COVID-19—An Invitation to Ecological Repentance?
Around the world, humanity finds itself “locked in” (Gen 7:16), small groups isolated within their own arks, some with companions of their choosing and some not. As I write this article, we’re into day twenty four of the rāhui and Noah’s ordeal of spending endless days isolated with his immediate family, caretaking a menagerie of animals, all while possibly battling seasickness—and one may suppose, also homesickness—takes on legendary proportions. What might it mean to read our own current season of isolation alongside this biblical “epic”? How might reflecting upon the experience of isolation of our forebear Noah help us in interpreting and making sense of our current situation?
In his iconoclastic and witty novel, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Julian Barnes uses the story of Noah as his springboard to offer a series of ironic reflections on the complexity and incongruity of human behaviour. When “the chips are down,” how do the traditions of reason and faith shape the way in which we interpret events and guide our ethical actions? Barnes, in postmodern fashion, draws attention to those who are overlooked within our traditions of storytelling, noting the way in which those excluded or ignored offer different and powerful interpretations of events that we thought we had fathomed. Playfully and provocatively, Barnes cleverly retells the story of the flood narrative from the perspective of a stowaway on the ark—a woodworm! From the woodworm’s perspective, the ark’s voyage is not a mythical tranquil boat-trip but rather is more akin to the events we have seen taking place during our current period of lockdown. In the woodworm’s re-telling, Noah becomes a despotic, narcissistic bully—not unlike some current international political leaders—and the ark’s troubled voyage resembles the current chaos of pandemic-stricken cruise ships, sailing the high seas aimlessly in search of a welcoming port.
Much has already been written observing how in the areas of economic exchange, politics, and technology, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated global lockdown is reshaping intra-human relationships. Yet, what is striking, by and large, is the absence of other creatures in much of this commentary. This is surprising and disturbing, for while COVID-19 may be a human pandemic, its origins can be traced to our problematic relationship with other species. Whether we like to admit it or not, like Noah and his family on the ark, the wellbeing and the long-term future of homo sapiens is inextricably tied up with that of other species.
In what follows, I will commence by observing how the contemporary global COVID-19 crisis has its origins in the human treatment of other species; secondly, reflect upon how we might interpret COVID-19 theologically; and then finally, offer some suggestions for how the church may view this social isolation period as an opportunity to deepen our ecological awareness, thus preparing us for the changed realities and the future possibilities that will potentially emerge in a post COVID-19 world.
The Cause of COVID-19: Human Violence to the Earth and Creatures
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth (Gen 6:11–13, NRSV).
In the flood accounts in Genesis 6–9, the narrative offers an unequivocal answer to the question: “What is the cause of the catastrophe?” It is human wickedness, manifested in violence, which leads God to the action of opening the gates that hold back the “chaos of the deep.” The established order that the Creator has brought into existence and which provides the space for the flourishing of life, has become a place of corruption and violence. The voices of all species, offering their multitudinous praise to their Creator, now cry out in anguish, victims of brutality. As an action of judgement and grace, the Creator now seeks to cleanse the earth of this violence. Likewise, to the question in our contemporary context: “What is the cause of COVID-19?,” humanity again finds itself placed firmly in the dock. For, despite the strong suspicion that the COVID-19 virus has its origins in other species, it is human behaviour, and in particular our dietary choices, which are at the root of the current crisis we face.
Like a number of recent avian flus—notably SARS in 2002–2004—which have been transmitted from poultry to humans, the origin of COVID-19 is believed to be a wet-market. While most Westerners buy their meat frozen from supermarkets, in many non-Western countries, particularly in South-East Asia and Africa, the daily purchasing of fresh food—meat and vegetables—still takes place at the local wet market. Smaller wildlife markets are often located in these markets. The now-infamous Wuhan South China seafood market, suspected to be a primary source for COVID-19, had its own wild animal market, selling both live and slaughtered species, including snakes, beavers, badgers, civet cats, foxes, peacocks, pangolins, and porcupines. Elsewhere, around the world, species such as dogs, cats, bats, lizards, scorpions, alligators, monkeys, and other “bush-meats” regularly find themselves on the human menu. Within many cultures these wild animals are utilised in cooking and in traditional medicines and are seen as particularly desirable. They are understood as offering specific health benefits, including greater physical strength and stamina, intelligence, and sexual prowess.
Microbiologists and conservation scientists—both in the West and in many of these countries where such eating practices exist—condemn this ongoing killing of wild animals for human utilisation. Microbiologists point to the now all-to-apparent risk of non-human viruses being transmitted to humans as we interact with and consume infected creatures. Conservationists note that with growing human urban populations and habitat destruction expanding in rate and scope, there is increased demand for these culinary delicacies and greater ease in accessing them. We are, literally, eating species to extinction.
