By John Evans
I recently read The Plague by Albert Camus and it became my meditation on these past two years of COVID-19. I was forced to think: what we have done well and not so well and, more particularly, where has God been during this time?
The Plague is an account of an epidemic in a French city after WWII. Given our experience of the pandemic, the story is hauntingly insightful. It anticipates the exhaustion of health workers, the protesters, separation from family and, of course, widespread illness and death.
Camus anticipates disease will come in waves. There will be economic consequences – though toilet paper does not get specifically mentioned! As always, the poor and the weak suffer the most.
All aspects of our being have been affected by the pandemic. As the narrator in the novel says, we need “to bear witness on behalf of the victims, to leave a memory of the violence and injustice, and to say simply what it is that one learns in the midst of such tribulations”.
This chronicler was sure there was more to admire than despise, as he recounted his experience. However, there would be other plagues, and death again would pervade. So, with our pandemic, are we prepared to learn from the “midst of our tribulations”? How have we coped with pervasive death? In what ways has our faith, our spiritual life, our very being, been affected? In fact, these deeper matters are a focus of The Plague. Is God still to be found in a time of contagion? So, take this observation of Dr Rieux, the narrator of the story and a self-confessed unbeliever, to a friend, a campaigner against the death penalty:
“And this is something that a man like yourself might understand: since the order of the world is governed by death, perhaps it is better for God that we should not believe and struggle with all our strength against death, without raising our eyes to heaven and God’s silence.”
Death was everywhere. As Rieux suggests, is our response to bypass God in a plague?
Camus answers: “Yes!”. God is to be bypassed. True, there can be hard work, care and compassion – but is there really a God in a pandemic?
For Camus, a critical part of this answer comes from what he observes to be the response of the church to the disease. So, Fr Paneloux delivers a powerful sermon to a packed congregation in the cathedral. He thunders, “Calamity has befallen you; you have deserved it!” Taking his cue from the plagues that Pharoah endured, he continues: “If the plague affects you now, this means the time has come to reflect. The just have no need to fear, but the unjust should tremble!”
The plague was God’s judgement on the people of this city. It was the will of God. That story however, takes a chilling twist, leading us to ponder: is perhaps Camus, right after all?
An infected child suffers excruciating pain in the presence of Rieux, Paneloux and several others. Rieux is appalled. Indeed, he observes the “child assumed the pose of a crucified man in that ravaged bed”. Then following a harrowing cry, the boy dies. Obviously, an echo of Good Friday – but without any promise of hope.
As people were leaving, the doctor “turned around and spat out to the priest, ‘At least that one was innocent, as you very well know!’” It would seem the conclusion was clear: this judgmental God was best to be avoided. Innocents, like this child, suffer. Paneloux is unable to respond and quietly slips out of the story, and in the end dies of the plague.
So is faith possible in a pandemic? Why indeed, do innocents suffer?
For Dr Rieux, he just continues working to fulfil his calling. He works very hard. He organises teams to care for the stricken. Death is avoided, people are made comfortable. Such was to be admired and not despised. But is that all we can say? In The Plague, the doctor’s friend responds to the above observation about pervasive death: “Yes, I can understand. Your victories (over death) will always be temporary, that is all.”
Camus, the atheist, cuts to a central issue of the Easter Faith. Camus seems to be saying death in fact is all there is. A plague moves that reality to the forefront. As a consequence, existence becomes dominated by dogged determination to put off death, which we know from our pandemic, is unjust and tragic. At best, we can only have “temporary victories”. As Rieux says: “The world is governed by death.”
However, surely the Easter Faith provides an alternative?
Is not our existence characterised by life and hope; life and hope in which “heaven and God’s silence” accepts our life. Accepts us as we are. And in grace offers life, despite all our failings and the pervasiveness of death. Indeed, rather than death, the sting of death, are we not incorporated into the great mystery of God’s life and presence.
All of this comes through believing in Christ, and his death and resurrection. In other words, believing in the Easter Faith. Christ dies like that child in The Plague, however, this time, there then comes Easter morn and living hope.
“By God’s great mercy, we have been given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and (this living hope) is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” (1 Peter 1:3ff)
Here is the Easter message for our pandemic weary world! It is different to Camus’s assessment. All the same, his book is a way of entering into a reflection on these past two years, and what Easter means for you. In this world seemingly governed by death, there is hope.
Dr John Evans is a retired UC Minister.