Every crisis has a dark side (that is hard to miss) and a light side (that may not always be clear at first).
The COVID-19 pandemic is proof.
Watching the virus spread around the world and kill so many people is like a horror movie come to life. And this horror movie is not going to end soon. We are in for a hard, long, sad, scary stretch of months (and maybe years).
And yet, you can't deny that good things are coming from this pandemic.
One of them is this piece of news: Air pollution and CO2 emissions are almost disappearing in some places where they were the worst.
Facts like these make a strong point: Human beings make a big, big difference.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic itself comes from human mis-behavior toward the natural world. We are far from knowing how much this will cost us in the end, but the signs are pointing to a global tragedy that takes our breath away.
I hope we don't miss the lessons we could be learning from this.
This year, I've been reading the first five books of the Bible. These books tell the story of how God called out and made a people. God taught this people how to live in right relationship with God and humanity.
What a lot of people miss, however, is that God also taught the people how to live in right relationship with the natural world.
Earth is so important in the first five books of the Bible that you could say that Earth itself is a main character in the drama. The story starts when God promises to give land to the people who will descend from a man named Abraham. For hundreds of years, Abraham's family hopes and prays to come home to the "Promised Land." But before they get there, they must live as slaves in a foreign land, pass through the Red Sea, and wander for 40 years in "terrible wilderness" and wastelands.
When God finally brings the people to the Promised Land, he makes one thing clear: The land belongs to God and God loves the land. The people who used to live in the land had to go because they abused, exploited, and polluted the land. God is bringing a new people into the land to care for it and love it as God cares for it and loves it.
God does not think of the land as something to exploit or parcel off and sell for gain. In fact, God makes it a rule for the people: They may not exploit the land and use it to the breaking point. They may not parcel off and sell the land for profit.
God goes further and makes it a rule (the fourth of the Ten Commandments) that the people should keep a sabbath day (Exodus 20:8). On the sabbath day, the people were to do no work. They were to rest.
But the sabbath day was not only for people. In a farming economy, animals and land rest when people rest. The sabbath was not only for the people to rest; it was for animals and land to rest, too.
Most people know something about the Sabbath Day, but many people do not know that God also commanded a Sabbath Year (Leviticus 25:1-7). Every seven years, the people were to let the land rest for a full year. And every 49 years, the people were to let the land rest for two full years (Leviticus 25:8-55).
God is deadly serious about giving the land its rest. If the people abuse and exploit the land, the land "will vomit you out" (Leviticus 18:28). Later, God warns that if the people fail to care for the land, they will be forced out. And while they are gone, "the land will enjoy its sabbath years" (Leviticus 26:34).
I wonder if the COVID-19 pandemic is a moment when the human race is paying a painfully high price for our sins against the natural world. It is certainly a moment of sabbath rest for the Earth. Our own irresponsibility is forcing us into a sabbath we probably needed for our own good.
I pray that we learn from this.
For now, we need to focus energy and time on saving lives.
But as the crisis bottoms out and we start to turn back toward the light, we need to give serious thought to the kinds of changes we need to make in the "new normal." We need to learn from our sins against Earth and our fellow creatures. We need to change our ways because I fear that COVID-19 is only a warning.
It may sound perverse, but I think it is right to thank God for this season of sabbath.
But let us not waste it! Let us pray that it changes us.
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, primus inter pares
Voices for Earth Justice