Any temptation to engage in moral sermonising, disparaging the existence of these “barbaric” and “archaic” non-Western culinary tastes for wildlife, requires an ignoring of the inconvenient fact, that the Western diet of industrially-produced food is also directly complicit in the current pandemic problem. Habitat destruction around the planet is closely associated to industrial food production—whether the clearing of rain-forest for beef grazing, soy production, palm oil plantations in the Amazon or South-East Asia, the removal of hedgerows to enlarge fields, or, closer to home in New Zealand, the draining of wetlands to create dairy pasture. As the homes of other species are destroyed to satisfy the ever-growing global appetite for cheap, industrially-produced foods, so the buffer zone between humans and other wild species reduces. And, as human societies find themselves in ever-closer proximity to other wild species, so this magnifies the risk of cross-species viral transmission.
Also important to recognise is that the Western diet of industrially-produced food, has itself significant deleterious human health impacts—both historical and ongoing. Some of these stem directly from the treatment of livestock within the modern-industrial food system, while other ailments are linked to the air and water pollution that comes with industrial food production or to the questionable nutritional value of the food itself. The grim truth is that the origins of our current pandemic can be traced back to the problematic nature of human relationships with other species. It is the destruction of the homes of other species and the way in which other creatures—whether endangered wild species or the billions of livestock bred directly for human consumption—are objectified and valued purely for their utility within the human diet, which lies at the heart of our current crisis.
Interpreting COVID-19 Theologically
Having argued that the cause of our current pandemic is human ecological violence, I turn now to the question of how to theologically interpret our current crisis. Here, the global COVID-19 pandemic becomes an instance of much larger questions of theodicy and the sovereignty and character of God. If we put aside deist-like formulations—in which God is akin to a watchmaker who has simply established biological laws and then allowed the system to tick away without his/her involvement—and assume a biblically-orthodox view of God as loving Creator, then how are we to understand God’s relationship to the suffering—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—and death that COVID-19 is sowing in human communities across the globe?
As this year commenced, with ash from the most devastating bushfires in Australian history making its way across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, I observed to a friend how the daily news sounded like a list of the disasters inflicted upon Egypt (Exod 7–12): dying waterways, raging forest fires, bleached coral reefs, more frequent cyclones of increased intensity and other freak weather events, and locust plagues in East Africa. Are these “natural disasters” to be directly attributed to God’s agency like the writer of Exodus attributes the plagues to YHWH? If so, should the COVID-19 pandemic be interpreted as one of God’s judgements that seeks to bring us globally to our senses—calling us to turn away from our ecologically unsustainable ways of living?
While in some ways attractive, such a rudimentary interpretation does raise significant questions regarding God’s justice and the potential effectiveness of the chosen warning shots being fired across the bows of humanity. If COVID-19 and other catastrophic ecological events are divine “signs and wonders” designed to lead us to repentance and a change of lifestyle, then it seems a little unjust and contradictory to God’s “preference for the poor” when these plague-like events have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable and not on the wealthy in the world who contribute more to ecological devastation—whether measured by their ecological or carbon footprint—and whose personal wealth and access to resources insulate them from the most devastating effects of these disasters.
Similarly, how effective is COVID-19 as a “wake-up” event supposedly authorised and actioned by God, when it impacts the most vulnerable in our society—the aged and those with pre-existent immuno-deficiencies—while those with the power within the global society to make the necessary politico-economic changes appear either indifferent or more interested in utilising the crisis for their own political or economic advantage? Further, if one is to interpret COVID-19 as God’s active judgement on human ecological violence, then to what extent does this approach differ substantially from the objectionable theological interpretation offered by a well-known New Zealand church leader: that catastrophic earthquakes should be understood as God’s judgment against homosexuality!?
A more nuanced approach would be to interpret COVID-19 as an apocalyptic event—one which “unveils” the truth of the world as it really is. Thus, the present pandemic is merely one of the multitude of “canaries in the mine” giving warning to humanity of the ecological perils of our current ecologically-devastating way of life. In this interpretation, COVID-19 is an experience of God’s “wrath” as conceived of in Romans 1. Humanity, “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity … full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice” (Rom 1:28–32 NIV), have been given over by God to our sinful desires and done what ought not to be done.
