Every day is the last judgment

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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.

Blazing Bright or Brightly Blazing?

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The phrase “blazing bright” in the 2020 State of the Union Address, followed by the Senate’s impeachment acquittal, the president’s claim of total exoneration, and his promise to take revenge on “evil people” prompt this reflection.

THE ROMAN EMPEROR-ENTERTAINER

Bust of Nero

Whether Nero ( 37 CE – 68 CE) burned Rome to the ground is disputed, but Suetonius claimed he did, and that’s good enough for me. Suetonius’s claim that Nero was mad, devious, and cruel entertainer remains undisputed.

Suetonius tells the story of the Rome brightly blazing:

Pretending to be disgusted by the drab old buildings and narrow, winding streets of Rome, he brazenly set fire to the City; and though a group of ex-consuls caught his attendants, armed with oakum and blazing torches, trespassing on their property, they dared not interfere. He also coveted the sites of several granaries, solidly built of stone, near the Golden House [Nero’s palace]; having knocked down their walls with seige-engines, he set the interiors ablaze. The terror lasted for six days and seven nights, causing many people to take shelter in the tombs . . . . Nero watched the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called “the beauty of the flames; then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang “The Fall of Ilium” from beginning to end.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69 – c. 130/140 CE)

BRIGHTLY BLAZING

Centuries after Nero’s demise, the president of the new republic claimed a greatness that would have reminded Nero and the Roman Senators of themselves and the burning of Rome. “America’s enemies are on the run,” said the president, “America’s fortunes are on the rise and America’s future is blazing bright” [DJT State of the Union Address, 2020].

The president was right. The future is blazing bright . . . in California and Australia . . . . Belittling his predecessor’s belief in the climate change, the president attributes the fires to someone’s failure to rake the leaves.

CANCELLING HIS PREDECESSOR’S EDICTS AND DECREES

Among Nero’s first acts as emperor was to cancel many of Claudius’ edicts and decrees, referring to his predecessor as a “doddering old fool.” To the general public Nero was a welcomed change. Like those before him, the early part of Nero’s reign was considered by many to be a mini-golden age; the populace believed him to be generous, kind, and accessible. There were lavish games, plays, concerts, chariot races and gladiatorial tournaments, and taxes were even reduced. He restored much of the Roman Senate’s power that had been lost over the years, but this restoration had a hidden agenda; it was only done to enable the young emperor to pursue his worldly pleasures, to sing (he did not possess a great voice) and play his lyre. While he sang, no one in the audience was permitted to leave the performance.

Nero, Wikipedia summary of Suetonius and Tacitus.

MICHELANGELO AND THE MASTER OF CEREMONIES

As Nero prepared to commit suicide with the assistance of his aide, he paced rhe halls, repeating the line that boasted of his greatness as an entertainer: greatness as an entertainer: “Qualis artifex pereo!” (“What an artist dies in me!”). First and last, the emperor was an entertainer.

Years later, a REAL artist, Michelangelo, was painting The Last Judgment fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when Biagio da Cesena, the pope’s master of ceremonies, pestered him for a special privilege: a glimpse of the veiled painting. Michelangelo finally acceded to his request, after which Biagio complained to the pope that a painting of nudes was inappropriate for so holy a place.

When the finished fresco was unveiled, Biagio da Cesena — with donkey ears, and a snake covering his nakedness — appeared prominently among the damned in hell, tormented by devils. When he complained to Pope Paul III, the pope replied, “God has given me authority in heaven and on earth, but my writ does not extend to hell. You will just have to put up with it.”

In 2020, the paint on the fresco is still wet. How “Blazing Bright” will be finished remains a work in process. The American people will finish the painting in November. Between now and then the world is Brightly Blazing while Nero continues to celebrate his greatness as an entertainer: “Qualis artifex pereo!

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 8, 2020