Vinoth Ramachandra

The novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19 is the illness it causes) was first identified in Wuhan, China, on late December 2019. Since then it has spread to every continent except Antarctica. The mortality rate appears to be higher than that of the seasonal flu in the northern hemisphere, but much depends on the available healthcare system, as well as a person’s age, and underlying health conditions.

Scientists aren’t certain where the virus originated, though they know that coronaviruses (which also include SARS and MERS) are passed between animals and humans. Research comparing the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with a viral database suggests it originated in bats. Since no bats were sold at the seafood market in Wuhan at the disease’s epicenter, researchers suggest an intermediate animal, possibly the pangolin (an endangered mammal) is responsible for the transmission to humans. There are currently no treatments for the disease, but labs are working on various types of treatments, including a vaccine.

The extreme measures taken by some governments- closing of borders, cancelling flights, shutting down schools, shops and restaurants- are understandable. But I cannot help wondering whether, in this case, the treatment may sometimes be worse than the disease. A narrowly nationalistic outlook (let’s protect our people) may endanger others elsewhere. Many poor, even in the rich world, live on daily wages. For many poor countries that depend heavily on tourism or the foreign labour market, a slowing of the economy will spell the collapse of their already fragile health systems, resulting in greater suffering and deaths not only from COVID-19. Surely, what is required is a globally co-ordinated response. And, in the USA, I can confidently predict that tens of thousands of people will die of gun-related random acts of violence this year. So why not take equally drastic measures to combat what many mental health specialists, teachers and parents have identified as a public health issue of epidemic proportions?

This leads me to highlight a pandemic that is far more dangerous, in the long term, than COVID-19. It is the pandemic of racism and xenophobia that seems to be spreading at an alarming rate and has been responsible for the election of men like Trump, Putin, Johnson, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Modi, Rajapakse and others into positions of power. Much of this is fuelled by fear. COVID-19 has also brought out this fear, at the same time as others have worked tirelessly to care for victims and curtail its spread. In London, a Singaporean Chinese man was assaulted on the street and Chinese shops and restaurants boycotted. In Nairobi, even before the first case was reported, angry crowds attacked Chinese workers. Several incidents of this nature have happened elsewhere.

South Korea has been held up as a model of how countries should be responding to the crisis. But, alas, this is not transferrable to poorer nations. Instead of closing its border to China, the government employed widespread free testing, including drive-through test sites. Technology has aided the tracing of contacts, using GPS tracking. Rather than creating a total lockdown, they opted for physical distancing measures targeting transmission hot spots.

A South Korean friend of mine wrote to me recently:

“The cult called Shincheonji (meaning new heaven and earth) has been the epicenter of the epidemic. They have been using lies and deception in their outreach, and because of their secretive approaches, they didn’t want to be tracked down by the public health authorities which made the whole response extremely difficult. This bizarre case shows public responsibility of a religion. Several churches also became centres of virus infection on a smaller scale, and each case provoked public criticism. Hope we can learn our responsibility in the society through these cases.”

If indeed (and it is still a big “if”) the virus originated from close animal-human contact in public markets like in Wuhan, then it puts paid to the cultural relativist view that one must never challenge the cultural practices (including diets and dress styles) of others. (In any case, such an argument is impossible to practice consistently and is often self-serving).

Cultures and religious traditions must be open to criticism, especially when they endanger public goods. But this includes the intensive meat-eating culture of the USA which is promoted among the urban middle-classes of the global South and which involves not only the inhumane treatment of cattle and poultry, but massive rises in greenhouse emissions which also take their death toll on vulnerable populations.

Europe is currently the epicentre of COVID-19. European colonists, sailors and soldiers once spread European diseases to the peoples of South America and the South Pacific. And the misnamed “Spanish ’flu” of 1918-19 which originated in a military hospital in France was carried by debilitated French and British soldiers returning to their imperial territories. Fatality figures for that terrible pandemic range from 50 million to 100 million. We are nowhere near that with COVID-19.

All this should remind is that we belong to one world, and our destinies are bound up with one other. We cannot afford to think in narrow, nationalist categories that only generate fear of those who are different to us. If what happens in a market in China can affect us all, so does what happens in an American university laboratory or a London corporate board room.

Science cannot provide the antidote to fear, although it can go a long way towards dispelling lies and misinformation. But it’s “love that casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally and that our worth as human beings does not rest on our colour, gender, age or achievements.

