“We have sown the Brexit wind, and now reap the Covid whirlwind”, tweeted John Milbank (“Theologian, philosopher, poet, political theorist”). “Past generations would have seen divine judgement manifest here”, he expounded, before alluding to the higher discernment of present generations: “In the sense that we are quickly seeing the insanity of removing self-protection because of insular pride and selfishness they would have been right.”
So the Emeritus Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham (and current President of their Centre of Theology and Philosophy) believes Brexit to be a manifestation “of insular pride and selfishness”, and the new “British strain” of Covid-19 (or, more specifically [just for Nicola Sturgeon] the ‘English strain’) is cause-and-effect ‘judgement’ upon the Government’s pride and selfishness (or is it the pride and selfishness of the 52% who voted to leave the EU?).
What wind then blows in the EU’s woeful preparations for inoculating their 446 million citizens? “The EU appears to have bought too little, too late and at times from the wrong producers. And it appears that it turned down hundreds of millions of vaccine doses that are now lacking.” What harvest is being reaped here, exactly? What divine judgement would past generations have seen manifest (in the sense that we are quickly seeing the insanity of removing national self-protection and accountability in favour of Babel-like hubris and centralised power)?
John Milbank tweets like a friend of Job: Covid is the price we pay for Brexit (which seems a bit harsh on the rest of Europe, which must be mired in British collateral damage). Professor Milbank doesn’t expound his understanding of the judgement of God upon China as the fons et origo of the virus, because it is convenient not to do so.
‘What have we done to deserve this?’ is a wholly understandable question in the context of political chaos and national suffering. And the easy and comforting answer is to believe that the new ‘British strain’ of Covid-19 is somehow deserved, or that Boris Johnson’s wickedness and Tory sin is its cause, because associated guilt places the catastrophe in a comprehensible universal order: suffering is explicable in terms of punishment.
In his immense suffering and grief, Job shares the premise of his friends that because God is just, He rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, which is why Job can make no sense of his own suffering (10:5-7). ‘Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard: I cry aloud, but there is no judgment‘, he pleads (19:7). But God is aloof and indifferent.
It isn’t easy to square Psalm 146 with Job 24:1-12, or Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Ecclesiastes 8:14-9:4. The writer of Job clashes directly with the ideology of Proverbs. Proverbs seems to say: ‘Here are the rules for life; try them and find that they will work.’ Job and Ecclesiastes say: ‘We did, and they don’t.’ But Job isn’t necessarily a contradiction to Proverbs; more a modification or qualification. Proverbial expressions of natural retribution are something most will understand: eating junk food results in heart attacks, or smoking results in lung cancer, but Proverbs does not attempt to reconcile the contradictions of experience. Thus when poverty is linked to laziness or folly (Prov 6: 6-11; 10:4f; 21:17,21,25), it is easy to conclude that laziness results in poverty; or worse, that poverty is always the result of laziness. But this is to ignore that righteous people are afflicted by suffering (eg Ps 13:1). By separating calamity from moral wrongdoing, there begins an alleviation of associated guilt, and thus illness and disease, death or disaster need not necessarily cast discredit on the trauma victim. The Book of Proverbs speaks truth, but the lesson from Job is that it ought not to be applied dogmatically or simplistically, as Professor Milbank is inclined to do.
Job’s friends repeatedly state that all humans are flawed by sin and none is pure (4:17-21, 15:14, 25:4-6), and Job shares this view (1:5, 14:1-4), and does not therefore claim to be sinless (cf 7:21, 13:26, 14:16f). This appears to contradict his claims elsewhere (9:15,20, 10:1-7) to be innocent. It has to be assumed that the prevailing theory of retribution held by Job and his friends was that God’s punishments and rewards were in proportion to a man’s sin or righteousness: ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning’, says Boris Johnson. Job clings to the deeply-held belief that he is innocent of anything which may have deserved calamity and suffering on such a massive scale. His experience moves him beyond a limiting theology, and opens his eyes to the fact that the wicked are rarely punished (ch 21) and the oppressed are rarely comforted (24:1-12). Job ultimately allows his experience to modify his theological dogma, while his friends cling to their dogma against all the evidence.
It has been said of the Book of Job that it does not so much answer a question as question an answer. If the Book of Job is to be employed directly with any credible effect in the Brexit/Covid chaos, at the very least its words of wisdom would need to be empathetic. But they are not. Job’s counsellors besmirch his reputation in order to uphold God’s, but they are considered ‘physicians of no value’ (13:4). Their attitude pervades still in the Milbankian spirit. In the aftermath of tragedy and in the context of trauma, you will hear it clearly: your suffering represents God’s punishment for your wickedness. There is no weeping with those who weep. Job’s counsellors were of most use when they sat with him in silence for seven days (2:13), which Professor Milbank might contemplate doing (or certainly taking a break from Twitter). When the understanding of chaos and suffering is partial, silent meditation can move you toward empathy and understanding.
If Covid-19 hasn’t been brought on directly by God, it is certainly spreading with divine sufferance (2:4-6), and so we enter the realm of theodicy. Job clings to the notion that, contrary to appearances, God is just. He is absolutely certain that he will be vindicated (19:25) and it is possible that he believes his vindicator to be God. Job’s world may lie in ruins, but there is a deeply held conviction that ultimately God acts justly. He may be a present enemy (19:8-12), but Job’s complete human isolation turns him to God as the only possible source of his vindication. Reaching out to the supernatural is a normal human reaction when faith in humanity and earthly order has been destroyed by trauma and isolation.
And Brexit may yet be seen not as an act of “insular pride and selfishness”, but of global endeavour and national generosity. Vindication will come – if it isn’t already manifest in the EU’s dithering incompetence over the vaccine.