Ecologically violent actions pollute and destroy humanity’s relationship with the earth and its non-human inhabitants. Like the species that we objectify and evict from their homes, we too now find ourselves cursed. Torn from our normal lives, we are driven into isolation, yet in an ironic twist, rather than being forced to wander as a fugitive, we are imprisoned within our homes (Gen 4:10–14). Accordingly, COVID-19 and other climate-induced catastrophes, I suggest, should be understood not as stemming from God’s actions, but rather, are the result of human actions/inaction. Humanity is suffering the inevitable consequences of ecological realities that stem from our selfish and desires. COVID-19 could be interpreted as a judgement of the earth and its non-human inhabitants for our mistreatment of them. Or, to put it more crudely, the creatures that we share our earth-ark with, that we ignore or abuse, have bitten back.
Future Possibilities and Practices for the Present
But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth.
(Gen 8:1–3, NRSV)
Thus far I have contended that the roots of our current COVID-19 crisis are to be found in human ecological violence and further, have suggested that we theologically interpret the pandemic as an apocalyptic event that wakes us from our slumber and summons us to repentance. I come now to the final section, the question of the post-COVID-19 future.
In the flood narrative, with the deluge having cleansed the earth of violence, God remembers Noah and sets in motion the re-creation of the world. Following the sequence of the creation account in Genesis 1, the Spirit blows over the waters of chaos and with these forces of chaos and death ushered once again behind barriers, the world restarts (Gen 8:1–2).
In the coming months as the world “restarts” what will be the new reality that we enter into? How might the church, seeking to live into the invitation to be “caretakers,” see this current period of isolation as a time of preparation for what awaits? If the mandate of the church is to be a community whose way of life brings flourishing to human companions and all creatures whom we share the breath of life with, what practices might we need to rediscover for the future?
Before tracing some contours of a repentant life, it is necessary to briefly note both the positive and negative ecological impacts of COVID-19 and the new realities that are emerging.
While causing human suffering, the global pandemic has already had a range of ecological benefits. With air travel and road traffic significantly reduced, global carbon emissions have dropped and air quality, particularly in urban areas, has greatly improved. Many, pointing to the positive consequences of the global lockdown, have celebrated ecological resilience. Such Pollyanna accounts, in which nature, momentarily freed from human tyranny and violence, “bounces back,” have to be held in tension with more Cassandra-like assessments. While many have viewed the global economic slowdown associated with the pandemic as potentially heralding in a post-carbon future, the reality is more complicated. Indeed, in a number of contexts—with media attention directed elsewhere—the status quo of environmental destruction has continued unabated.
Ultimately, the jury is out on what the future holds. Will the economic slowdown COVID-19 has caused provide the impetus for humanity to begin to imagine and enact a more just, equitable and environmentally sustainable political economy? Or, rather than pursuing a post-carbon, post-growth economy, will we, like Israel during its own wilderness experience, longingly look back to some idealised past in Egypt, seeking to return to slavery and bondage—to a lifestyle dependent upon cheap energy and food in which the poor and other species are viewed as collateral damage?
Whatever the future, the current period of rāhui offers three potential avenues for Christian communities who seek to embody ecological repentance through developing and deepening their ecological awareness and care. First, inherent within this time of confinement is a spatial contraction. Our contemporary world which revolves around speed and transience inherently works against the development of a posture of stillness, attention, and groundedness. With non-essential travel limited or prohibited we are given the opportunity to ground ourselves more fully in our immediate environment, to develop a more intimate knowledge of our immediate surroundings. What land do we live on? Where is my closest waterway? How does my life impact on the overall health of this habitat and therefore the wellbeing of other species who share this ark with me?
Secondly, while our physical space has contracted, in many cases, for many of us, our available time has suddenly expanded. Time usually spent being transient—travelling to school, work, church, shopping, recreation, and social activities—has now become available. What do we do with this time? The immediate temptation is to continue to fill all this newly available time connecting with the world of now more-distant social relationships via the saturation of “social media.” Yet, I would suggest there is an opportunity here for us to set aside the ubiquitous digital devices and devote at least some of this unallocated time to paying greater attention to that which is immediately proximate. As with other isolation experiences in Scripture—notably Jesus in the wilderness (e.g., Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13)—rāhui can be received as a gift of time for deepening our relationship both with God and with our fellow worshipping creatures whom God loves who surround us.
My own experience of rāhui has been something of a gift. After an exceptionally busy transitional season of life in the immediately preceding months, this season has provided a sabbath-like period of stillness, enforced simplicity, and immobility. No longer commuting daily, I have immensely enjoyed the time available to get to know my new home and be attentive to my new neighbours—including the NZ falcon/kārearea who roost in a nearby pine tree and the Canadian geese who time their fly-pass with community evening prayer.
Thirdly, and finally, with supermarkets trips now coming with associated risks and being less desirable or frequent, there is the opportunity to explore new habits of eating. How might we develop ways of eating that bring health to our own bodies and to those of our global brothers and sisters—human and non-human?
