Humans aren’t a virus, actually

Hannah Malcolm on pandemics, and making peace with the earth

Originally posted here on SCM Press

I’ve taken to standing under a blossoming tree on the terrace next to mine. On sunny days, it is perfumed and beautiful, and the delicate hum of bees fills my ears. The bees don’t seem disturbed by my presence. I stand quietly under the white crowned branches, and I listen, face upturned. I had not noticed this tree before. I think I am paying more attention. And I don’t know whether there are more birds in the sky than usual (it is spring, after all), or whether I’m just craving their songs. But there are certainly more goats in Llandudno, fewer cars on the roads, and plummeting pollution statistics all over the world.

A couple of years ago, when we could still gather in busy rooms and stand awkwardly close to each other by refreshment stands, I was speaking at an event about Church and the Environment. A vicar came up to chat to me in the break. As we sipped tea and talked about the previous session, he leaned in, conspiratorially crunching on a biscuit, and said; ‘well in our group we were saying that we really needed was a global flu pandemic to balance everything out.’ I did not ask him whose parents or children he had in mind when he imagined a global death event. I wish I had. I wonder if he would say the same thing now.

There is something dehumanising about big numbers. Somehow, several thousand – or several million – people dying seems to numb us to the cruelty implied. Most of us haven’t been first-hand witnesses of a war zone, or famine, or plague, and so we can’t imagine the scale. But we seek meaning in our suffering, and so now we joke that ‘Nature has sent us to our rooms to think about what we’ve done’, or we share the more benign sounding platitude ‘The Earth is healing itself’[1] or even the vicious, eco-fascistic ‘turns out humans were the virus all along’. These are all lies. And like the most destructive lies, they betray us by manipulating kernels of truth. Two things are true: it is true that the prioritisation of current economic models over anything else – including limiting our ecologically destructive activity – has caused the spread of COVID-19. We can make connections to a wider trend of viruses spreading from animals to humans – we have expanded our habitats and encroached on those of other creatures. And it is true that our activity reduction during lockdown has caused carbon emissions and air pollution levels to drop.[2]

We need to ask: what activity? And the answer is: many things, none of which are ‘being human’. The difference between saying ‘fewer cars on the road’ and saying ‘fewer people on the road’ might seem small, but our constant implications that human life is at best ‘separate from’ and at worst ‘the enemy of’ other creatures prevents us from doing the much needed creative work of imagining a future beyond COVID-19, where we keep the things which are essential to our mutual flourishing and abandon those things which are not. As many have pointed out, this pandemic is revelatory of many things about the way we live now – including that we are capable of rapid, far-reaching change.[3] But the change we anticipate can’t come on the backs of the suffering and death of others.

Human misery is not an imaginative route to transforming the way we live. In fact, it is not a transformation at all. If we seriously consider ourselves defenders of life, we must not endorse any rhetoric, however well it is meant, which hints at sacrificing the most politically and economically marginalised on the altars of our greed. Time to abandon any language which describes COVID-19 as a ‘balancing out’ or ‘Nature’s/God’s way of healing the Earth’.

And the Church must go one step further: theologically speaking, humanity is not the virus, but the location of the cure. Creation, made through the Word, is wholly sanctified by the Word coming to dwell amongst us in the person of Jesus. He adopts the materiality of the world, and so saves it: all creation finds – and will find – its home in Him. But the incarnation of God as a human creature in particular makes humanity the locus of this redeeming work. In the 7th century, the Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor described humans as a kind of microcosm of creation,[4] containing both spiritual and physical realities. In this sense we mirror the world, carrying within us the mediating point between heaven and earth. And the world also mirrors us.[5] Our mediating-mirroring is made possible because it has been done perfectly in Jesus, the truest human. The Word made flesh unifies creation’s divisions, freeing us to take up our role: to be mutually bonded priests of creation.[6]

This priestly role is one we have repeatedly and obviously abdicated, and in so doing condemn not only ourselves but our fellow creatures.[7] As we seek to take up the role of priesthood, we are in real danger of continuing to throw our fellow priests under the bus – and therefore once again failing in the task of mutuality that we have been given. We are not just called to neutralise the damage we have wrought on other creatures and ourselves: we are called to the much harder and more beautiful work of participating in the renewal of all things. No creature is to be left behind. Our work as priests of creation is not to indifferently accept human suffering as a necessary sacrifice to some unspecified entity called ‘Earth’, but to more sincerely uphold and defend all life. There has only be one occasion when healing for the Earth came through the death of a human, and it was over 2000 years ago.

Hannah Malcolm is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall and writing a PhD in a Theology of Climate/Ecological Grief. She is currently editing an SCM Press collection of responses to climate grief from across the global Church.

[1] (This phrase now has its own ironic meme, thanks be to God:
[3] And this change has not necessarily been for the better – many governments and corporations have seized the opportunity to wreak further destruction. For an example, see this article by Bill McKibben:
[4] See Lars Thunberg’s Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Open Court, 1995).
[5] Maximus, ‘The Church’s Mystagogy’ in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. Trans. George C. Berthold. New York: Paulist, 1985., p. 196
[6] Paul Blowers, Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (OUP, 2016)
[7] Maximus, Ad Thalassium 61, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), p.137

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