Hope in a COVID Siege

We, in South Africa, have just ended our first week of a national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a world, we are under siege and experiencing it in real-time like no generation before us. As this siege crept towards us inexorably and a lockdown was announced, my social media news feeds were filled with stories of long lines, empty shelves and anxiety. This flood of information surfaced in me fears of lack, and I found myself generating internal lists of items I was fearful to run out of, and thinking about stocking up.  

Being under siege reveals things about the narratives we live with. 

In that last week, I also spent an awkward Thursday evening with friends with whom I’ve shared a weekly meal for the past 8 years. The meal at St Peters, my church in Mowbray, has been a place of solidarity, a place where I’ve deepened my understanding of the good news and a place where I’ve been discipled by those who live outside and who deal with different addictions to mine. We’d had to make hard choices that week about the meal, facing up to what wasn’t possible in the reality of COVID-19.  The evening was rushed, the setting stark and the food wasn’t plentiful. And yet as we spoke of the uncertainty of the weeks to come in the face of the imminent siege, these friends were without exception patient, thankful and full of grace for that evening and for the coming time.

Being under siege reveals things about the narratives we live with. 

The Warehouse staff team have been drawn to an odd story in the book of 2 Kings over the past few months. It takes place in the city of Samaria during the time of the prophet Elisha. Judah and Israel have split, Samaria is the capital of Israel with Jehoram as king. Israel has been involved in a series of battles with Aram, and Samaria is now experiencing famine due to an extended siege by the Aramites. It opens with the king walking the walls of the city and encountering a woman looking for help. She and a friend had made a plan to survive by eating their children, starting with her child. But now the other woman had hidden her child and had reneged on the deal. The king is horrified, tears his robes and declares that Elisha should be killed since the siege is his fault.  

The king and his men find Elisha in conversation with some Elders at a house.  In response to the king’s threats Elisha answers by saying that the Lord says that a day will soon come when food will be abundant again. This news is met with ridicule by the king’s men.  

The narrator abruptly shifts our attention to four lepers sitting outside the city gate.  Outcast, these men know that they will certainly die whether they stay at the gate or go into the city. This city, this social system, rejected them long ago and they know it offers them no hope. Desperate, they decide to try their luck with the enemy in the remote possibility that there they won’t be killed. They get to the camp of the Aramites and find it abandoned; the siege lifted and food freely available. After a brief debate, the men return to Samaria to share the good news with the city, and Elisha’s prophecy is proven accurate.  

It is a confusing story but wisdom and lessons can be uncovered, especially as we face our own global siege. A king, frustrated by his inability to end the siege, tries to control his situation by looking for a scapegoat to blame; two women, desperate and hungry, come up with a plan to survive by agreeing to eat their children; a prophet, anticipating a time when the siege will be lifted, calls people to live towards that possibility; and four lepers, the most hopeless in the city, discover redemption and become the bearers of good news for the city.  

Being under siege reveals things about the narratives we live with. 

What will the COVID-19 siege reveal about our narratives? 

Will we, like the women, in fear of scarcity and loss agree to the death of our children or end up sacrificing other’s children for our survival? Will we hoard what someone needs for today just in case we run out in the future? What will the possibility of scarcity and the reduction of access reveal about us; who will we be and whose way will we follow?   

Will we, like the king, find ourselves ready to kill a scapegoat, or multiple scapegoats, out of our inability to change the circumstances? Will we turn our anger outward, looking for someone to blame, a prophet to kill or a stranger to shame? Will we call it the China virus, or blame the foreigners or the scientists or the person who ate a bat? These emotions and temptations are ever-present during a siege. They offer us a level of comfort, and their siren call seems to provide redemption and survival. But in the end, these ways always lead to destruction. 

As I face my anxiety about these matters what will I do with Jesus’ words to not be anxious, to trust and to live with abundant grace?

These words illuminate that there are other narratives to live by, there is fresh imagination to nurture and good news to discover. 

Will we accept the invitation and develop the practices that nurture a God-given imagination that can point to a time when the siege will be lifted? An imagination immersed in and present to the reality, but deliberately nurtured and paid attention to, that those who have ears will hear. In these last few months we have seen false prophets, many of them pastors, speaking ignorantly and dangerously about the lack of threat of COVID-19. Their “hope” is blind, naïve and ignorant and lacks any imagination. It is simply denial. It is no hope at all. Can we, in the middle of this siege that is scary and challenging, nurture a Godly imagination of a time where things will not be like this, an imagination that leads us to live and act differently during this time. One that can make sense of the current reality without diminishing it, and from within it say “I have a dream!”. Or as Elisha declares “This is what the Lord says!”  

In this time, I find myself looking for hope and for comfort. And so I read and listen to people who I perceive as hope-filled. But the lepers in this story offer a different opportunity; an opportunity to embrace the lessons that only hopelessness can teach. These four lepers have challenged me more than any other part of this story. That those without hope, the most hopeless, the ones society has rejected and set aside, are the ones through whom redemption is unveiled and the good news discovered. In the story, the siege has been lifted but those with “hope” are so busy scapegoating, arguing and eating their children that they don’t see it. It is precisely their hopelessness that leads the lepers to discover that redemption has come and that Elisha’s dream has become a reality. And then, in an act of outrageous generosity, they choose to share this good news with the very city that has rejected them. 

Being under siege reveals things about the narratives we live with. I am someone who tries to walk this life in the ways of Jesus and I’m working at being attentive to the narratives that are shaping my actions during this COVID-19 siege. 

Am I nurturing a God-shaped imagination that looks forward to a future where life is different, and then living out of those lessons in my present reality? Or am I giving into the narratives of fear, scarcity and self-protection, and letting those shape my actions?  Needing to protect what is mine, will I scapegoat others blaming them for that which is not theirs to carry, and protecting what is mine from them? All of this, deepening nationalism, tribalism and individualism, as we buy into narratives which trick us into believing that we and ours can survive so long as we kill the children.

Might I instead accept the remarkable challenge to pay attention to the hopeless, to learn about and imagine a world and redemption that only they can teach me about? In this world of increasing inequality and social exclusion, might I use this time to hear from those for whom the world died a long time ago, and learn something from them of what it means to truly live, imagining and expecting a recalibrated world shaped by good news. 

What if, in this COVID-19 siege, we as a world tuned our ears to the good news that only the homeless, the slum-dwellers, the refugees, the outcasts and all the other lepers can teach us? 

Being under siege reveals things about the narratives we live with.  What narratives will form our lives during this time? What, and from whom, is the good news we will hear during this siege? How can we leave behind destructive narratives and take on those that align with the justice, redemption and shalom present in the good news that Jesus proclaimed? 

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