Our own rāhui provides us with an ideal opportunity to simplify our lives, to foster contemplative disciplines of stillness and attentiveness, and in developing relationship with our non-human neighbours, can help us to begin to develop an ethos of care that will move us away from our ecologically-violent and unsustainable lives. As in the time of Noah, this unexpected season provides us with the opportunity to rediscover the critical axiom—that human flourishing is inextricably tied up with those of our fellow covenanters—all other creatures (Gen 9:8–17).
Dr Andrew Shepherd is a Lecturer in Theology and Public Issues within the Theology Programme, University of Otago (https://www.otago.ac.nz/theology/staff/otago720307.html#C1). His working life has alternated between academic teaching roles (theology, ethics and environmental studies) and leadership responsibilities within Christian and non-profit organisations, including international Christian conservation organisation, A Rocha. Recent publications include Creation and Hope: Reflections on Ecological Anticipation and Action from Aotearoa New Zealand (Wipf & Stock, 2018).
 Early on, the Christian community that I am part of decided that “lockdown,” loaded with negative associations—repression, the curtailment of freedom, authoritarian control—was not an overly helpful phrase, and determined that rāhui was a more helpful term. In Te Ao Maori the practice of rāhui involves making people and/or places tapu (sacred, prohibited, restricted, set apart, forbidden), protecting them from pollution, disease or exploitation, to preserve and conserve ecological and social health and wellbeing. The term and practice is often used in Aoteaora New Zealand as a conservation measure and therefore is apt for the thesis I offer below.
 This is not the first time I have sought insights from the Noah story for the contemporary global ecological challenges we face. See Andrew Shepherd, “Arks and Spaceships: Children's Stories, Political Visions, and the Environmental Crisis,” Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Nov 2007): 52–58.
 Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (London: Picador, 1990).
 Though written thirty years ago, Barnes’ fictional description of Noah, from the perspective of a woodworm, is strikingly prescient of some of the political leadership exhibited by national leaders during the COVID-19 crisis. The woodworm, reflecting upon humanity, observes: “You aren’t too good with the truth, either, your species. You keep forgetting things, or pretend to …. I can see there might be a positive side to this willful averting of the eye: ignoring the bad things makes it easier for you to carry on. But ignoring the bad things makes you end up believing that bad things never happen. You are always surprised by them. It surprises you that guns kills, that money corrupts, that snow falls in winter. Such naivety can be charming; alas, it can also be perilous …. Blame someone else, that’s always your first instinct. And if you can’t blame someone else, then start claiming the problem isn’t a problem anyway. Rewrite the rules, shift the goalposts.” Barnes, A History of the World, 29.
 While noting that in scholarship the Flood narrative is understood as accounts from different traditions (Priestly and Yahwist) redacted together, such historical-critical detail is not essential to this theological-ecological-ethical reflection.
 The term “wet markets” comes from the practise of splashing water on produce to keep it cool and fresh. The now-recognised danger of strains of avian flu mean that in China and Hong Kong the selling of live poultry at such markets has now been prohibited.
 See Dale Berning Sawa, “Deadly Appetite: 10 Animals We Are Eating into Extinction,” The Guardian, 3 April 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/apr/03/deadly-appetite-10-animals-we-are-eating-into-extinction; Daniel T. Cross, “We Are Eating Large Wild Animals into Extinction,” Sustainability Times, 17 February, 2019, https://www.sustainability-times.com/environmental-protection/we-are-eating-large-wild-animals-into-extinction/.
 On how industrial agriculture contributes to “biodiversity oblivion,” and a Christian ethical response, see Andrew Shepherd, “Being ‘Rich Towards God’ in the Capitalocene: An Ecological/Economic Reading of Luke 12.13–34.” The Bible Translator 70, no. 3 (December 2019): 240–60. doi:10.1177/2051677019882979.
 Consider the outbreak, at the turn of the century in United Kingdom, of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, which is caused by feeding to cattle meat and bone meal (MBM) that contained the remains of other infected cattle. Humans who consume this infected meat are at risk of developing the degenerative brain disease Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD). Recent studies suggest that one in two thousand Britons could be carriers of vCJD due to eating contaminated meat. See Michelle Roberts, “Estimate Doubled for vCJD Carriers in UK,” BBC News, 13 October, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-24525584. Closer to home, the significant role that agriculture plays in Aotearoa New Zealand means a number of diseases transmitted by animals are of ongoing public health concern, including Giardia, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, and Salmonella. In 2016, New Zealand experienced the world’s largest recorded outbreak of Campylobacter when one third of Havelock North’s population of 14,000 developed gastrointestinal illness due to water supplies contaminated by livestock.