I have been spending the past two-and-a-half weeks in the USA, combining public speaking with visits to friends. I am again appalled at the dreadful quality of TV in this country, especially the parochial news media. No wonder that a prominent American evangelist, George Verwer, once told me, “You must remember that Americans are an ignorant people.”

Exaggeration, no doubt. But, still, a solid core of truth. Despite having many of the finest universities and research centres in the world, large swathes of the American public (including many who study and work in such institutions) remain ignorant of their own national history, the lives of their fellow-Americans outside their circle of family and friends, what is happening in the world beyond their shores, and how American policies promote injustice and suffering elsewhere. This applies, not least, to the depressing number of white American Christians who support politicians like Donald Trump.

I had the great fortune to listen last Sunday to Mark Noll, the eminent historian, as he spoke at a Sunday School class in his church on the topic of Christian involvement in US politics from the Civil War to the 1950s. Much of what he said was familiar to me; but I was intrigued by two stories he shared which may, I believe, be of contemporary relevance.

The “radical Republicans” of the late nineteenth-century, Noll observed, were the radical Democrats of today. They pushed through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, thus empowering black folk, while it was the Democrats who had not only supported slavery but wanted government to get off their backs. The strong black churches that emerged after the Civil War were all solidly Republican. In 1960, the two presidential candidates Kennedy and Nixon were urged by their advisors to reach out to the black community. Nixon refused, while Kennedy did. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, who had been a staunch Nixon supporter- because “blacks should vote for the party of Abe Lincoln”- switched sides. Ever since then blacks have been overwhelmingly Democrat.

The second story concerns the Temperance movement of the nineteenth century. This was largely the work of white women who recognised alcoholism as the source of many social evils, not least the male abuse of women and children. Francis Willard, founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1873 was a remarkable woman who combined evangelistic preaching with educational reform, lobbying for women’s voting rights and agitation against drink. As the century progressed, drunkenness was also seen as disrupting industrial production and efficiency.

In common with other evangelical Christians in the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, the WCTU and other temperance groups saw personal discipline and moral transformation as the way to social transformation. But their popular success made them overreach. Not only did some temperance advocates become more extremist, resorting to violence against bars and even pharmacies that sold alcohol, but they spread misinformation (e.g. that a single drink could make a man an alcoholic) and pushed for the federal prohibition of drink. When the latter was achieved in the 1920s, all it did was to drive liquor consumption underground and increase the power of the Mafia.

Might there be an analogy with the “pro-life” movement in the US today? Neither personal discipline nor punitive laws, important as they are, can effect lasting social transformation. Cultures need to change and oppressive socio-economic structures dismantled. And Christians, instead of always trying to use the apparatus of the state to impose their vision of human well-being, need to take on the intellectual challenge of articulating that vision in meaningful and winsome ways to the wider public.

Even if (the unlikely) legal change does come, I hope it will not be a return to the age of back-street abortions. And if the dominant secular culture remains unconvinced, “pro-life” would be seen as tied to a right-wing political agenda and will only deepen the popular resentment towards Christians. We would have won a battle only to have lost the larger war. Christians should work for cultural change which would make abortion unthinkable, by most people and in most circumstances, whether or not it is illegal.

For many peoples around the world- in countries as diverse as Britain, India and Sri Lanka- the political landscape for the new decade is bleak. Racist nationalisms, right-wing economic fundamentalism, outdated left-wing rhetoric, and the corruption of public media have suffocated political culture. Collective moral imagination seems to have atrophied. The recent Madrid COP 25 summit showed, yet again, how governments pay only lip-service to tackling global warming. National interest, so narrowly conceived, always outweighs human rights and the global common good.

It has been left to non-state actors, mainly students and other young people (the so-called “millennials”) to champion publicly the rights of vulnerable peoples, whether women suffering domestic abuse in France (the Nous Toutes campaign), poor communities threatened by climate change (Greta Thunberg and her numerous followers), dissidents facing arbitrary detention and deportation (Hong Kong) or ethnic and religious minorities (India). In our digitized world, protesters in Ecuador and Chile, Sudan, Lebanon and Tunisia have been learning from each other as they stand up to tyranny or fight for more economic equality.

