Thus far, we have been informed by at least two world leaders, many more lesser politicians, several prominent newscasters and a host of other talking heads that “we are at war” with the coronavirus. I have often questioned the aptness of this “war” metaphor we employ so liberally. In my own life time, I have seen war declared on poverty, drugs, crime, terror and a host of other abstract nouns. To be sure, the coronavirus is anything but abstract. Nonetheless, characterizing the virus, which bears us no malice and seeks no more than what we seek, namely, to live and thrive, seems a little off. The virus is no more our enemy than earthquakes, tornados and tsunamis. All of these phenomena are highly inconvenient for human civilization, but they are not out to destroy us. So I think we need to reconsider our use of “war” terminology if we are going to think clearly about what is happening to us and why.
From a purely homocentric point of view, the covid-19 pandemic represents a huge disruption in our lives and a threat to our wellbeing. But the homocentric point of view is not the only one. The BBC reports that, as a result of reduced travel and industrial activity following pandemic induced restrictions, New York City is experiencing a notable decrease in carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide emissions and air pollution generally. These reductions in carbon emissions and improvements in air quality mirror similar changes occurring in China, which largely shut down during its own coronavirus outbreak. For the non-human inhabitants of planet earth, the covid-19 pandemic looks more like liberation than invasion. So if we are going to continue using the war metaphor, I think we need to ask ourselves whether we are fighting on the right side.
I am not suggesting for one minute that we should halt our efforts to stop the spread of covid-19 or end our search for vaccines and treatments so that “nature can take its course.” What I am saying is that we need to take a broader view of what is happening to us. Many scientists are doing just that. A number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19. See “‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?” The Guardian, March 18, 2020. “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.” Ibid. In the immortal words of the comic figure Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That being the case, the “war” metaphor is not particularly helpful.
Our best hope of protecting human health lies not solely in stemming this particular pandemic. Nor does the solution lie with ensuring that, next time around, we have enough hospital beds, ventilators and masks. The quality of human health and wellbeing finally depend on our learning to live sustainably in a way that promotes overall planetary health. Preventing pandemics, as well as reducing other threats to human health and wellbeing, cannot be divorced from consideration of global warming, deforestation, water pollution and soil contamination. Neither can we intelligently address the threat of global pandemics without addressing the poverty, inequality and injustice keeping so many of us living in conditions that breed illness and disease.
The scriptures have a word for all this: Shalom. Our English Bibles translate this Hebrew word as “peace,” but it carriers a lot more freight than that. Shalom peace is not simply the absence of conflict. It connotes a state of wellbeing, harmony and working relationships of interdependence. Shalom is reflected in God’s declaration that the created cosmos is “good.” In the first biblical creation narrative, human beings are commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28. This verse has given rise to a good deal of mischief. For that reason, we need to recall that the Hebrew word “CABASH” translated in Genesis 1:28 as “subdue,” is the same word employed in God’s command for Israel to subdue the land of Canaan. Numbers 32:22; Numbers 32:29; Joshua 18:1. The subjugation of the land meant more than merely driving out Israel’s enemies. Very specific commands were given to Israel directing the people to care for the land and its non-human inhabitants. For example, trees were to be spared from the ravages of war. Deuteronomy 20:19-20. Egg producing birds were to be spared from slaughter. Deuteronomy 22:6-7. The sabbath rest mandated for all human beings, from king to servant, extended also to animals. Exodus 23:12. Moreover, the land itself was to be given a year’s sabbath rest from cultivation every seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. God was worshiped not only as the provider for human beings, but for all living creatures. Psalm 104:10-23.
In Genesis’ second creation narrative, the human creature is placed in the Garden of Eden with a simple mandate: till and keep the Garden. Genesis 2:15. This helps to put everything in perspective. It’s not all about us human beings. It’s about the earth. We don’t own the place. We’re just the grounds keepers. As such, we are responsible to see to it that the garden flourishes and to that end we are given plenty of discretion. Still, our authority to act is not unlimited. If I had enough disposable income to hire a gardener, I would give her a free reign to make decisions, such as what to plant where, how often things need watering and how often the grass is cut. But if I came home one day to find her brother-in-law’s car up on blocks in my front yard, or if I saw her building a jungle gym for her children in the back, I think I would need to have a pointed discussion about the scope of her exercise of control over my property. So, too, centuries of ruthless exploitation of our planet, that in contemplation of capitalism is nothing more than a ball of resources to be exploited for profit, cries out for judgment. This is not how gardeners attend to their proper task.
Can we say that the pandemic is God’s judgment upon us? Not in the sense that God deliberately designed this virus to punish us for our failings. We do not worship a vindictive God. Nevertheless, the scriptures teach us that God created a cosmos with hundreds of interactive elements and interdependent life forms designed to live in the harmony of shalom. When shalom is disrupted, all of life is threatened. Moses solemnly warned the people of Israel that, should they defile the land of Canaan they were about to inherit, “the land will vomit you out for defiling it.” Leviticus 18:28. By any standard imaginable, our earth has been defiled by its human inhabitants. Right now, our planet is struggling to right the terrible imbalance we have inflicted upon it. The covid19 epidemic is only our world’s latest convulsion as it writhes in its sickbed. We can choose to war against the earth and pound it back into submission, or we can take this opportunity to release our death grip on its throat, allow it to breath again and begin attending to its wounds-because that is the only way to find healing for our own.