We are living in an apocalypse
Back in the days when we met in person, I often worried that my Bible class was too much of a monologue in which I professed ideas aloud and a few undergraduate students helped me along with affirming nods. There were questions peppered throughout but never enough for my liking. I would try to provoke them into disagreeing with Jesus or Isaiah aloud, but it was all too often a quiet affair. “What does all that have to do with right now?” was a question I would raise and try to answer all by my lonesome.
Covid-19 has flipped the script profoundly. We are all remote now, but the questions are coming at me like the spray of a broken fire hydrant. The Bible and the always-open question of what it says is alive and signaling across the country. One question that has arisen in our online back-and-forth will likely see us through to the end of the semester: Is this the end of the world?
There are two biblical concepts we tried to cover earlier in the course that come to our aid in thinking this question through. “The Day of the Lord,” described by the prophets Amos and Joel and the apostle Peter, is both one big day on which God makes everything right (the last are first and the first are last, oppression ceases, people get what they need to live, the reign of God comes on earth as it already is in heaven) and most any day when something like this happens for any group of people anywhere in the world. It is for real and it is promised, but it is also a righteously mobile metaphor. In the book of Exodus, Israelites being led out of slavery in Egypt was a Day of the Lord. Closer to our time, we might think of the Emancipation Proclamation, the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and, for many, the day the Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage. The Day of the Lord is justice done. What the Day of the Lord means to us depends on our particular values, our contexts, what we really think of as righteousness.
Amid this apocalypse, relationships that were hidden are coming into the light and the order of things is changing. It has to change.
The other big concept the Bible gives us for thinking about the end of the world is apocalypse. That is the Greek title of the concluding book in the New Testament. “Revelation” simply means unveiling, the full disclosure of that which was once hidden. An apocalypse occurs when we are suddenly made to see what is going on. As one student put it, apocalypse is the eye-opener. Our class knows that we are in the thick of one. They can feel it.
I can say a little something about my own apocalypse. To my shame, I was really not aware that people who work at Whole Foods/Amazon, Kroger, McDonald’s or Walmart do not get paid sick leave. Covid-19 hits and I find this out, and now I am thinking about the injustice of it all the time. In fact, I feel like I am ready to riot. An apocalypse has occurred.
And in the case of my local Kroger in Nashville and, I suspect, other Krogers across the country, so many of us realized what was happening and said something and now, behold: Rodney McMullen, the chief executive officer of the grocery chain, has, at least for now, changed the policy to extend to those who have contracted Covid-19. This, too, is an apocalypse—a really great one, in fact. Our connectedness has been unveiled, resulting in a deeper practice of solidarity and love among essential workers, customers and employers. Apocalypse can do that. Amid this apocalypse, relationships that were hidden are coming into the light and the order of things is changing. It has to change.
If we substitute that authoritative-feeling word economy with the word arrangement—which is what an economy is—new possibilities begin to unfold.
The billionaires we have been trained to think of as philanthropists are beginning to look like Pharaoh of Egypt, and our fellow Americans delivering packages and stocking shelves at great risk to their lives begin to look like the mixed multitudes who cried out to God in Exodus. Will we continue to give the Pharaohs a pass as essential workers languish? What does seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness within this apocalypse look like?
Wendell Berry defines the kingdom of God as the “Great Economy.” “Eco” comes from the Greek oikos, which means “house.” In Psalm 23, in which God is imagined as a shepherd who looks after material needs, the psalmist imagines dwelling in the house (the oikos) of God forever. This economic vision is of a piece with what Jesus teaches his followers to pray for (“Thy kingdom come”) and what Isaiah describes as a great feast: an economy in which everybody has what they need to live.
The American economy, as it is currently arranged, is not an economy that keeps it possible for everyone to access what they need to simply live, let alone thrive. But now, maybe more than ever, we can see with brutal clarity the pain of this arrangement and what it costs us. If we substitute that authoritative-feeling word economy with the word arrangement—which is what an economy is—new possibilities begin to unfold. And positively, we see that the arrangement we have settled for and agreed to is not just. The way we in America have ordered our system of work, health care, housing and all the other fundamentals of human existence is in danger of collapsing in on itself. Many of us know, in our hearts, that our economic arrangement did not have to be this way.
Is it the end of one world? Certainly this pandemic has caused our world, as we know it, to end. But there might be a better world around the bend, a better arrangement than the one we have grown used to. Maybe there is a more righteous social order, which is in some ways new and in others quite ancient, on the way. Will we agree to it? Will we continue to allow billionaire Pharaohs who want to accrue more wealth endanger the lives of the Americans who make their own lives possible? Do we want the people who prepare, stock and deliver our goods to be safe and healthy, to have a decent life and livelihood? If we mull these questions, we begin to see that a universal basic wage, for instance, is perhaps best understood as a public health issue. In an apocalypse, all manner of moral realization becomes possible.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused our world, as we know it, to end. But there might be a better world around the bend, a better arrangement than the one we have grown used to.
The people of Israel and the early church were attuned to such changes as they watched one fake empire after another fall, and the Bible emerged out of their lively, self-effacing and sometimes faithful obedience to this apocalypse in their midst. They recognized when the veils were being lifted and they acted accordingly. Egypt, Babylon and Rome tried to monetize and weaponize populations under their sway, and the communities that came to be called the people of God bore witness against their folly and anticipated their collapse. With pretenders to authority appearing on camera trying to assert control and good news on the way, we see these dramas in our day, too. And yet our everyday collapse is also, sometimes, an everyday apocalypse, if we let it be.
An economy is an arrangement, but, lest this also proves too definitive sounding, we might remind ourselves that an economy is also an agreement. We become what we agree to. We like to talk about our values as sacred things we carry deep in our hearts, but our values are only ever what we do with our resources. The virtues we believe we have are lived out only in the here and now. What we as a society have agreed to and what we perceive as necessities are evident in the policies we fund and vote for in our every transaction.
An apocalypse gives us a chance to think through once again our social and economic arrangements. It allows us to turn the mind around in such a way that our behaviors follow along with what our hearts believe about justice and human flourishing. That is what the Bible terms metanoia, repentance. When we see a people repent, we have the surest sign that an apocalypse has been received.
Repentance is a challenge for an economy we are taught to think of as being somehow as invincible as a god. But without repentance for the ways we have let the poor suffer needlessly, no economy can be saved. The Bible reminds us that some economies are not worth saving. The stars in the night sky many of us are seeing from where we are for the first time and the fresh air we are breathing are apocalyptic in the sense that both open our eyes to what our current economy costs us. Are we ready to rethink our agreements? We live in clarifying times.