In the Light of COVID-19: On Doubt, Wars and Dangerous Memory
Literally halted, held still in our homes, and yet unable to stop gazing outward, for the church as the people, the present time of doubting is the time for theology, a turning back to the world, which “scandalizes and interrupts the banality and boredom of bourgeoisie religion.” As we have watched in our living rooms the distressing scenes of disease and death in Wuhan, Italy, and New York, now morphing to more vulnerable states of Indonesia, Venezuela, and Nigeria, we as the faithful may experience a doubting due to our fears—the “monstrous inexhaustible by explanation”—and be led to lament. Lamenting and remembering Christ’s story of divine association with suffering, Johann Baptist Metz’s concept of “dangerous memory” reminds us our place is with those in danger, those who are bearing the brunt of the impacts of the pandemic, even when we do not encounter these people in our safe-havens, our homes.
In this short essay, I raise Metz’s dangerous memory which considers theological scandal in times of trauma, as a schema for interpreting our doubts and reimagining the future in view of the present and past derangement and duress. Opposing the concept of “victor’s justice,” or unjust proceedings serving the winning parties following war, Metz argues that God saves through the “dangerous” memory of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Dangerous memory conceptualises the ongoing reminiscing of the people through the eucharistic sacrament, a re-membering, or putting together of the body of Christ. In other words, Metz’s dangerous memory demands that suffering be remembered. This memory is oriented towards a provisional future viewpoint of achieving justice for the oppressed. In dangerous memory, Metz draws on Walter Benjamin’s history as catastrophe—in grievous and “unprecedented” events. By the lens of Metz’s dangerous memory that calls for solidarity with the suffering, we may be led to a new understanding of history in the light of the present existential crisis of COVID-19. As Christians, dangerous memory, reminding us of Christ’s association with the suffering, allows us to pursue and to model an alternative view in dealing with the current catastrophe.
Our doubt, when it results in unrestrained fear, may result in a combative and self-protective stance that can lead to blame. At least some of our political leaders quickly rally, their motives not necessarily concerned with remembering the suffering, but instead amounting to pragmatic efforts to stabilise and recapitalise, focused on the nation-state realm. A recent article in the Washington Post recalled an 1866 outbreak of smallpox in Louisiana which weaponised the disease against vulnerable African-American populations due to an already embedded racism. The writer, William Horne, sees echoes of such structural evil in the US administration’s present response to the outbreak of the coronavirus, which has already resulted in major impacts on the poor and dispossessed. Leaders speak of the recent events as war, mobilising and pulling together the masses in order that we can resume supposed ‘progress’, in reaping resources and pillaging the earth as competitive states. From disparate political corners, China’s Xi Jinping declared the fight against the virus the “People’s War,” Donald Trump called himself a wartime president and Boris Johnson similarly told his cabinet, “we are engaged in a war against the Coronavirus which we must win.” Johnson’s war with the virus quickly became entirely more personal as he was found COVID-19 positive and was taken into intensive care. The quick proclamation of a warring context and a reassertion of dominance misses the mark, for this is a virus which occurred and was exacerbated by the human ravaging of the planet.
These war-like declarations from many neo-liberal world leaders lead to a search for the enemy and the impulse to blame. The opposite of dangerous memory—a tendency to blame out of fear reveals a wresting of power, an attempt to dominate and repress—rather than true solidarity with those suffering. In the talk of war, this instinct shows up, evident in the US presidential scramble to blame US state authorities and China in general, and later, the World Health Organisation (WHO). Locally, nurses with face-masks are set upon on our public transport system, Australian wharfies refuse to unload a Chinese ship, and the Australian Prime Minister tells international students to “go home.” Governmental welfare packages are not all-inclusive, as seen in the Australian package of support for those who lost work, initially excluding New Zealand residents and “casual workers” without twelve months of experience from welfare payments. An association with those suffering the greatest danger in this moment should lead followers of Christ to stand with the vulnerable.
Theologically, dangerous memory employs in Metz’s words an “anamnestic solidarity” with victims of injustice and the dead, much as the ultimate survivor, Job, in the biblical book presents his suffering to God. Our constant memorialising of Christ’s suffering and death and defeat of death associates us with that suffering. So, our call to participate in ongoing dangerous memory, to stand with those suffering due to COVID-19 in their time of need, and therefore the poor and most vulnerable, shows up this time as an apocalyptic moment, interrupting the progression of chronos time, and revealing the myth of anthropocentric development. Within the current pandemic, people write of personal epiphany as they observe the results of the reduction in air-travel and petroleum usage, lesser release of carbon in the atmosphere, and a consequent restoration of air-quality and the return of wildlife to urban ecosystems. Voices remind us that the “Environment Emergency” is bigger than even the current pandemic.
The crisis of COVID-19 re-orients us toward the vulnerable, whose lives are in danger, as the refugees, the jobless, and the asylum seekers are made prominent by their agitation. We observe the pandemic as it hits new heights and threatens many mentally, economically, and spiritually. The vulnerable and the poor in our communities too will be hardest hit—how might we support our neighbours on Pacific Islands and in south-east Asia, already reeling from the impacts of climate change? And what about the homeless; the immune-compromised? From Down Under, belonging to what are often privileged church communities, how do we allow our own homes to be interrupted by our solidarity with the suffering?
Metz suggests that through the dangerous memory of suffering there is a possibility of resistance and struggle in the face of oppression. Our doubting is properly presented to the deity. Job questions “El” or the ultimate Creator. “Why have you forsaken me?,” echoes Christ in the gospels of Matthew and Mark (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34). Our own lamenting in the tradition of Job and Christ leads us to emotional and communal renewal in the hopeful words of Ezekiel 37:11-12, “I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O my people and bring you to the land of Israel.”
Returning to Arendt’s words about the certainty of doubt, Job, in the Hebrew Bible, was a sceptic who voiced his doubt. Job made a contradictory conclusion in the Hebrew text, as Mark Brett notices, speaking rightly but “without knowledge.” An outsider in Hebrew tradition, Job, a non-Jew, laments his distressing losses and trauma without either blaming nor adopting a self-protective or forgetful form of justice. Job is pointed by “El’s voice” back to the cosmos, the creation. The answer to Job’s questions of the Divine One, writes Brett, lies in “suspending the borders of the anthropocentric self and reconnecting with species on the brink of extinction,” enabling an entering into the self-emptying or kenotic love of God. When Job’s comfortable experience is interrupted by catastrophe, in his “dangerous memory” of suffering, he is pointed back to the world. This, writes Brett, is an attack on anthropocentrism and a critique of human stewardship.
The disaster of COVID-19 has taken place at a time when the Australian government was still reeling from a fire disaster unequalled in history, in which a billion animals perished and air quality suffered, and heavy smoke was even blown across New Zealand. As I write, the Australian Liberal government has still refused to develop a new plan to reduce emissions. Ironically, due to COVID-19 lock-downs, emissions appear likely to be reduced, but this does not mean the powerful will relinquish their tendency to act oppressively. There are signs that many wish to “snap-back” to a system pursuing economic growth at the expense of our world.
By avoiding the war-like language and the tendency to blame, dangerous memory leads us to face up to the theological scandal of COVID-19 directly, addressing our doubting to God, and associate and stand with the suffering poor and vulnerable. The present is a time to model a turning away from self-absorbed ideas of anthropocentric progress, turning instead back to our world, modelling a kenotic self-emptying. In the new danger of our times, may we too listen for the voice of God from the whirlwind.
Gwyn McClelland holds a Master of Divinity from the University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Japanese history from Monash University. In June he will take up a post as Lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of New England. He is the winner of the 2019 John Legge prize for best thesis in Asian Studies, awarded by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA). McClelland’s monograph was published out of his PhD thesis in 2019, entitled Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers, Protests and Catholic Survivor Narratives.
 Hannah Arendt and Margaret Canovan, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 279.
 Fagerberg writes of Johann Metz’s dangerous memory in a book review David W. Fagerberg, Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue By Bruce T. Morrill. Theology Today 58, no. 1 (April 1, 2001): 128–29, https://doi.org/10.1177/004057360105800129.
 Re-membering refers to a knitting together of Christ’s body, the people, through the Eucharist.
 If Jesus cry of ‘My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?’ on the cross is anguished, but also has an element of hopefulness, without ontological or factual judgment – it leaves open a possible future.
 William Horne, “In the hands of racist officials, the covid-19 pandemic may be a weapon”, Washington Post, (March 20, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/03/20/hands-racist-officials-covid-19-pandemic-may-be-weapon/
Steven Lee Myers, “Xi goes to Wuhan, coronavirus epicenter, in show of confidence”, New York Times, (March 10 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/world/asia/coronavirus-china-xi-jinping.html
 Daniel O’Donoghue, “Boris Johnson: ‘We are engaged in a war against the virus’”, The Press and Journal, (March 17 2020), https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/politics/2080633/boris-johnson-we-are-engaged-in-a-war-against-the-virus/
 See for example, John Vidal, “Destruction of Habitat and Loss of Biodiversity Are Creating the Perfect Conditions for Diseases like COVID-19 to Emerge,” Ensia (blog), March 17, 2020, https://ensia.com/features/covid-19-coronavirus-biodiversity-planetary-health-zoonoses/.
 “Donald Trump blames WHO for dire situation in the US, threatens to pull funding-video”, Guardian Australia, (8 April 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/global/video/2020/apr/08/donald-trump-blames-who-for-dire-situation-in-the-us-threatens-to-pull-funding-video
 Jano Gibson and Alexis Moran, “As coronavirus spreads, ‘it’s time to go home’ Scott Morrison tells visitors and international students”, (4 April 2020), ABC News, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-03/coronavirus-pm-tells-international-students-time-to-go-to-home/12119568
 Explaining what he meant by using anamnesis to describe dangerous memory, Johann Metz used a German neologism, Eingedenken, ‘in remembrance of’, remembering Christ’s words, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ Eingedenken could be understood as ‘remembrancing’ in English, according to Bruce Morrill. See “Anamnetic Action: The Ethics of Remembrancing.” Doxology 17 (2000):3422, 6-7.
 Michalinos Zembylas and Zvi Bekerman, “Education and the Dangerous Memories of Historical Trauma: Narratives of Pain, Narratives of Hope,” Curriculum Inquiry 38, no. 2 (March 2008): 132, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-873X.2007.00403.x.
 Michael Galchinsky, “Lament as Transitional Justice,” Human Rights Review 15, no. 3 (September 2014): 264, 278.
 Katharine Julia Dell, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature (Berlin; New York: De Gruyter, 1991).
 Mark G. Brett, Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 137.
 Brett, Political Trauma, 189.
 Brett, Political Trauma, 187.
 Adam Morton, “Australia’s carbon emissions fall just 0.3% as industrial pollution surges”, (24 February 2020), The Guardian Australia, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/24/australia-carbon-emissions-fall-industrial-pollution-surges-electricity-agriculture-lng