I did just have one more thing to say about The Great Mortality—the book about the Black Death that I mentioned on Sunday. It was a great book and I commend it to anyone interested in the subject. But the end really ticked me off and I’m sure I should take a few paragraphs to explain why.
Towards the end, the author, John Kelly, movingly recounts the horrible persecution and murder of the Jews all over Europe as city after city panicked about the carnage wrought by the plague. A scourge had fallen over the earth and who could understand it? Well, ordinary people could absolutely understand it, or so they so wickedly believed. It was because of a global conspiracy of the Jews to take over everything. The emotional detail with which Kelly documents the horror is worth the price of the book alone. But then, as so many do, he (and why would he because it was a history book, not a theological one) makes free at the very end to wax lyrical about the beauty of the human spirit. People are good, he concludes, at least some of them are. There were such examples of human kindness, human ingenuity, and human strength that one should not despair about humanity in general. Civilization did not collapse, even though the strain on it was so incomprehensibly great.
And yet, in the same breath, he censoriously sniffs at all the bishops and priests of the age who took the opportunity to preach and declare God’s judgment on the wicked and ungodly. He intimated, not too subtly, that they—all these spiritual teachers—were blaming the victim. How awful, he said, to be dying of the plague and then have to hear sermons about the fires of hell and such like.
So anyway, I was most annoyed. And here are the reasons why—numbered, though not in any particular logical order.
- If you’re going to write a work of history (and this is true for literally every historian I can think of and have written about this year) you should be able to describe the worldview of the people under your nose in such a way that those people would agree with your assessment of them before you launch your explanation of why they are wrong. In this case, it would mean being able to articulate the theology that they hold in a coherent way. If you cannot understand, for example, why Christians talk about the judgment of God, you do not know or understand Christians. You should go back and read the Bible. There is a veritable feast of passages in the scriptures that give clear and obvious reasons about why bad things happen and what a person should do when he is stricken with something like a plague, or a tsunami, or a tower falling on him (coughSiloamcough). When you see something bad happen, even if you cannot absolutely determine the direct cause of it, you should still immediately repent of your own sins. To make it more current, if you are horrified about what is happening in Afghanistan, you should fall on your knees and repent of your own sins, immediately. Sure, your blood isn’t being mixed by Pilate with the evening sacrifices, you didn’t do anything wrong on any particular score, nevertheless, repent, for you are not innocent. No one who died in the plague—no one at all—was innocent. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and if God wants to send an apocalyptic pestilence on the whole world, he is allowed to do that, and your response should be repentance.
- It really irritates me that anyone at all is able to hang onto the “people are basically good” trope in the very same space—sometimes even line—in which those people are actually describing how bad and terrible people are. This continues to baffle me. In When Bad Things Happen To Good People, I kid you not, Kushner literally declared that people are good while describing a lot of people who are really really bad and who went out and deliberately hurt those “good” people. This led him to conclude that God is good, but not good enough to be powerful enough to do anything about all the bad stuff. Good people needed to come together in a hopeful way to be kind to each other and thereby increase or in other ways bring about the goodness that God likes but is too weak to accomplish. Kelly did this in spades in the epilogue of The Great Mortality. So many people were wicked in the Middle Ages, it turns out—like really wicked—but that didn’t stop him from concluding that the few people who were good made it all ok.
- This bothers me because it—like the medical student looking at a pig in order to understand the human body—defies objective evidence. Who are you going to believe? The guy who, upon the occasion of observing a fiend being beaten by an ostensibly noble but actually complicated passerby for mugging a little old lady who looks sweet but who has been embezzling money her whole life, tries to make sense of it all by concluding that the heroic passerby somehow makes it all better? Or God who made all three of them and knows all the bad things that all three have done, comes down to earth to take the judgment that should fall on them for being so awful, rises again to defeat death, and then waits for several millennia so that every single person who ever gets a cough or is threatened by anyone at all can rush into his arms for help and salvation? If you don’t want to believe in that God, fine. But look at the state of humanity and stop saying that people are good. There are no good people. Every single person I know is at least as wicked as I am and maybe even a little bit more. Stop ignoring the evidence.
- It also bothers me a great deal because there is nothing to be gained by insisting that people are good even in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary. It doesn’t have to ruin your self-esteem to admit that you’re not that good of a person. Repenting for being actually wicked isn’t so psychologically ruinous that it will destroy you. In fact, if you look around the world at this particular moment, you will notice a culture racked with guilt. The whole business of trying to get people to repent of their whiteness is a corporate, though I would say pretty pathetic, attempt to reckon with the empirical reality that people are bad. Why is it pathetic? Because it’s just the surface. It’s just your awful skin color. It has nothing to do with how bad you really are. It keeps you in a perpetual and psychologically soothing state of guilt so that you don’t have to face that you actually hate other people and don’t love God and have all kinds of foul idolatries at the center of your life. If you are repenting of your whiteness, it’s still all about you, which is exactly the problem.
- If you can admit that people aren’t good—not at the very core of them—you immediately have all kinds of freedom you didn’t have before. First of all, you can see the grace and beauty of God. You can revel in his astonishing goodness. You can be lifted out of yourself and find yourself carried along by a strange power that can make you live in such a good and glorious light that you can both save the little old lady and tell the thug about Jesus. This is such good news. It comes at the pathetic cost of yourself, of course, and that is something. But not much when you consider all the different and terrible ways you can die—the plague, war, a car accident, falling over, getting old, or being killed.
So anyway, I still recommend The Great Mortality. If only the writer had taken a cue from the name of his own book and wondered to himself about the God that everyone—known and unknown—took for granted in that dark and difficult time. How ironic that we, knowing so much about disease and pestilence, should be so much darker in our imagination and vision of that Awesome Being, the One who has the power both to kill and to raise up, to strike down and to heal.