A Very Civil Virus
I grew up in Northern Ireland. At the time that country was going through a civil war. Or more to the point, a very civil war. What do I mean by “very” civil? Surely a civil war is a civil war because it kills civilians. Well let me explain myself.
In the entire thirty or so years of the last round of violence in Northern Ireland a mere three thousand people were killed, with several thousand more maimed or injured.
That sounds bad, and it was. But some perspective: it wasn’t a civil war like that in Liberia from 1989-1997, where a quarter of a million were killed; it wasn’t a civil war like that in Sri Lanka in which 150 thousand people were killed. It wasn’t even like the break up of the former Yugoslavia which resulted in 140 thousand slaughtered, and through which places such as Sarajevo and Srebrenica became bywords for horror.
No, Belfast and the towns and cities in the north of Ireland conducted a very civil war. By that use of the word “civil” I am being a bit cheeky. All things considered, given the sheer horror in those other places, it wasn’t all that bad. Not bad enough for major, drastic intervention that would upset the complete fabric of society and ensure that whatever grew up to replace it was palpably different.
The Northern Irish conflict was civil enough to keep people in a constant state of unease without the dam wall ever breaking. Civil enough to kill people and foster insecurity and pain without demands for immediate change being heeded. Civil enough to expose people’s true natures, highlight community divisions and keep everyone guessing which way things might go, without every falling into full-scale apocalypse. Civil enough to mean that we went to divided schools - Catholic and Protestant - but still studied economics. Civil enough to ensure that some towns were full of Union Jack flags, while others were full of Irish flags of green, white and gold, but allowed us to shop in the same grocery stores.
Civil enough, in other words, to be exhausting in the daily grind without any pressing solution. And over time it changed people in Northern Ireland more than they would realise. PTSD is a real thing in that country, and not just among those directly affected by the terrorism and responses to it.
What have we stored up for this mini-apocalypse?
The coronavirus is in Australia at the moment. We do not know where it will head, but from where I sit at the moment it is a very civil virus. Not a full blown pandemic - yet. Not a zombie apocalypse - yet. Not like that Netflix series that we’re refusing to watch at the moment because it’s too discomfiting. You know the one: with freeways jammed with empty, burnt out cars and supermarkets full of rotting fruit. Not Liberia, Sri Lanka or Sarajevo. That’s completely uncivil! And that’s too much to take in right now.
The term “apocalypse” simply means “to reveal”, and what we are getting in our mini-apocalypse is a mini-reveal. What we have - indeed probably the only thing we can cope with right now - is a very civil virus revealing what we are like in “fun-size”. One that bites us, but not too deeply. One that challenges us, but not too much. One that exposes us, but only a little bit. A bit like Northern Ireland’s very civil war.
Here’s why a very civil virus is all we can handle: Because you can only take out of the bank what you have put in. In other words, we haven’t stored up the right things prior to this event. And we’ve got no supplies to draw on should this go beyond civil.
And I don’t mean toilet paper. We haven’t stored up enough of the communal, societal and spiritual vital supplies that will help us deal well with anything other than what we are experiencing at the moment. Sure, we might get out the other side of this after the southern hemisphere winter and things will go back to normal.
Or maybe not. People have been writing and speaking about the loss of communal and societal strength for years, warning us that the cracks are getting wider and deeper. And we’ve simply gone “Meh, it’ll be alright.”
You can store up as much of those three-ply bad boys as you want, but the fact is the current very civil virus threat has exposed too much of our panicky selves. There doesn’t seem to be much other-person-centredness in our responses. We are focussed on us and ours. It’s fisty-cuffs at five paces, it’s panic-buying, it’s on-selling at exorbitant (ex-Sorbitent?) prices, it’s empty shelf after empty shelf.
In the movie About a Boy, the rich playboy played by Hugh Grant disputes the famous John Donne statement that “No man is an island”. He has enough influence, money and status to retort “I am an island, I am Ibiza.” He is the famous pleasure island (northern hemisphere equivalent of Bali), which needs no others, which sees those around him as there to serve his interests, and which is hermetically sealed off from the misfortunes, or indeed the concerns about the misfortunes of others.