If these millennials can move beyond single-issue politics to embrace a broader vision of social and cultural transformation, grounded in a political narrative more expansive than mere self-interest, they may provide the seeds of hope for the new decade. But that is a big “If”.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights speaks of us being “members of a human family”. But the Declaration assumes that national states will be the protectors and promoters of those human rights. That has not been the case in the seven decades since the Declaration was written and accepted by the members of the UN. States, not least the permanent members of the Security Council, have been the biggest violaters of the natural rights that attach to every human person on the planet.

While the USA has postured itself as the global champion of human rights around the world, not only has it protected and armed to the teeth some of the biggest rogue regimes, but human rights language has had comparatively little purchase within its borders. Congress passes resolutions expressing solidarity with the protestors in Hong Kong, but turned a blind eye to the brutal suppression of the Occupying movement by the police in many American cities. It condemns the harsh repression of the Uighurs by the Chinese regime and of the Rohingiyas by the Burmese. But it totally ignores the massive cruelties of the American criminal justice system, with its racist biases, disproportionate sentencing, and permanent disenfranchisement and social stigmatization (in many American states) of those who have served a prison sentence.

In a perceptive essay, written some two decades ago, the social anthropologist Talal Asad compared the language invoked by the militant activist Malcolm X in the 1960s with that used by the Rev. Martin Luther King. In a famous speech criticising the civil rights movement, Malcolm X called on his fellow African Americans to resort to human rights as a way of transcending the limitations of the American state.

“We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level- to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights come within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And so long as it’s civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.”

“Human rights,” continued Malcolm X, “are something you were born with. They are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth. And any time anyone violates your human rights you can take them to the world court.” By expanding the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, Malcolm X held out the hope of bringing the plight of African Americans before the UN General Assembly and a world court.

This was never realised, of course; but as Talal Asad observes, the language is remarkable because of its faithful commitment, unlike so much Western liberal practice, to the conception of human rights. Such rights do not receive their legitimacy from states, although it is states that are their principal guarantors.

Although Malcom X’s appeal had little impact on American society and its political culture, another language that overlapped with human rights discourse was deployed by Martin Luther King to greater effect. This was the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible coupled with the popular founding narrative of the American nation. However sceptical King was of the supposedly “Christian” origins of the nation and the faith of its founders, he could still publicly draw on the language of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the narrative of liberation that went with them. Addressing fellow African Americans, he declared: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to the great wells of democracy, which were dug deeply the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Unlike Malcolm X’s purely secular conception of legal justice, King’s political discourse envisioned the regeneration of the nation as a whole. He sought what he called the “Beloved Community”, a reconciliation that went beyond justice for his own people without bypassing it. While confronting the guilt of white oppression and repentance were necessary, the healing of relationships was the ultimate goal.

Needless to say, King’s vision also failed. But it had a greater initial impact because it embedded the language of rights in a larger narrative framework, one that struck chords in American society and stirred the consciences of a white Christian population that had lost its foundational identity.

I wonder whether the contemporary political challenge remains the same? How do we defend and promote human rights, not as abstract concepts and without resorting to merely legalistic language, but as imaginative visions that are embedded in counter-narratives that tap into the (largely religious) cultures of our respective nations?

My admiration for Bernie Sanders was badly dented last week by his faux pas: calling for population control by the world’s poor as a way of curbing climate change.

No doubt the poor need better health education and access to reliable contraceptives, but not because in this way we can control climate change caused by anthropogenic global warming. And, as Sanders well knows, if the poor raise large families it is because children are a means of livelihood. So talk of birth control cannot be divorced from addressing the root causes of endemic poverty. And climate change, rather than being caused by the poor, is becoming a major factor in perpetuating poverty in nations as much as in families.

Those people who suffer most from global warming and the resultant severe climatic events, are the ones least responsible for it. One-sixth of the world population is so poor that they produce no significant carbon emissions at all. Yet they are unfairly being blamed because their breeding rates are higher than those of the rich. The issue is not population but addictive consumption and unsustainable energy-generating practices by the rich.

Even though the rate of population growth in Bangladesh is 50 times that of Britain, every new British consumer uses up 45 times more fossil fuels than every Bangladeshi. Households in India earning less than $65 a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one-seventh of the transport fuel of households earning $65 or more. Those who sleep on the street use almost nothing. The British environmental activist George Monbiot once pointed out that an owner of a super-yacht does more damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes of sailing than most Africans do in a lifetime.

The horrific destruction of the Amazon and other rain forests which are the “lungs” of the planet only sporadically make the world’s news headlines. Even as I write over 15,000 fires are raging in the Amazon forest alone. Governments in the region have failed to heed warnings by environmental groups over many years. Ignorant peasant cultivators fell forests to grow soya (sixty per cent of the soy farming in Brazil is funded by three American agribusinesses); and huge mining and logging conglomerates given carte blanche by the current far-right government in Brazil. These forests morally belong to humanity as a whole and not to any nation-state, but we have no mechanisms of global governance to enforce this.

For poor communities all over the developing world who are already struggling with inadequate wages, environmental degradation and poor infrastructure, the higher frequency of dramatic climatic events means less time for recovery and a faster spin on the downward spiral of poverty. Poor communities are already adapting to climate change. But they are not fully aware of the speed at which the climate is changing or how that will directly affect them. This is where outside actors can assist with developing their disaster preparedness.

Classical Christian teaching on sexual chastity is often mocked by liberal elites today, as it was in the days of the early church. But, while recognizing that a well-ordered marriage was preferably to a badly ordered celibacy, some of the greatest theologians of the church encouraged celibacy not as a virtue in itself, but because it brought to a halt the endless cycle of social reproduction. In his magisterial The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, the eminent historian Peter Brown pointed out the radical challenge of celibacy to the taken-for-granted world of civic and class competition and dynastic continuities. (So this was a message of “no sex” addressed to the well-off, not the poor!) Consider, for example, the famous 4th-century Cappadocian brothers, Basil and Gregory Nyssen.

Both came from a high-born class of Cappadocians and knew acutely “the power of the ancient, civic urge to pile up wealth, to gather kinsmen, and to beget descendants.” Basil and Gregory knew what it was to struggle with such drives. It was to tame these, and only incidentally to tame the sexual urge, that Basil had given detailed rulings on the distribution of wealth, on the abandonment of marks of status, on uniform codes of dress that would mark his monastic ‘brotherhoods’. Gregory, for his part, lingered not on sexual temptation, but on the tragic root of pride, avarice, and family honour in the human condition since the fall. “Both believed that through the new, reformed social life of a monastic brotherhood, individuals set free from the demands of a family-based, conventional society could create a Christian society in miniature beside the city. The main effort of the ‘brotherhoods’ would be less to tame sexuality in the few… than to create an example of the husbanding of resources in the light of the needs of the poor. They wished to open the hearts of a small-town gentry so that the river of Christian charity might flow again, from the doors of the rich into the hovels of the destitute.”

Similarly, their (rough) contemporary John Chrysostom, tolled the death knell of the ancient city of Antioch in his powerful sermons. His aim was to rob the city “of its most tenacious myth- the myth that its citizens had a duty to contribute to the continued glory of their native Antioch by marrying. Instead, he repeatedly told his Christian audiences that their bodies belonged to themselves, and no longer to the city.”

Chrysostom’s great hope was the creation of new form of urban community through the reform of the Christian household. “The two great themes of sexuality and poverty, gravitated together, in the rhetoric of John and of many other Christians. Both spoke of a universal vulnerability of the body, to which all men and women were liable, independent of class and civic status.”

Christian men and women were urged, by John, to “extend the heightened awareness of their own bodies so as to embrace with compassion the bodies of others. They must learn to see the faceless poor as sharing bodies like their own- bodies at risk, bodies gnawed by the bite of famine, disease, and destitution, and subtly ravaged by the common catastrophe of lust.”

Here, then, are narratives of “Sex and the City” very different from the shallow fare served up by American TV for global consumption.

It is a week since the terrible bombings of hotels and churches in Sri Lanka and the ensuing heavy loss of life. The economy, too, will take a long time to recover, dependent as it is on tourism and foreign investments.

Questions of motivation in suicide attacks like this always defy rational explanation. And speculation has been suppressed by a blackout of all social media in the country.

Such a blackout was sensible in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy as a measure to prevent anti-Muslim violence which has been a feature of Sri Lankan society in recent years (see my Blog post of 17 March 2018- ‘“Religious Violence” Sri Lanka-Style’- and the warnings I issued to the authorities in a newspaper article).

But the longer it continues, along with the sweeping emergency powers under which any criticism in print publications of the government and security forces is forbidden, the greater the danger to the political health of the nation. We fear a return to the dark days of authoritarian rule and the suppression of valid criticism. And, given an understandable zeal to redeem themselves, the security forces (now armed with powers to detain suspects without following due process) are likely to over-reach.

So the less I say the better.

As Israelis go to the polls, the world needs to remember that Israel is not a democracy by any modern understanding of that term. It officially declares itself to be a “Jews-only” state. Arab Israelis are second-class citizens; and as for the indigenous Palestinians, they are a beleaguered and oppressed population in their own land.

So Israel is no more a democracy than South Africa was under apartheid.

Theodore Herzl, the Austrian journalist often credited with the label “founder of the Zionist movement”, was rightly concerned that assimilation and sporadic persecution were destroying Jewish culture in Europe. The Jews need a “home” where they could preserve their traditional way of life. Herzl was not thinking of Palestine as the Jewish “home”- for Judaism had for the past two millennia reconfigured itself around the study of the Torah rather than the Land and Temple. He initially toyed with the idea of Uganda as a safe haven.

It was “dispensationalist” Christians in the US and UK following the teachings of John Nelson Darby, Henry Irving, the Moody Bible Institute- and later- the Texan Cyrus Scofield’s commentary on the Bible, who influenced the Zionist movement and the British colonial authorities to settle the Jews in Palestine. Wrenching Old Testament texts out of their historical contexts, they taught that the return of Jews to Palestine was foretold in biblical prophecy and would usher in the parousia, or “return” of Christ.

The creation of a Jewish state in 1948 witnessed what today would be called “ethnic cleansing”: from December 1947 till the early 1950s, a well-organized military campaign by the Jewish minority (numbering 660,000 out of a population of two million) destroyed five hundred Palestinian villages and eleven urban neighbourhoods, expelled seven hundred thousand people and massacred those who refused to give up their homes. Those expelled became permanent refugees, unable to return to their ancestral lands. But Jews anywhere in the world who have no Semitic ancestry and no ancient claim on the land are able to migrate to Israel and are granted automatic citizenship. (See Ghada Karmi and Eugene Cortran, eds., The Palestinian Exodus, 1948-1988)

This is what Palestinians remember as Nakbah– catastrophe. And if all moral persons should be horrified by attempts at Holocaust-denial, should we not also be horrified by Nakbah-denial by the Israel state and pro-Israeli academics and church pastors?

Israel continues to flout international laws with impunity (for instance, erecting permanent structures on lands seized by invasion). It does so because it enjoys the diplomatic and military protection of the United States.

The military occupation of Palestine encroaches on every area of peoples lives: restrictions on travel, high youth unemployment, poor healthcare and educational facilities, forcible annexation of houses and land.

More Jews live outside Israel than within it, and many are outspoken critics of the Zionist project. There are also courageous rabbis and human rights activists within Israel who are opposed to the abuses heaped on the Palestinian people by the Israeli army and right-wing Jewish colonists. So to be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Jewish.

There is a single ray of light in the tragic history of Anglo-American Christian involvement in the affairs of Palestine. Henry King was the President of Oberlin college, a Christian liberal arts school in Ohio which was the first college in the US to admit women and also played a leading role in the abolitionist movement. King was a personal friend of President Woodrow Wilson. After the First World War he served with the YMCA in Paris. At the Versailles Peace conference in 1919, Wilson asked King to head a commission of enquiry to ascertain the aspirations of the indigenous Arabs in Palestine. Wilson knew that the British and French were eager to seize hold of the remnants of the Ottoman empire. In the Wilsonian vision of breaking up empires, the Arabs, too, were entitled to liberation and the independence denied them by four centuries of imperial rule under the Turks.

What became the King-Crane commission discovered that the majority of Palestinians were fearful of a Zionist presence and a British or French mandate. They wanted either independence or to be part of a Greater-Syrian Arab state. The King-Crane report troubled the governments in London and Paris. The report was shelved when Wilson became seriously ill and collapsed later that year. With it died the liberal vision of national self-determination.

This was the first and last time that any attempt was made, as one historian puts it, “to build a new Middle East according to the aspirations of the local population rather than those of Washington and its allies.”

I tell my British and American Christian friends that they can never be part of the solution to the Palestinian crisis until they recognize that they have been a huge part of the problem. And fundamentalist Christian preachers in the so-called American Bible Belt continue to be the problem as they refuse to accept any other reading of “biblical prophecy”, and spread misleading Zionist historiography around the world through the Internet and TV channels. There are many churches in Asia and Africa that have imbibed such views without ever examining Scripture as to what is being said is actually there (for example there is not a single reference to the land in the entire New Testament).

