by Jacob Sims
March 21, 2020 – It’s a beautiful morning as the sun rises over Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The predictably sweltering heat and sticky humidity are not quite yet descended on the city as I make my way across Sihanoukville Boulevard just east of Independence Monument.
In a mere 10-minute walking commute to work each morning, I pass the icons of affluence in a rising capital city — the towering, rapidly proliferating skyscrapers; the dramatic open parks; the army of ultra-luxury cars swerving around aging rickshaws. I pass state power in abundance as well — one of the world’s few North Korean embassies; the US Ambassador’s French-colonial mansion; the fashionable and imposing EU and Singaporean consulates.
These temples of modern wealth and power sprinkled amidst crushing poverty are particularly perplexing this morning in a world gone mad with COVID-19.
In Cambodia as elsewhere, the poor are disproportionately affected by the crisis. Furloughs and lay-offs hit low income jobs first and hardest. Poor families are forced to choose between food and safety. Quarantining itself is impossible for millions of the most impoverished.
Regardless of economic status, fear is rampant and people are looking for a scapegoat. It is widely believed in Cambodia that western tourists and NGO workers are spreading the disease. The theory that the US Army planted the virus in Wuhan back in December is commonly accepted across the sub-continent. New visas from the United States and Western Europe were indefinitely barred several weeks back.
During my brief walk, I am eyed suspiciously as people make a concerted effort to keep their distance. Small children point at the westerner and mothers hurry them into a 20-foot bubble of extreme outdoor social distancing.
Later this morning, the State Department issues its unprecedented Global Level 4 warning. Shortly thereafter, I find myself evacuated home.
The situation here is no different.
The open, interconnected, globalized world which this country helped create and seemed unassailable just a few weeks ago now feels very fragile, our future unknown.
Unemployment in the United States is at a record high. The stock market plunges in historic fashion. The country is on lock-down. Isolation-based anxiety is palpably boiling over.
Year-to-date, coronavirus is the leading cause of death in America, claiming more lives per hour than heart disease, all forms of cancer, the flu, or any other cause.
Yet, the country visibly aches for rapid return to normalcy in a characteristically American prioritization of economic expediency over human life. We are paralyzed with fear. Our ability to control the illusory bubble which is modern American society is wholly upended.
And on and on it goes. Day after evolving day, the one constant in this ever-changing crisis is a persistent reminder of how earthly power yearns to protect itself above all else. As chaos looms and life becomes increasingly unpredictable, our world reveals its true nature. In our utter terror, we rampantly stoke prejudice; blame others for loss; and deny reality.
With so much uncertainty, so much division and fear, the key question posed in Stanley Hauerwas’ and Will Willimon’s 1982 ethical classic Resident Aliens remains prescient. What tools do we have as a global Church to ‘show the world what it is not’?
On the surface, the global Church is impacted the same way as the rest of the world. Congregations around the world met virtually this Easter Sunday. In Jerusalem, for the first time in over 600 years, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (built on top of Christ’s tomb) cancelled its Easter ‘Feast of the Resurrection.’ The last cancellation came as the bubonic plague was gripping the world and another wave of social distancing to curb a pandemic was required.
But, we find our hope, ‘our difference,’ apart from our ability to meet freely and openly together. Historically, as a body of believers, our hope is directed at the unreasonable result of unbelievable suffering. As we celebrated Easter last month, we remembered this hope. We recalled that even as our church buildings were empty, the tomb is empty too.
If the Church is to distinguish itself, it must do so via this divine and historic gift — a perseverance in suffering well.
We live in a society — particularly in our place as expatriates among the global powerful — which doesn’t often recognize the need to suffer. It is all too easy for us to resist suffering; blind ourselves to loss; delude ourselves into pushing away grief.
We do this when we blame others for the unblameable. We do this when we foster or accept lies which deny the inconvenience of reality. We do this when we look for human solutions — when we look to our wealth, our power, our egos, our ability to travel and move freely — as barriers to the inescapable reality of pain.
Yet, today, we find ourselves in a rare moment where our ascendant world is vulnerable to admitting that it is indeed suffering.
As David Kessler (coiner of the famous Five Stages of Grief typology) notes in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “we are feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed…and it has.”
As post-modern humans, we lack the tools to respond to grief effectively. Since we lack hope in the eternal, we seek to rid ourselves of suffering via other means. We deny. We become angry and blame others. We ‘bargain’ or try to use our own powers to correct the uncorrectable.
Languishing in a German prison cell nearly eighty years ago, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer noticed a similar trend. He pondered the tremendous grief of mortal death and dashed aspirations and unfulfilled human potential as a decimated continent suffered the virus of Nazi occupation. While recognizing the enormous loss, he also saw a larger gain. “That which is fragmentary may point to a higher fulfillment, one which can no longer be achieved by human effort. Strive though we might, the only work that matters was done by grace alone.”
As members of the historic body of Christ, we are offered this other path to the ‘fragmentary’ energies of ‘striving’ and ‘human effort.’ We are offered the very building blocks necessary to deal with suffering well. We are offered a chance to embrace pain as a catalyst for a meaningful life in a fallen world. As Paul states in Romans 5: 3-5, “…suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. Hope does not put us to shame. For God’s love is poured out into our hearts through the given Holy Spirit…”
Beyond mere present pain and suffering, Kessler also notes the current prevalence of “anticipatory grief” — the feeling of uncertainty and despondency about the future when outlooks are grim.
In spite of our denial, this feeling is natural today. This world of our own design feels a good deal more chaotic and less welcoming than it did just a few months ago.
But again, as Christians, we are offered something more. In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard defines hope as “a joyful anticipation because of who we know God to be.”
Through scriptural revelation and the inspiration of the living Church, we know God to be merciful and powerful and just beyond our ability to fathom.
As the world attempts, with increasing desperation, to escape and deny its suffering and grief, we have an opportunity to accept these realities with hope.
Our hope then flows from faith in a force, a God, beyond our comprehension — beyond rational proof . This transcendent God desires union with us who are beyond love, and through that love, redeems us who are broken beyond redemption.
Without grounding in this sort of unbelievable faith, human existence — including a supposedly Christian one — is based on nothing more than illusions and rationalizations.
But, if we base our faith in the only realistic hope for humanity’s redemption — a God beyond our comprehension who loves us beyond our ability to receive it — we can start afresh the humble, courageous journey as travelers in the greater adventure of His glory instead of our own.
Perhaps then, we will confront the sin we see in the world with prayer instead of policies of further oppression.
Perhaps then, we can begin to hold our plans and even our very lives more loosely in an uncertain ‘fragmentary’ world.
Perhaps then, we will learn what it truly means to live by faith: a “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we cannot see.” Hebrews 11:1
Jacob works for an NGO fighting modern slavery in Southeast Asia. From 2015-2020 he led an international development consulting practice and served as adjunct faculty at the College of William & Mary — teaching and guest lecturing in courses on Education, Human Rights, Migration, and Global Health. He previously led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar and co-founded a social justice organization in eastern Uganda. Jacob holds a Master’s degree from LSE and is currently preparing to publish his first book, WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance.