Text: Mark 10:32-34 (Jesus predicts his death a third time)
The World Health Organization reports that since COVID-19 emerged nine months ago, more than 800,000 people have died from it. But like most statistics about the pandemic, this figure is questionable. The WHO and other public health agencies rely on information collected by hospitals, coroners, and health departments. Some of these agencies are underfunded. Some are overwhelmed by the number of cases. Some exist in states that are not committed to transparency. So, most researchers assume the number of deaths is higher than 800,000.
Everything about the pandemic presents challenges like this. How is the infection transmitted? What are the best ways to stop its spread? What treatments are possible? Consensus has not yet emerged.
Despite these difficulties, public health officials continue to laboriously gather statistics and news media continue to report on them because they believe the best way to cope with the pandemic is with knowledge. The alternative is to proceed in a fog of ignorance, which would let the pandemic kill many more people.
Working from reality is essential for effective leadership. Even when one’s understanding is not complete, leaders are wise to try to know what is really happening.
But is this true with Jesus? Are not the gospel tales of water turned into wine, loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied, and dangerous ailments healed with just a touch a series of fantasies? And because of these tales, don’t many Christians hope for miracles when it comes to life’s challenges, including pandemics?
Well, I for one do not; and I see the leadership modelled by Jesus as anchored in reality and not fantasy. There are many ways to relate to the stories of miracles and signs in the gospels. But for me, all of them pale beside the climax of the gospels, which is the arrest and execution of Jesus.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells his friends for the third and final time that he will be killed when they arrive in Jerusalem. Despite the power of his movement and their hopes for healing and liberation, the Roman Empire will remove Jesus from the scene.
Of course, Jesus’ death is followed by resurrection. But it is not resurrection as the disciples might have wanted. They encounter the Risen Christ within their hearts, just as we do 2,000 years later. And while this divine reality is our most precious blessing, it does not protect us from infectious diseases or imperial violence any more than it did for his friends in First Century Palestine.
We follow the Way of Jesus; and there is light, new life, and love on this Way. But it is a love that grapples with the reality of disease, corruption, and state violence and doesn’t flee from them. There is endless hope on the path revealed to us by the stories of Jesus life, death, and resurrection, but it is a hope rooted in the harsh realities of our lives and not in some fantasy of escape from those realities.
Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders try to evade reality, and doing so makes the work of tackling a pandemic like COVID-19 more difficult.
Earlier this month, statistics about COVID-19 in South Korea became a matter of public debate. A reporter from Axios used South Korea’s numbers to challenge the President of the United States on his record. The US has 330 million people and has suffered more than 185,000 deaths from COVID-19, while South Korea with 51 million people has had less than 400 deaths. But when the President was confronted with this latter statistic, he replied, “You don’t know that.”
Of all the President’s statements that have been met with outrage, this one casting doubt on the statistics released by the South Korean government on COVID-19 strikes me as one of the most egregious.
Without ever entering into lockdown, South Korea has contained the disease through public health measures and through testing, contact tracing, and isolation. In the face of the pandemic, its leaders have focused on its reality and not on fantasy. And as a prosperous and technologically advanced democracy, none of the caveats listed above about COVID statistics apply to South Korea.
For these reasons, saying that one can’t know how many people have died of COVID-19 in South Korea strikes me as equivalent to saying one can’t know how many people live in Edmonton or whether Jason Kenney is the Premier of Alberta. It takes one outside of a communal effort to understand the world and into a fantasy in which facts are unimportant, nothing can be known, and the only things that matter are power and privilege.
It is reasonable to be skeptical of all socially-produced knowledge and publicly accepted facts because the world is roiled by competition, exploitation, and competing agendas; and unfortunately, it is also a world in which more and more people live within fantasy bubbles created by social media.
But when the most powerful person in the world disputes the reality that South Korea has less than one percent of the deaths from COVID-19 of his own country, one can see the depth of the crisis faced by the world.
In the face of intractable problems — whether on a global scale or on the scale of an individual family – we can be tempted to give up on reality and revert to fantasy.
But this is not the way of Jesus. When we take up our cross and follow him to our fate, we turn towards the harsh light of reality. It is a reality filled with things we don’t like, such as pandemic disease and state violence. But it is also the only place we can experience beauty, truth, and love.
As we seek to lead in family, church, and world, let us start with the work of understanding reality and then move toward the new life that beckons to us on paths of death and resurrection.
May it be so. Amen.