Ignorance of history has to be countered with historical facts. Bad theology has to be challenged with good theology. The Christian theologians of Palestine have come up with a Kairos theological statement similar to the seminal Kairos document of South Africa in 1985 that countered Afrikaaner state theology and mobilized the Church against apartheid. I commend it to you:

http://www.kairospalestine.ps/index.php/about-us/kairos-palestine-document

A number of metaphors are used to describe the experience of grief that follows the death of a loved one: the loss of a limb, falling into a black hole, wading through thick mud, submerged in a tidal wave, and so on. And the strange paradox about grief, is that although it is universal (every one of us will experience it at some time in our lives) every experience is uniquely personal, depending on such factors as the depth of one’s relationship with the deceased, one’s personality, upbringing, cultural background, and network of other supportive relationships.

In my case, thankfully, I have not needed medication or professional grief counselling. In the weeks following Karin’s death. I kept a private journal recording all my pain, questions, doubts and spiritual anguish. I have lost not merely a wife, but my best friend, a fellow-traveller, critic, encourager, soulmate. And all the philosophical and theological questions about suffering, evil and death which have haunted me all through my life have returned with a fresh existential intensity. Wrestling with these has been for me a kind of self-therapy.

Of course, tears blind us. Our cognitive capacities are clouded by pain and disorientation. But they can also embolden us to question so much of the conventional wisdom of our churches and cultures. Karin and I have always been irritated by the popular theological clichés regarding suffering and death: “God is in control”, “God took him/her”, “God has a purpose in this”, and so on. They smack of Marx called “false consciousness’ and Sartre “bad faith.”

Karin used to point out that so many Western books on suffering addressed the question “Why me?” posed by normally comfortable people whose lives are suddenly blighted by disease, accident or failure. But what of the vast majority of humankind, in history as well as in many parts of the world today, whose all-too-brief lives from the cradle to the grave fall so far short of the flourishing that the Creator intends for them- and often through no fault of their own? Traditional theodicies and rationalist apologetics seem so painfully glib and irrelevant.

Many Christians invoke Job in situations like this, while missing the point of the story entirely. I am bemused by references to the “patience of Job”, when a cursory reading of the book reveals a man who was anything but patient! He vigorously protests his innocence, and hurls his questions, longings and accusations of unfairness at the gates of heaven. Can this God be trusted? That is the basic question in such times. Job lives in the tension between faith and experience, shuffling back and forth but never settling for an easy resolution. This is the tradition of biblical lament. And I believe that the “problem” of suffering and evil can ultimately only be approached through honest lament and compassionate action; not by theological reasoning.

I have often been haunted by the thought that while our faith can be verified eschatologically, it can never be falsified. If we are all deluded, we will never know it. And there won’t be any answers to the big questions humanity has been asking throughout its history.

I am in the paradoxical situation of remaining utterly convinced of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (for I can find no other explanation for the origins of the Christian movement); and yet struggling to make sense of how the billions of people throughout history will one day be resurrected into the new creation that has dawned in Jesus’ resurrection. Clearly bodily resurrection implies a social, collective event; for our bodies are the means by which we interact and communicate with others. And the Scriptures take for granted that we shall recognize not only our loved ones but also those who have gone before us. But how does such recognition happen, given that every part of our bodies has evolved to meet the conditions of biological life on this earth? How did Peter recognize Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration? What aspect of our embodied human nature has Christ taken into the godhead for eternity? Is it only our memories, characters and relationships that we take from this life into the next?

I have long been dissatisfied with the standard models of how mind and body interact (dualism, dual-aspect monism, non-reductionist physicalism, etc.). On this and other matters I am content to be agnostic. But when in grief, we cannot but cry out for some assurance from a good and loving God that our loved ones have not passed into oblivion but are with him, in whatever form.

The typical response of my theologian friends has been either “We have never thought of that before” or “You are asking questions we are also struggling with and for which we have no answers.” At least nobody has suggested that my questions are foolish or stemming from hubris. I know that much of theology ultimately fades into deep mystery. Christian maturity is about living with our questions, practising faithfulness to Christ even as we weep, struggle and yearn for that new world.

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