In this pandemic, apocalyptic revelation abounds
By now millions of US citizens know that Covid-19 is likely a zoonosis, meaning a disease produced by a pathogen that has spread to humans from other animals. In the case of Covid-19, this animal was almost certainly a bat. Conversely, a disease transmitted to other species by humans is an anthroponosis, the SARS CoV-2 that a few years ago spilled from humans into minks in Denmark, killing millions of them. And now, of course, the great apes at some of our zoos here in the U.S. have been infected by their keepers with Covid-19.
Such medical phenomena probably first penetrated American popular culture some ten years ago through the uncannily prescient film Contagion, a favorite of Dr. Fauci. Though the virus in the film is much more lethal than Covid-19, two other features of the film pertain directly to our present circumstances: First, the virus in Contagion was passed from a bat to pigs to humans. Second, the whole path of transmission was due in large part to environmental depredation.
Such striking and painful truths have led to the abandonment, perhaps this time forever, of certain time-honored theological efforts to account for both the sources and significance of plagues like Covid-19. The oldest and most durable of these has been the construal of plagues and other disasters as divine judgments upon an iniquitous population. Such reasoning abounds in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, beginning with some readings of the plagues of Egypt as divine punishments of the Pharaoh and eventually all of Egypt for enslaving the Israelites and then ignoring the protests and prophecies of Moses.
Both the popularity and theological credibility of such accounts began to wane significantly in the trans-Atlantic West in the aftermath of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Enlightenment thinkers throughout Europe, most famously Voltaire, mercilessly pilloried the idea that the hapless citizens of Lisbon had been divinely punished by earthquake and flood for some iniquity peculiar to them and only them. And the intellectual commotion that followed led to a major gestalt shift. As Susan Neiman describes it in her remarkable book Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, after the Lisbon catastrophe, educated people spoke less and less of natural evils, referring primarily to moral evils instead. Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, and plagues were simply insensate acts of nature, neither good nor evil in and of themselves. Evil thereafter came to have an exclusively moral provenance.
We are now in the midst of another paradigm shift more momentous than the one that Neiman recounts. No one in the eighteenth century could have thought that an earthquake might be the result of human practices like, say, fracking. Yet today there is considerable evidence that at least some of the earthquakes in states like Oklahoma are linked to man-made underground convulsions. We are relatively certain, moreover, that the dramatic increase in the number and severity of wildfires and hurricanes is linked to climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. And now we have zoonotic plagues brought about by the forced, sudden, and massive intermingling of multiple species as the result of practices like deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation.
So the old theological interpretation of natural catastrophes was perhaps at least half right. We are being punished for our sins against the environment, against one another, and against God. But the punishment is self-inflicted, not divinely sanctioned and imposed. If, as some strains of biblical theology would have it, humankind was placed at the pinnacle of creation to have dominion over it and to take care of it, we can say with some certainty that we are suffering the consequences of continuing misrule. However, the very biblical theology evident in Genesis one and Psalm eight that interpreted all of creation as designed for human use, for human consumption, and for human domination may well have led, along with many other causes, to our present plight. So argued Lynn White, Jr. in his widely published address, “The Historic Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” over fifty years ago. Although great controversy over White’s reading of the so-called Priestly account of creation followed in the years afterward, an ever-increasing number of Christians have nevertheless come to prefer the older creation story in Scripture, the Jahwist account in Genesis two and three, for analysis and interpretation of humankind’s relationship to the rest of the natural world.
It seems highly unlikely that anyone today, religious or not, could fail to be impressed by the striking prescience and relevance of chapters two and three of Genesis, a kind of philosophical anthropology expressed in narrative terms—a myth, if you will. That great story shows first of all the grounding of human beings, the rest of the animal world, and the vegetable world in the earth. All of these creatures emerged from or were fashioned from the ground. And humans were made to serve creation, to till and to keep the garden of the world, not to dominate or exploit it.
The origins of eco-catastrophe in Genesis three are extremely complex, but they involve initially a violation by the humans of the vegetable world, a consumption of nature in the eating of forbidden fruit from a protected tree. And they involve as well a rupture between human beings and the rest of the animal world as personified by the serpent. All of creation is dis-ordered in and through what many Christians call “the Fall.” Does God then punish this horrible degradation of his own hopes for creation? Many have read God’s curses as punishments. But they are better read as a statement for the humans of the consequences of what they have done, of the way in which the world they have de-formed will unfold. Within that world, their mortality comes as something of a blessing.
Even more important is that the various eco-catastrophes that follow from human disobedience also involve inequities and injustice. Once the tree is violated, the man begins to oppress the woman, both humans deepen their adversarial relationship to one another and to the rest of the animal world, and all of creation is brought into disharmony with the creator. This may be the most important aspect of a Biblical “plague theology,” the suggestion that injustice and oppression among human beings are part and parcel of environmental degradation. The causes and consequences of Covid-19 do not fall equally upon rich and poor or upon people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. Humankind may well have brought the present pandemic upon itself, but corporate greed is among the principal causes of it. Nor are all people suffering equally from it: Those least responsible for the plague are suffering the most from it. Unless and until we act to achieve greater ecological responsibility, rightly understanding our place in nature, we will not be able to achieve social or political justice. The reverse is also true.
The present plague, like all plagues, is apocalyptic, not primarily in terms of the magnitude of its devastation but in terms of the magnitude of its revelation. The present plague has unveiled the long-standing and inextricable connection between human and environmental injustice. And we need a new plague theology both to comprehend and address that fact.
Mark Schwehn is Senior Research Professor in Christ College, the honors college of Valparaiso University, and editor of the second edition of Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be.