse for wrongs committed against God and others, and to intentionally make matters right. These wrongs include interpersonal offenses, as well as participation in the injustices embedded in the structures of society. Fourth, the prophet calls for grace. In times like these, everyone is under pressure. What people need the most is encouragement and help. It’s good for us to be giving and encouraging to our families, but the prophet calls us to be especially gracious to neighbors, strangers, and rivals. Lastly, fifth, Jeremiah calls the people of Jerusalem to hope in God.
I think these points are very helpful. They can help guide us in our personal growth, sense of humanness, and living out kinship with others. But when one is confronted with fear and death, none of these points can recharge your courage-batteries like hoping in God! Why? Because only God has the power to resurrect bodies from our cemeteries. This power was demonstrated when God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead! When your hope is set on this kind of God, you’ll find the courage to face the angel of death and say, “Oh death, where is your victory” (Hosea 13:14)? Courage is good, but courage spawned by this kind of hope is much more powerful. This is important because, while we are called to hope, God doesn’t always rescue. I don’t know why. In fact, many in Jerusalem hoped for God’s rescue, but it never came. They died under lockdown. Others similarly hoped but died when the walls were torn down and the city leveled. Remarkably, Jeremiah survived and although the city was annihilated, he continued to hope in God. And from this hope, he drew courage, weaponizing it against fear, saying:
This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him , to the person who seeks him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the Lord (Lamentations 3:24 – 26).
I may or may not get infected, nor see death. But if I it happens, I know I have to come to grips with the possibility that I may not see my wife again. The thought depresses me. Nevertheless, I am reminded of the fact that God loves me endlessly, even if I’m not perfect; that God is compassionate to me and others everyday, even though we often fail to see it or show it to others.
I don’t know why this pandemic is happening. I don’t know if God unleashed it or if God is punishing us with it. I highly doubt both. But I do know this: The Divine presence is eager to hear our cries, to be with us in our pain, and to join us in our suffering in the same way that the Creator suffered with Jesus on the cross. Personally, I try to remember the many dangers God delivered me from. This helps me wait for the Creator to deliver me again. But even if it doesn’t happen and I have to die, at least I know that God will be with me in my deathbed, and I find this comforting. I will not suffer alone. I will not die alone. I will , therefore, wait silently for the salvation of the Lord and embrace the Divine presence because I know that if the Lord is willing to join us in our suffering and death, God will also be willing to resurrect us on the last day. The Lord will not forget us, for God’s love, indeed, is forever.