We seem to be constantly on the verge of impending catastrophe. COVID. Climate change. The collapse of Twitter.
That last example is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but there’s some truth in it. The collapse of Twitter (if it happens) would have significant negative impact on some people’s livelihoods, health supports, advocacy networks, and more. But it’s also true in a different way: the way people are responding to Twitter’s demise reveals some of the social dynamics at play in the larger catastrophes we face.
It seems to me there are two unhelpful responses to these catastrophes.
One is to get swept up in the tidal wave of fear and despair—the hysteria—that accompanies any perceived catastrophe. There is even a kind of “culture of catastrophe” at work in some segments of society, where our way of being in the world, even our identity in society, is determined in relation to whatever the current catastrophe is. We are required always to be in a heightened state of anxiety and urgent action—a sure-fire recipe for mental ill health and societal conflict.
The other unhelpful response, though, is to downplay or even ignore the seriousness of the problem. Catastrophes do happen. To suggest otherwise is to be naïve, or even to betray our historical or geographical privilege. Catastrophes have happened in history, and they are happening around the world. COVID and climate change are real problems. Injustice and inequity, bigotry and violence, disease and disaster, in all their forms, are real problems.
So what should we do? In particular, how should we as Christians follow Christ into catastrophe?
Well, we have some good guidance from Jesus himself in the Gospels. After all, Jesus predicted a catastrophe, and gave instructions for his followers on how to walk in that catastrophe. Let’s give a glance at Jesus’ “Apocalyptic Discourse” (yes, that’s what scholars call it) in Matthew’s Gospel.
In Matthew 24-25, Jesus describes the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, a catastrophe which happened roughly 40 years after Jesus. (For a few historical-critical thoughts on this, see below.*) Jesus sets this catastrophe in the context of even wider catastrophes: wars, natural disasters, famines, plagues, and the like. And then Jesus gives some guidance for his followers on how they should walk into those catastrophes.
One word of guidance from Jesus is especially highlighted through chapter 24, summed up in this phrase: watch and pray.
“Stay awake,” Jesus says, be watchful. Be aware of what is going on, pay attention to the things that are happening and what they mean. Be ready for God’s deliverance when it comes. And pray. Pray as Jesus taught us (Matt 6:9-13). Trust in our loving God for our daily bread. Pray for salvation from the time of trial and deliverance from evil. Hope in God’s good future on the far side of the apocalypse.
Take seriously what’s going on. But don’t get caught up in the hysteria; don’t get swept up in the fear and despair. Don’t let the unfolding catastrophe determine your way of being in the world, your identity in the world. Watch and pray.
Another word of guidance is especially bought home in chapter 25, summed up this way: care for “the least” among us as the worst unfolds around us.
Jesus calls his followers to use what God has given us to invest into God’s kingdom, God’s reign of justice and peace and life. Feed the hungry, Jesus says, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, care for the imprisoned. In other words, continue to “seek first God’s reign and God’s justice” (Matt 6:33).
Don’t give up on this world; and especially, don’t give up on those among us most vulnerable to harm by evil forces in times of trial. Care for “the least” among us as the worst unfolds around us.
Some of us as Christians are good at not getting caught up in the hysteria of COVID or climate change or any other impending catastrophe. But then we’re often not as good at being aware of the reality of the problems, or at focusing on the most vulnerable through those problems, and those vulnerable people get harmed.
Others of us are good at being aware of the problems and, sometimes at least, centering the most vulnerable in the midst of those problems. But then we’re often not as good at prayerfully trusting in God for our present, or prayerfully hoping in God for the future, and we walk in unhealthy anxiety and inflame conflict with others who are not our enemies.
May we take Jesus’ words to heart, and follow Christ into the catastrophes of our time, walking always in faith, hope, and love, especially for those most often deemed least in our world.
*Here’s my take on the Synoptic apocalyptic discourses. There’s such a strong memory of Jesus’ predicting a future calamitous end, and even specifically the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, that I think it likely Jesus did indeed predict this. That memory is preserved not just in all four Gospels (Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; John 2) but also in other NT passages (e.g. 1 Thess 4-5). And there were certainly enough signs in Jesus’ day that things were not going to end well for the Jewish people in their struggle against Roman imperial power. A Temple destruction in some not-too-distant future was also on the minds of others (see accounts in Josephus).
I also think it likely that Jesus believed the end of the age and the dawn of the coming age, the fullness of the reign of God, would come at the time of the Temple’s destruction. In this Jesus was wrong. However, the Gospel authors, all writing after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE (Mark as a possible exception to this), still saw value in Jesus’ words. Yes, they embellished Jesus’ predictions to make them fit more directly with recent historical events (especially Luke in Luke 21:20-24), but they didn’t substantially change the tradition they had received (so they believed) from Jesus. Why is that?
One reason, I think, is simply that it confirmed Jesus as a prophet. He had predicted the Temple’s destruction, and look, it happened. But I think there’s another reason: they saw in Jesus’ words continuing guidance for them in the midst of the wider “catastrophes” he highlighted. Wars, natural disasters, famines, and plagues continued, along with false prophets and false messiahs and opposition and even persecution of Jesus’ followers. While Jesus’ return and the fulfillment of God’s reign was transferred to some unknown future, we still live in this “time between the times” where all these calamitous events take place. We need Jesus’ guidance on how to live in these ongoing days of evil.