Book review: The Pandemic and the People of God

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Gerald A Arbuckle, The Pandemic and the People of God, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2021)

by Tom Wilson, St Philip’s Centre, Leicester

Arbuckle’s argument is that the destruction wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic confronts us with a choice: we can allow the world to drift further into global division and conflict, or we can renew our institutions and common life on the foundations of justice and compassion.

The Pandemic and the People of God has six main chapters. The first outlines the cultural complexities of COVID-19, advancing Arbuckle’s argument that the pandemic has caused “cultural trauma”, by which he means “the sudden collective breakdown of order” (p.3). Arbuckle explores the collective myths of American and wider Western society, noting how they have been manipulated and damaged over recent years, arguing that the pandemic has exacerbated this trend. He briefly discusses the impact of conspiracy theories, before reflecting on the values enshrined in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He has six points: creation is a gift of God, we must commit to stewardship, strive for solidarity, maintain a bias toward the poor, commit to holistic healing and to the prophetic role.

Chapter two does foundational work, explaining the nature of rites of passage. Here Arbuckle is on home turf – his training as an anthropologist clear in his discussion of the role of rites and their three stages of separation, liminality and re-entry. Arbuckle discusses examples of cultural trauma as rites of passage and sets out his “grief overload” model. A particular strength of this chapter is the biblical reflection on the psalms of lament, contrasted helpfully, and distinguished clearly from, the Kübler-Ross model of grief.

Chapter three, which applies the theory of chapter two to his discussion of successes and failures of the pandemic rite of passage is weaker. The broad-brush outlines of the different government responses to the pandemic, taking in the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, China, Brazil and Russia, are all accurate enough. But the analysis is simplistic. For example, New Zealand’s swiftly closed borders are good, the UK tardiness to close borders is bad. But what about the child who was unable to get to their parent’s deathbed because of overly strict lockdown rules? What about the fact that New Zealand’s “zero covid” strategy was largely abandoned in the face of the Delta variant? The main issue Arbuckle does not tackle properly is whether striving for low COVID-19 cases should be the only game in town. I found myself with more questions than answers here.

Chapter four returns to Arbuckle’s strength, of macro analysis. The theme is the enduring impact of poverty, and the topic is examined in qualitative and quantitative terms, treating both absolute and relative poverty. Themes discussed include poverty as opportunity deprivation, as patriarchal domination, as violence, loneliness, old age, environmental degradation and paternalism. The scriptural reflections in this chapter range broadly across the New Testament, touching most of the expected places (the Sermon on the Mount, James, the parable of the rich farmer, etc.).

Chapter five shifts the focus to racism, including institutional racism. Arbuckle begins by explaining what he means by prejudice, discrimination, race and ethnicity. The main focus is on institutional racism is the US, UK, New Zealand and Australia, and on suggestions as to why racism persists in society. These include normalisation of evil, cultural learning, popularist anti-immigrant movements, racist humour and the racism inherent within founding mythologies. The third main section details the impact of racism on those who experience it. Arbuckle concludes by citing the example of Jesus as one who challenged the three evils of oppressive structures, the subjugation of women and presumed cultural inferiority, as well as demonstrating nonviolent resistance. As with chapter three, a vast topic is covered quite quickly, and inevitably there are gaps and omissions and simplifications of the argument.

Chapter six is entitled “The Call to Refocus on Christ and His Mission”. Arbuckle argues that the church has been hit by two crises – the cover-up of child sexual abuse and the COVID-19 pandemic. He offers a three-fold response. First, a summary of the teachings of Pope Francis: to work through the liminal moment, in a pastorally creative manner, recovering the calling to be a listening and “refounding” church, which means one that returns “to the original founding of the church” (p.195). Arbuckle’s second point is to advocate four pastoral strategies. First, fostering faith-based intentional communities. Second, challenging institutional injustices such as patriarchy and racism in the church and wider society. Third, understanding and responding to Catholic fundamentalism with compassion for those who hold the views without compromising on the need for change and reform. Fourth, avoiding ministry becoming dominated by a business ethos. This is not to deny the need for financial prudence and wisdom, but rather to argue that a business mindset must be shaped by Catholic teaching. The third section is a reflection on the annunciation to Mary, how she responded with grace and wisdom to the sudden inversion of her life.

The Pandemic and the People of God is a book of a particular moment in history aimed especially at Roman Catholics; it is Arbuckle’s suggestion for how the Catholic Church should collectively and individually respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as we, in the West at least, transition towards a recovery phase. There are some good points here, perhaps for Catholics in particular. The questions at the end of each chapter would start some interesting conversations. Yet despite these strengths, I was left wondering whether the moment for which this book is written is already passing. The focus of the public discussion appears to have already moved on. But if the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that I should not second-guess the future, but leave that firmly in God’s hands.

More from this issue