Apocalyptic Story Time in the Midst of the Plague

President Trump has recently been repeating that there are much worse things that might result from social isolation, in the attempt to halt the coronavirus, and the implication is that this ultimate worst thing is the failure of the economy. R. R. Reno, in First Things, has chimed in with a full-bore theological support of Trump, explaining that we need to recognize that the sacrifice of a small percentage of the population may be necessary to save the system as a whole.[1] Like Trump, he never specifically names the ultimate catastrophe (perhaps it is too fearful and unimaginable to even utter), but he ridicules the “sentimentalism” which would attempt to save a small number of lives concluding, “The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of ‘saving lives.’”

The Eucharist, in Reno’s version, is on the side of hard free market choices, which he describes as a system of triage. Doing triage, or choosing who must be sacrificed, always “requires the hard moral labor” of rationing “healthcare by price, waiting times, and physician discretion.” The unspoken message, that the present economy requires human sacrifice, is articulated as, “Only an irresponsible sentimentalist imagines we can live in a world without triage.” Reno seems to recognize he is near to defining Eucharist (what he calls the “no to the reign of death”) in the same way Paul defines sin, so he clarifies, “We must never do evil that good might come.” But he hedges and qualifies his way back to embracing Paul’s formula for evil, as if it is the good: “But we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.” In other words, the zero-sum game of capitalism (the life of “finitude”) embraces the necessity of sacrificing the few for the many.

To not embrace this individualistic survival of the fittest obscenity is, in Reno’s estimate, to miss the imperative of the Gospel, which he rightly pinpoints as overcoming the fear of death. What he misses in the Gospel, is that the fear of death reigns through the lie that proposes death as the solution to life, so it need not be feared (the ultimate result of fear is believing this lie). Every good samurai, every devout religionist, every fervid nationalist, would follow the Satanic injunction to embrace death as the means to life. Reno has confused Satan and God, the Truth and the lie, evil and the good.

He demonstrates this through the unfortunate example of the Spanish flu epidemic. “Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death.” It was for this reason that this generation threw caution to the wind, “bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.” As a result of this robust refusal to be turned aside from work, worship, and play, between 20 to 50 million people lost their lives. Reno could be paraphrasing the serpent in the Garden in urging us to embrace death. “We must reject the specious moralism that places fear of death at the center of life,” and the way we do this is to embrace death.

Reno warns us not to believe what is most obviously true: “They abandoned the weak to the slaughter of the disease for no good reason.” No, he says, rather, “They insisted that man was made for life, not death.” The way one really lives is not to take precaution but to continually fuel life with the reality of death. Life, in this view, is structured by death. This is the impetus behind every form of violence, every justification for war, every turn to defying death through death. Death, war, and violence, are presumed to be made controllable through embracing them. As Sue Mansfield has put it, through active violence, death and destruction “are forced into an ordered gestalt that human consciousness can encompass because it is commensurate with human limits and meanings.”[2] Reno would turn the death of Christ into a fellowship of death, in which life is a limited commodity ordered by death (resurrection does not enter into it). Saving lives is not important in Reno’s religion, as life seems to have little intrinsic value.

The additional lie surrounding the Spanish flu epidemic, is that out of concern of appearing weak before their enemies during WW I, government officials suppressed reporting on the number of deaths and the seriousness of the disease. In other words, they were advocates of doing evil that good might abound; better to lose a few thousand citizens than to risk losing the war. Of course, fear of death looms behind this willing sacrifice of tens of thousands. Reno portrays this same unspeakable fear in advocating business as usual. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity for reevaluating life’s chief concerns, Reno seems to be recommending “family reunions,” “visiting the elderly,” and “serving the Eucharist,” all in death defying support of not turning from routine. A moment alone, a time of boredom, a period of reflection, may contain the chief fearful realization: the ordering principles of the American Way, of liberal democratic capitalistic society, are inadequate and subject to failure.

 Reno (perhaps, along with his magazine and its ideology, fleshed out in this political moment) is living proof that Eucharist, Gospel, or Jesus, might all be so twisted so as to serve the most profound evil. The structuring principle backing his ready willingness to secure the system at the expense of its people, concerns the guiding philosophy, not only of his right-wing Catholicism, but the undergirding thought of right-wing evangelicalism. Richard Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things, proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal “covenant” under God. The political and theological implications may be most simply expressed in his understanding that “when he died and stood face-to- face with his creator, he expected to do so as an American.” He holds that the American experience is a “sacred enterprise.” As Michael Novak (a fellow traveler) has described it, the market economy mirrors the will of the divine Trinity, meaning the spread of democratic capitalism is “the greatest story ever told.” Or as Attorney General William Barr would have it, “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” is under threat as secularism threatens the United States. Each would conflate the story of the United States with Christianity. Where the system of the United States is threatened so is the Christian moral system. Christ and Christianity are made to fit the American story and are understood in this context.[3]

In the Christian story, the recognition is that we are all in this together, and this is an all-inclusive “all,” without geographic (space) or historical (time) boundaries. It is not enough to add Christ to an already existing story or to imagine the community from which the story of the United States arises is the Christian community. In this sort of virtual reality, actually existing lives count for very little. By the same token, it is not enough to simply imagine that foregrounding the story of Christ with the story of creation, the story of Abraham, or the story of Israel, or the story of the Church, will adequately contextualize our understanding of Christ (as illustrated with Catholic/evangelical ideology). Christ is not added to or understood in the context of other stories, even the unfolding narrative of Scripture.

In the New Testament, time and space bend around the life, death and resurrection of Christ. As in Ephesians 2:6, God has already “raised us up with him.” His past resurrection accounts for a present experience which will be realized in the future. In I Corinthians Paul states, “our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” Christ was present with Israel in their exodus and wilderness journey. As Paul says a few verses later (detailed in Numbers 21 and Psalm 77), it was Christ that they had put to the test and the Corinthians should avoid doing the same. The incarnate Christ as the pre-existent Christ bends all of history around the incarnation. He “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) and “all things have been created through him and for him.” The same one that is “head of the body, the church” is the one that is in the beginning.” This narrative simultaneously focuses on the historical Christ as encompassing the beginning and end “so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:16-18).

The saving work of Christ does not abandon the physical, the historical world, as in Reno’s theology, nor does it abandon the many or the few for the benefit of the saved. Any version of the story which is not centered on the singular story of Christ (his life, death and resurrection as context) will, of necessity, produce the dead wood of the expendable darkness so as to provide the fuel for producing the light. As Chris Tilling depicts it, this sort of narrative time (“stretched over a sequential template”) “locks key truth claims about the whole into the beginning” so that the problem is determinative of the answer. The hero or heroine is constituted by an already determined task. The beginning, the particular historical context, a moment in time, preceding or separate from Christ, “by force of being first, contains key or axiomatic truths for the articulation of the whole.”[4] A beginning, history, or Fall, which is read as unfolding toward Christ will be determinative of the meaning of Christ, so that sin will be determinative of salvation and creation will contextualize and control incarnation.  Just as the beatific vision of Augustine, Calvin, and Aquinas, is dependent upon an eternal delight in witnessing the tortures of the damned, so too the poor unfortunates sacrificed in Reno’s Catholicism do not require sentimental consideration but are the necessary expendables of a faith, contextualized by this present moment.

It may turn out that love of neighbor, in these unsettling times, results in full realization of what it might mean that we are all in this together. This simple but apocalyptic realization may best be learned in the midst of this global pandemic, in which we realize GDP, money, the market economy, do not really count for much in the face of recognition that my good cannot be purchased at the expense of my neighbor. This common place assumption cannot be absorbed where the values of the of the market reign supreme.

It is time to find ourselves a different ordering principle, an alternative hermeneutic, a different story. As my friend Matt Welch has written, “This awful situation is also an opportunity for us to learn something deep & mysterious & wonderful & telling about the world God created for us: that the good of each individual human being is bound up with the good of every other human being. We each *need* the well-being of our neighbor for our own well-being. Our good depends upon the good of our neighbor. The human race is a family and God is our Father.”

As Tilling notes, where “the revelation of God is conditioned by something other than the reality of God in Jesus Christ, then that which conditions it has become the real lord.”  Due to “human sinfulness and rebellion, such constructed interpretative lords are prone to idolatry,” and as in all idolatry (every market economy) human sacrifice is the unfolding necessity.[5] Where the interpreter contextualizes herself in the revelation of God in Christ, and not in their time, their country, their narrative, the necessity of the moment is overridden by the power of resurrection and an entirely different “necessity” – love for the neighbor.


[1] R. R. Reno, “Say ‘No’ to Death’s Dominion,” First Things (3/23/20), https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/say-no-to-deaths-dominion?fbclid=IwAR05eb3RIgb_ZeApkHugwNH54vOt4SmwrT7KAfb3C990GI5ozXJCrpJglP8

[2] Sue Mansfield, The Gestalt of War, quoted from William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace (p. 23). Kindle Edition.

[3] I have written of all of this here – http://forgingploughshares.org/2020/01/09/have-the-dark-ages-returned/

[4] Christ Tilling, “Paul, Christ, and Narrative Time,” in Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science, Andrew Torrance and Thomas McCall, eds., (Zondervan, 2018) 162. Thank you Tim for putting me onto this.

[5] Ibid.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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