Every day is the last judgment

There’s no need to hang about
waiting for the Last Judgement —
it takes place every day.

Albert Camus, The Fall (1956)

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first and will not be the last. Historical contexts, memory, and what we believe make a difference to how we live/die in the 2020 pandemic.The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people, more than all the deaths in World War I. “It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351” – Stanford Encyclopedia.

In the United States, 195,000 Americans lost their lives in the month of October, 1918 alone. The influenza of 1918-19 became known as “the Spanish Flu” after it took the life of the King of Spain, but it was no more Spanish than COVID-19 is Chinese. A virus is a virus. It pays no attention to nations or the propensity of nations and peoples to target a scapegoat — another nation unlike one’s own — as though a virus knows the difference.

Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

The Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 13:31-46)

First appearances can be deceptive, few more so than the teachings of Jesus. The Parable of the Last Judgment is not what it seems –it is not about future end of time. It’s a parable inviting the listeners to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet on the ground. Its message? Pay attention to people in front of you, or nearby, living under the interstate bridge in the dead of winter. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners — put yourself squarely in the midst of human suffering.

We might say, the measure of life is compassion in the midst of a world that makes no good sense. What happens at the end is not yours to know. Pay attention to today. Every day is the Last Judgment.

But there’s something else that goes unnoticed in individualistic cultures. Jesus’s parable it is not about the individual. The parable is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s a story that calls the nations to account for their behavior. In that sense, the parable is political. It’s about the polis and its values. There are no privileged nations. All are measured by one standard. The last judgment– the judgment of compassion, kindness, and humility — takes place every day.

The Opportunity of Trouble

Like the Influenza pandemic of 2018-19, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is a crisis in the Chinese sense of the word — danger and opportunity. The danger seems obvious, but perhaps the opportunity is greater. We are at war with each other across the U.S.A., shouting across a deep chasm that the other is a goat. We are in very deep trouble, but we’re in it together because of a deadly virus. In hopes we will come to the deeper knowledge of who we are.

“The human mind and the human heart move to truth through trouble,” said Irish Anglican priest G.A. Studdert Kennedy. “It does not really matter what sort of truth you seek. Bunyan faced with the problem of the soul, and Newton faced with the problem of the stars, are both alike in this: they are troubled spirits. They brood over a mass of apparently unconnected, unrelated, and meaningless facts. Bunyan mutters, ‘There is no health in me’; and Newton mutters, ‘There is no sense in them.’ For both it is dark, and they do not know the way. Both walk at times into the dungeon of despair. The pilgrim’s progress of the scientist and of the saint is made along much the same road, and it begins with a troubled brooding, and a heavy heavy burden at the back of the mind and heart. We must all start there. Life begins in Lent. But there comes to both a supreme and splendid moment, the moment when they cry, ‘I see! I see!’ Bunyan sees a Cross and a Man who hangs in agony upon it. Newton sees an apple falling to the ground. But into the minds of both there comes a blaze of light.” — G.A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) sermon “The Word with God.”

Perhaps a blaze of light will flood this moment of trouble, we will rediscover each other, find our better selves, and cry out with fresh joy, “I see! I see!”

1918 flu epidemic: the Oakland Municipal Auditorium in use as a temporary hospital. The photograph depicts volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tending influenza sufferers in the Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, California, during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, March 21, 2020.

4 thoughts on “Every day is the last judgment

  1. Our world, intellectually, hasn’t changed too much. We are retired so being home is what we do best. We still can walk outside, ride our indoor hike, read, chat with friends on FaceTime or email. We have, or had, savings which might have lasted as long as we do, but not so likely now. But that’s a future worry. Today, we are OK. Emotionally, my heart is breaking for Marilyn and everyone else who is effected NOW by this disaster. For you, Gordon, separated from your beloved Isaiah and Kristen. For at least two mom’s I know whose beloved teens were abroad when this hit- one is now hk e and the other on her way, but at what price to their health. It is unimaginable and freezes one into a selfish kind of inaction at the scope of the problem. Can I start making masks? Will that really help? I’ll try it. Yesterday I sent cat food and litter to a friend who was struggling before this happened, and who still takes care of homeless cats as best she can. One at a time….we cannot freeze up at the size—just must chip away as best we can. God help us!

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    • “Just chip away as best we can. God help us!”
      Amen, Barb. If Kay and I receive checks from the federal government, we will sign them over to people we know will need them. I’m not much into sewing . . . . just words. Blah ba blah ba blah! You and Carolyn are on our hearts.

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  2. I keep thinking that out of this catastrophe there must be something positive to hang onto. I have friends with small businesses who are closing down and know they won’t reopen, probably ever. I have family and friends who are technically still working but earning so little money, they can’t survive on it … and I’m not sure how we will manage to get by either since one of those people is Owen.

    I’ve spent a lot of time studying the 14th century and how plagues have changed the world. It’s a lot easier to look at it dispassionately when it isn’t in your backyard.

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    • Marilyn, my apologies for replying so late to your note. My heart goes out to you and Garry, and all who have “so little money, they can’t survive on it.”

      Life will not return to normal. There should be a climatologist standing with Dr. Fauci to give daily updates on planetary health. If there’s a silver lining (?), it may be a less commercial, less oligarchical world that respects what every living creature depends upon. But I fear there will not be enough time. Time is of the essence. Not the urgency to “open for business” or pass out an anti-Malaria drug someone’s whacked head dreamed up between tweets, but the urgency of the planet turning brown.

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