Protective face masks in Covent Garden, London, October 17. (Photo credit: Reuters)

The Bible and Covid-19: Lament and hope

Somewhere in the last few decades, it seems we lost the ability to lament.

It's not hard to see why. The years since the end of the Second World War have been a time of relentless technological advance. Medical miracles have become the norm. The smartphones we've so quickly come to take for granted contain a world of wonders. There have been a few interruptions to our progress, but nothing we couldn't cope with. Lament is for problems you can't fix, and so far we've been able to fix everything – at least, we think we have.

But Covid-19 has dealt a blow to our delusions of technological supremacy. We may be able to fix it; we may not. The countries that seem to be coping best are all a long way away. At home in the UK, we're still a long way from being alright.

In the Bible there are psalms of lament, and a whole book of Lamentations. The ancient Hebrews, living close to extinction as they did – helpless in the face of war, plague and famine – had not learned the arrogance that comes from knowing things. We have, and it's a lesson we are having to unlearn.

Anti-lockdown protesters take part in a march in London, October 17. (Photo credit: Reuters)

Lament doesn't come easily to us. It's an admission of failure. We don't like to think of ourselves as victims; we're the strong ones, after all, the fixers of our own and other people's problems. So when things go so very, very badly wrong, we look round for someone to blame. Some blame the harmful way we interact with our environment, which makes it easy for viruses to transfer between species. Political incompetence is an easy target. Students, or young people in general, are blamed for risky behaviour. All too soon we fall into tribes, like maskers and anti-maskers – and that's before we even get started on whether to accept a vaccine.

Lament, though is different. In the Bible, lament isn't about blame, or anger. Lament is when we acknowledge, in grief and pain, that there's no getting back what we've lost. Our fixes haven't worked.

Our world will never be the same again. The enemy has won. When we lament, we're saying that there's nowhere to hide. Blaming someone doesn't help, and neither does getting angry. There's no point in looking on the bright side, either; there isn't one.

The Book of Lamentations came out of a profound trauma: the capture of Jerusalem by the invading Babylonians, after a long and desperate siege that saw the city reduced to starvation and cannibalism. The city fell amid scenes of extreme violence and citizens are reduced to slavery. The author is traumatised; it's an outpouring of horror.

So Lamentations speaks to us today in at least two ways. First, it's raw and honest – and honesty is really important just now. We've all lost by what's happened during the Covid-19 crisis, whether or not we've been ill or bereaved. We've lost work opportunities, the company of friends and family, the ordinary privilege of doing what we like. Perhaps most of all, we've lost the illusion of invulnerability. The idea that life will just keep getting better, because scientists and technicians will always keep us safe, healthy and comfortable, turns out not to be true. These are dark times, and it's right to acknowledge that without joining in those calls for someone to take the blame for it.

Second, though, even in Lamentations – the bleakest book in the Bible – there is a thin, frail thread of hope. It's in Lamentations that the beautiful promises of the LORD's 'unfailing love and mercy' appear (3.22-24) – usually quoted in isolation from their dreadful context, but there all the same. The writer is without comfort, but he is not without hope.

Perhaps today, then – as we face a renewed onslaught from the virus, as cities and whole regions of the UK are locked down, as the numbers of cases and deaths rise and our hospitals once again struggle, as businesses fail along with hopes and dreams – Christians and churches need to strike a particular tone. We shouldn't try to be cheerful, or to peddle a false optimism. We shouldn't pretend we can soon, if at all, go back to how things used to be. We should grieve with those who grieve. As Ecclesiastes says, there is 'a time for sorrow and a time for joy' (3.4) – and now is a time for sorrow.

But we are also people of hope, because we follow a crucified and risen Saviour. We're familiar with the sadness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when hope seemed buried in the tomb; but we also know the rejoicing of Easter Sunday, when Christ rose from the dead. So for us, lament is not the same as despair.

Our hope, though, doesn't rest on human skills or achievements. We pray that those working on Covid will succeed, and that the world won't face more widespread disease, poverty and death. But the point of Lamentations is that God keeps us anyway – even in the worst of situations, we aren't abandoned. We don't need the world to be as it was; we need God to be as he is – and that's the promise of this book.

Lament is human, and biblical. But so is hope, grounded in a faithful God. As the hymn says: 'Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,/ There is no shadow of turning with Thee.'

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