We also haven’t stored up much resilience. In a decade in which everyone has the capacity to be a victim, or be triggered, or be at risk of killing themselves on the basis of someone disagreeing with their lifestyle choices we have few stores of resilience.
Add to this the constant media cycle of alarm, whether that’s over the climate (newspapers were instructing their journalists to call it a "climate emergency”), or over the political views of those we disagree with, the sexual views of those we disagree with, the Twitter responses we disagree with, or whatever else we disagree with, we have weakened our ability to stand firm on something we believe in without being shattered.
The 24 hour news cycle - whether mainstream or online - is designed to keep us in a constant state of unease, a constant state of hyper-vigilance, much like living in Northern Ireland did during its very civil war. It would be ill-served (for itself) if it gave us clarity and firm, but calm facts.
Where do we go for help?
But don’t look to politics to help us. Even if the Prime Minister were to stand in front of a bank of microphones and tell us that the government has things in hand, we wouldn’t believe him or her. After all, why would we believe them? They said that last time about the FILL IN THE BLANK, and that turned out not to be true either.
And all of this grinds us down. It chips away at us in innumerable small ways. It shows up in road rage, in sports rage, in online rage, in family rage. In rage against politics where no sooner has one election been won than those who lost have declared it invalid, and that no mandate has been created.
And where do we put it all? Where is the community that can make sense of it? Where is the group that we meet with on a regular basis that cares for us at a deep level, that sees our weaknesses, our failings, and still picks us up and still makes us meals when we are sick?
I run regularly in a group, including with a friend from the Republic of Ireland (makes for interesting conversations given the very civil events in our home country!). She and her family moved her some years ago. But she told me that she feels envious of the church community I belong to. She said that it feels like it is a ready-made place for friendship that she has not experienced, and that if she had belonged to one when she moved to Australia, she would have settled in more quickly.
And of course church is not the only community that can do this, but it is the only community that was birthed by a leader who said this:
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6: 31-34).
Not to say we don’t need these things and that days don’t have trouble, but that in the midst of this trouble, there is a heavenly Father who cares for us. And who calls us to care for others because He has first cared for us!
Perhaps this very civil virus (so far) is an opportunity to take stock beyond toilet rolls, pasta and rice, and think what it is revealing about us. About where we are headed. About where we are all headed together one day. For let me finish with what John Donne went on to say, which is generally the part we don’t know:
No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
Image source: Daily Mail UK
Thanks Stephen - I appreciate your article and it made me think back to your talk at the ITEC Conference where you commented on the Notre Dame and how people's response to it's ruin revealed that deeper need for a connection to the transcendent.
We pray that this virus will be perceived as a warning-shot-over-the-bow from the truly transcendent God. Very disappointing so far that people think toilet paper, pasta and rice is an adequate substitute :(
God bless your work in challenging us to think higher
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” -- James 4:13-15 NIV
Funny how all of a sudden the fragility of everything is suddenly brought sharply into focus. I've lived through a couple of earthquakes. You get cocksure about the solidity of everything and then the shaking starts and it comes back to you suddenly how all these things built on the outer edge of the earth's crust are like plaque on your teeth -- readily dislodged, easily scraped away.
I work with folk who are still so sure that they'll carry on business and make money. They think they know what will happen tomorrow.
As someone living in the oul country I really resonated with your thoughts- may God bring good from this as He has done here- still divided in many ways here but having raised 2 daughters who think of the troubles as ‘history’ I am beyond thankful- my own childhood memories not so peace filled
Great reminder - “Look at me, I’m not worried”
Great reminder - “Look at me, I’m not worried”
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Stephen McAlpine works both as a pastor at Providence Church in Perth, and for City Bible Forum. He writes and speaks on matters of culture, theology and the church, and blogs at stephenmcalpine.com. Stephen and his wife Jill have been involved in church planting in Perth for more than a decade, while Jill also runs a Clinical Psychology practice and trains churches and other organisations in establishing good models of pastoral care. They have two children, Sophie and Declan.