I am writing during Holy Week, the time of the passion. We are in the middle of our own passion right now. Not passion as in an intense emotion, though that can be part of it, but “passion” as in a test of faith and courage, and above all, love. Passion means to endure pain to the bitter end. In our culture Christ is the foremost example of this kind of passion. On Good Friday we naturally think of him. No matter how you feel about him, Christ heroically endured unspeakable cruelty. He suffered the scourging at the pillar with a Roman whip called a flagrum. The Roman soldiers used this instrument of torture, leather thongs with the knuckle bones of sheep or lead weights tied at the ends, meant to tear flesh. Most likely they almost killed Christ with this punishment. But it wasn’t over. He was then nailed to a cross and died a tortuous death of asphyxiation.
Plagues, or disease outbreaks, are a trial, a passion, and there have been many in history. We know about the Ten Plagues of Egypt. The tenth plague, as described in Exodus, mortally afflicted the first born in Egyptian families. The Bible story describes a mysterious disease which struck children, but older people, too, since they also can be the eldest in families. In this respect it’s just like the coronavirus. The series of disasters befalling the Egyptians was meant to coerce them to free the Hebrew slaves, which they stubbornly refused to do. An unjust social order had enslaved the Israelites but God intervened to correct the imbalance.
It’s not the fashion nowadays to consider epidemics (pandemics when they spread to multiple countries), or any kind of disease outbreak, as punishment from God or Nature. But sometimes it does seem to be that way. In our case, we can look at Covid-19 as an alarm bell in the night alerting us to necessary changes in our attitudes and behaviors. It’s not hard to see what needs to change. To give one example, we have been discharging so many green house gases into the atmosphere that the planet is in serious, even mortal danger. But since the world-wide lockdown green house gases have been drastically reduced. In spite of the economic harm we know that any reduction in carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane is a good thing for Mother Earth. Can we change our habits and permanently stop global warming? Another good thing is the change in our social behavior. From the almost mindless frenzy of our hectic lives we have assumed a gentler, slower, more unselfish pace, paying more attention to others even if we have to maintain social distance.
We pride ourselves on our advanced medical science, but it can border on hubris. The coronavirus is a reminder that “pride goes before the fall.” We have been shocked into an awareness that this is just the latest in a long line of plagues. Like all the others it is a an enemy which we do not know how to defeat. So much for our proud medical science.
The most notable pandemic was bubonic plague, the Black Death, which struck the Byzantine Empire in the 6th Century and then returned in the 14th Century and wiped out 25 million people in Europe. It was caused by a bacterium known as Yersinia Pestis, transmitted by fleas infesting the large rat populations common in medieval times. And then, of course, there was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 which killed 675,000 people in the U.S. and 50 million world-wide. This disease actually originated on Kansas pig farms, crossing the human-animal barrier. The novel coronavirus also crossed the human-animal barrier.
But there is hope. We are now enjoying Easter, the resurrection which nullifies death, and which also reminds us that there is order in the cosmos, a good end to everything. The way it all works is that there is always an accounting, some payment which must be rendered for our behavior, our bad thinking, our arrogance. This is not just a religious thing. We are reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, when he pronounces the price that the nation must pay for the American original sin of slavery, “…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He teaches American Literature, Military History, and Southwest History and Culture.