On March 30, as the full reality of COVID-19 was only beginning to dawn on most of us, UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted the “disruption” of what he described as the worst crisis in the UN’s 75-year history: “a global human crisis that is killing people, spreading human suffering, upending people’s lives” and “attacking societies at their core.” More recently, with a slight change of metaphor, in a lecture honoring Nelson Mandela, he compared COVID-19 to an x-ray that has revealed “fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built.” The pandemic, he notes, “has laid bare risks we have ignored for decades: inadequate health systems; gaps in social protection; structural inequalities; environmental degradation; the climate crisis.” Chris Rice has rightly noted that in this speech, the UN chief sounds more like a biblical prophet than a UN chief as he laments the “lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all; the fiction that unpaid care work is not work; the delusion that we live in a post-racist world; the myth that we are all in the same boat . . . ”
I draw attention to Guterres’ remarks for his allusion to the “core” of our lives and societies, and for his prophetic lament. It is a similar prophetic plea that I sense in Dean Scott Appleby’s words in the first blog post of this series, when in describing COVID-19 as “The Big Reveal” warns: “Let us act now, for we may not be granted another such ‘revelation.’” Similarly, Cardinal Peter Turkson, while inaugurating the COVID-19 special commission for study and research, likened that commission to the role of the prophet. The commission, he noted, “has the task of night watch, like the sentry, to perceive the dawn.” To respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, he says, “We need the concreteness of science, and we need prophecy and creativity.”
The role of prophecy
What is it about this time that calls for “prophecy”? And how can prophecy and the prophetic tradition help us to navigate a time when the very foundations of our social, cultural, political, economic and personal lives are threatened?
The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. The former refers to chronological or sequential time, to time as a measurable resource. Kairos means an appointed or opportune time. From a Christian theological point of view, Kairos is “God time.”Appearing eighty-six times in the New Testament, Kairos refers to the “moment” when God acts, an opportune time for God’s intervention.
Three interconnected ideas coalesce in the biblical understanding of a Kairos event. First, a Kairos event is something new, totally unexpected. Second is the recognition that this new reality is totally beyond us—and is thus connected to or reveals something of the power and agency of God. And, not least, there is something of “good news” in a Kairos event, something that might be called salvation. This is the “Kairos” that Mark (and the other evangelists) have in mind when they proclaim, “Now is the time, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1:15).
Kairos as grace and judgment
This does not mean, however, that in the biblical understanding the “Kairos” moment is always a “happy” one. On the contrary, Kairos event is a moment of grace but also of judgment; an opportunity, but also a moment of tribulation. In fact, quite often it is a terrible event, as terrible as the slaughter of the innocents that heralds Matthew’s proclamation of the “Good News”—which entails the brutal crucifixion of an innocent man. This is a key reason that “prophecy” is so central to the biblical tradition: prophets detect and name these Kairos moments, pointing the community to the work that is required if the community is to respond to, and “receive” God’s saving agency in the disruptive inbreaking.
COVID-19 is indeed such a Kairos moment, and “disruption” has been frequently used to describe what we are currently living through. How shall we respond? The case of the Hebrew prophet Joel is quite instructive. Responding to a terrible locust plague that devastated fields, shattered the economy and caused widespread hunger and suffering, Joel invites the community into three practices, first the practice of gathering: “call an assembly, gather the elders, notify the congregation . . . (1:14; 2:16). Joel instructs that everyone come together, not only the elders, but “all who live in the land” including servants and maidservants, children, “even infants at the breast” (2:16).
Joel also enjoins the practice of lament: “proclaim a fast . . . gird yourself and weep . . . lament like a virgin girt with sackcloth . . . gird yourselves and weep oh priests and ministers of the altar . . . let the bridegroom quit his room, and the bride her chamber . . . let everyone mourn . . . (1:5, 8, 13, 14, 2:12, 17). More than a mere sentiment, lament for Joel and other biblical prophets is a series of actions. But for what purpose, one might ask. Joel uses a number of action verbs in connection with the practice of lament. Through the practice of lament Joel calls on the community to: “pay attention” (1:2), “wake up” (1:5), “be appalled” (1:11), “see” (2:19), “rend your hearts” (2:13), “pray,” and “return” to the Lord.
In the context of the lament, it is important to note, Joel announces not only God’s promise of restoration—“I will send you grain, wine and oil. You will eat and have your fill.” (2:12). Beyond this restoration, God promises dreams and visions of a totally new future. Thus, what emerges from Joel’s prophecy is something totally new—not simply the end of the locust plague, not simply the restoration of the old order, but the prospect of an entirely new society.
Our Kairos moment
More than 2,600 years after Joel, we find ourselves in a similar Kairos moment when the very foundations of society are threatened. Thus, Joel’s message is relevant for us in this Kairos moment.
For example, one of the wisest and most significant decisions that the Notre Dame administration took was to gather the community back on campus. Now, more than ever, is the time to rediscover community, to invest in community-building, so as to rediscover our humanity, our Ubuntu—the reality that our lives are deeply bound up with the lives of others. “I am” because “we are,” and because “we are” therefore “I am.” It is a time to rediscover that we are in this together (Jennifer Mason McAward), and that rising inequality “sinks all boats” (António Guterres). Building community requires time, patience, and a lot of slow, hard work. This is especially true when building communities and fostering friendships that cut across racial, economic, national and religious divides.
Isolated lives foster what Pope Francis describes as the “globalization of indifference.” It is lament that connects us to the deep emotional and spiritual foundations of our lives and reconnects us to the cries of others and of the earth itself. That reconnection is what rekindles compassion. COVID-19 invites us to slow down, even to stop so as to engage practices and routines that allow us to “pay attention,” be appalled,” “wake up to,” and “see” what the UN Secretary-General describes as the “lies and fallacies” in which we live, and rediscover, according to Cardinal Turkson, “the value of the things that matter and the worthlessness of so many things that we once considered important.” This is how the practice of lament becomes a necessary condition of hope.
Finally, as for the receiving of dreams and visions. Community and the practice of lament not only keep us grounded in hope, they prepare us to recognize and receive unexpected gifts in the midst of the pandemic’s disruption: the selfless leadership, the tireless efforts of health care workers, the generosity of so many, the round-the-clock travails of scientists and researchers working on a possible vaccine. All these dreams are not simply the result of our smart engineering or our brilliant design thinking, but gifts bestowed by the Spirit of God (“I will pour out my spirit, then . . . dreams . . . visions” (3:1). Have we shelved the dreams we once had, perhaps because those dreams seemed too big, too impractical, too expensive? Joel will have none of it.
So, after COVID-19 has destroyed the foundations, what can we do? We attend to community: rediscover community and build solidarity networks that include even those we normally do not think of as part of us. We engage practices of lament that enable us to see more clearly the “lies and fallacies” and to join the struggle to denounce and dismantle the structures of inequality and injustice around the world. And, we dare dream of a new world, and are willing to take risks with programs and initiatives to advance the integral development of every person, especially the most vulnerable members of the human and earth community.
To the extent that we are able to do these things, we might discover that we have become more prophetic in our scholarship and engagements. A prophet, as Abraham Heschel reminds us, is but “a person of agony, whose life and soul are at stake in what [s]he says, yet also able to perceive the silent sigh of human anguish” (xv). To have become such a person is to have stumbled onto hope in the midst of ruins.
Kellogg Faculty Fellow Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Kampala, Uganda, is professor of theology and peace studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs.