Job by Blake
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Plague and pestilence

Covid-19 has reawakened the medieval superstition that bad things happen to bad people

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Duke of Sussex suggests coronavirus was rebuke from Mother Nature

So read the headline in the Telegraph, evoking images of a bygone age when plagues were sent to punish us and repentance was the surest route out of any natural catastrophe.

Not that this intervention reflected any desire for a return to the Lord our God. He was merely quoting his aunt, the sometime Duchess of York and many other excitable celebrities — including the United Nations, which dolefully tweeted out in June that “nature is sending us a message with #Covid19. We have pushed nature into a corner.”

We are far too insignificant for vast events to be conjured up just for us

It’s a comforting thought that, despite the enormity of what is going on, it’s really all about us and that a sharp act of repentance on our part will bring order back into this chaos. That such things are beyond our control and actually nothing to do with us is an idea simultaneously terrifying and offensive — offensive to a human race that still presumes the earth and the sun revolve around it.

And for all the new certainties of belief being espoused by our California-based prince, older faiths cannot pretend we haven’t been there ourselves.

The Bible is replete with plagues — sometimes of frogs and sometimes of the more common pestilential nature — being used by God as a tool of both domestic and foreign policy. Noah’s flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt, and the wiping out of the army of the Assyrians: all are attributed to God. 

A glance through the prayers of Catholic Europe in the Black Death or those in the Book of Common Prayer or occasional Anglican days of prayer and fasting during post-Reformation epidemics show how closely we related our behaviour to the appearance of natural disaster. 

Rather endearingly, a state prayer of George I attributed the threat of plague to a failure to push the Reformation hard enough in Europe and pledged to make good this lack of zeal should England be spared. England was spared and history records no subsequent expression of zeal on His Late Majesty’s part, in this or any other regard.

And yet for all the easy comfort that comes from this humancentric cosmology, there is an alternative strand of thinking which runs through scripture and is much more helpful when trying to work out how such horrors afflict us.

Job is very much the book of our time for this. If you haven’t read it, I commend it to you, even if it is not an easy read. It’s a story not a history, but it seems probably written as a theological minority report against the simplistic “good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people” narrative that runs through the history books of the Bible, and the philosophical wisdom literature. 

This is a story about bad things happening to a good person, whose friends take it upon themselves to assure him he must have done something catastrophically wrong to merit the loss of his family, fortune and health. 

Finally God appears from a whirlwind and tells him (rather unpastorally) to “gird up thy loins like a man”, taking him on a whistle-stop tour of creation. The conclusion that we are uncomfortably left with is that we are far too insignificant for vast events to be conjured up just for us. In short: he’s just not that into you.

If the Old Testament leaves us with two schools of thought on this, Jesus is very firmly in the Job line of thinking. Speaking of 18 men who had died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them, he asked, “Think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay.”

Over the last century most of mainstream Christianity has developed its theological understandings of epidemics away from human self-centredness, so it’s been something of a surprise to see secular thought has brought it back from dead. 

And another dark trope from the history of humanity’s responses to pandemics has been brought back too: the stranger as plague-carrier, most especially a disliked minority as plague-carrier. 

We saw it in counties like Cornwall in the early days of lockdown, and we have seen it much more worryingly in Scotland more recently. More worryingly because it has come from the top, from Nicola Sturgeon, who blamed the “reseeding” of the virus from the rest of the UK, and from Ian Blackford launching his 100,000 Twitter followers at some poor — English! — photographer for posting a picture of the Scottish night sky and demanding to know why he was in Scotland. 

The man had legitimately moved to Scotland months before but the leader of the SNP in Westminster neither knew this nor cared. (Imagine if that had been a Tory about an Eastern European.)

Despite the last century having seen the collapse of religion across the West, it seems poor Prince Harry is rather proving G.K. Chesterton right that “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” 

What this pandemic has demonstrated is that “anything” can truly be some of the more ridiculous — and dangerous — tropes of the past. It would be best if they stayed there.

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