 The cheap, highly-processed, mass-produced food that characterizes the Western (and increasingly globalised) diet is linked to an array of health ailments including obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Globally, these modern Western diseases contribute to the premature death of millions annually. For the argument that “cheap food” plays an integral role in the exploitative global economy see: Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet (London: Verso, 2018).
 Holgar Kray and Shobha Shetty, “The Locust Plague: Fighting a Crisis Within a Crisis,” Voices: Perspectives on Development, 14 April, 2020, https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/locust-plague-fighting-crisis-within-crisis.
 The size of an individual’s carbon footprint—and water footprint—is significantly influenced by dietary choices. See the A Rocha Rich Living Series “Food” Booklet, https://www.arocha.org.nz/resources/rich-living-series/. For further discussion on the relationship between levels of consumption and carbon footprint size, see Mark & Tom Delaney, Low-Carbon and Loving It: Adventures in Sustainable Living from the Streets of India to Middle Class Australia (Mark Delaney, 2018).
 Think here of the actions of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and other “strongman” politicians and also members of the corporate oligarchy, e.g., Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, whose personal fortune has risen a further USD $24 billion since the pandemic broke. See Sophie Alexander et al., “The Global Economy is Crumbling—and Jeff Bezos is $24 Billion Richer,” Fortune, 15 April, 2020, https://fortune.com/2020/04/14/jeff-bezos-net-worth-2020-billionaires-amzn-amazon-stock/.
 See “Brian Tamaki to Churchgoers: Earthquakes Are God's Alarm for End Times,” NZ Herald, 29 November, 2016, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11756828.
 The word “apocalyptic” comes from the Greek, apokalyptikos, which means “unveiling.” Timothy J. Gorringe notes that in Scripture the “unveiling” of the way things really are is a summons to repentance and “the call to repentance is always a call to action.” Timothy J. Gorringe, “Visions of the End? Revelation and Climate Change,” in Christianity and the Renewal of Nature (Kindle Edition),ed. Sebastian Kim & Jonathan Draper, (London: SPCK, 2011), “God’s Redemptive Will in the Midst of Calamities.”
 Here, I am concerned with how repentance—a change in attitudes and behaviour—works itself out in the ecological dimension of human lives, in our relationships with the earth and other species.
 As with Noah disembarking from the ark, so humanity, in the years ahead, will enter into an open future—one full of challenges and possibilities. The fact that Jesus is the Alpha and Omega (Rev 1:8) means the future is not pre-determined. Humanity has freedom and agency.
 Air pollution—particularly high levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide—has significant detrimental impacts on human health. Some modelling suggests that the numbers that die globally as a result of COVID-19 will be offset by the numbers who live longer due to improved air quality reducing the rates of asthma and heart and lung disease.
 Jonathan Watts and Niko Kommenda, “Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution,” The Guardian, 23 March, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/23/coronavirus-pandemic-leading-to-huge-drop-in-air-pollution; Jonathan Watts, “Climate Crisis: in Coronavirus Lockdown, Nature Bounces Back – But For How Long?” The Guardian, 9 April, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/09/climate-crisis-amid-coronavirus-lockdown-nature-bounces-back-but-for-how-long.
 In the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency has suspended testing of industry compliance to air and water pollution during the COVID-19 crisis and fossil fuel companies have been lobbying strongly for federal bailouts. In Brazil, deforestation of the Amazon continues at pace. See Oliver Milman and Emily Holden, “Trump Administration Allows Companies to Break Pollution Laws During Coronavirus Pandemic,” The Guardian, 27 March, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/27/trump-pollution-laws-epa-allows-companies-pollute-without-penalty-during-coronavirus, and Chris D’Angelo and Alexander C. Kaufman, “Not Even A Pandemic Can Stop Trump From Pushing Fossil Fuels,” Huffpost, 18 March, 2020, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/trump-pandemic-fossil-fuels_n_5e7288efc5b63c3b6489c2c2.
 For the importance of the development of ecological virtues see Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010) and Timothy J. Gorringe, The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), 79–154.
 Michael S. Northcott, “Mobility and Pilgrimage,” in A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007), 213–31.
 For a brief reflection on other creatures as fellow worshippers, see Andrew Shepherd, “Creaturely Theology: Sharing Life & Worship With Other Species,” in IFES Word & World, Issue 8 (January 2020): 17–22. https://ifesworld.org/en/journal/creaturely-theology/.
 While much is to be gleaned from reflecting on the sabbath-like nature of the global consequences of COVID-19, this is beyond the scope of this article.