Plough editor Peter Mommsen introduces a new online forum featuring stories and ideas for a time of crisis.
This April, when Jews and Christians around the globe retold the Passover story as we do each year, the Exodus account of the ten plagues of Egypt no longer seemed a distant Bronze Age myth. Today’s plague may not be as deadly as those visited on Pharaoh, but it’s lethal enough. A friend who works in a nearby senior home here in upstate New York tells a now-familiar tale of exhausted nurses, inadequate supplies, and daily deaths. We are keenly aware of the devastation among our neighbors in New York City, and fear what will happen as the virus spreads in other urban areas, through prisons, and in poorer countries lacking the same healthcare resources and infrastructure. Meanwhile, mass layoffs and failing businesses around the world threaten a bitter aftermath of economic desperation and stunted hopes.
Whether or not this plague, like the biblical ones, is a punishment, it certainly is apocalyptic. I don’t mean this in an end-of-the-world way, but rather in the literal sense of apocalypse as an unveiling – a revelation of how things really are. This crisis has ripped the cover off certain truths about our souls and our society. Some of these truths are ugly. We see exposed the reality of public corruption; murderous inequalities in the provision of healthcare; or for that matter, our society’s unnatural choice to warehouse so many of its grandparents in underfunded institutions where they live and die in isolation, even when no pandemic rages.
But the crisis has revealed other truths, too. It has called forth countless acts of solidarity and compassion, each one proof of the divine spark in humankind. It has cast light on the sacrificial efforts of nurses, doctors, police officers, delivery drivers, and grocery clerks. It’s shown that millions of our fellow human beings, of all creeds and walks of life, will jump at a chance to be their brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, if only by grieving with the grieving or by wearing a face mask.
And as so many of us find our habits and plans disrupted in unprecedented ways, now is also time to prepare for what comes next. That is why we’ve decided to launch this special digital issue of Plough, featuring a growing collection of articles responding to this time of crisis by some of our favorite writers and artists. Here’s how it works: a new lead essay will appear each Monday for the next twelve weeks, often accompanied by shorter pieces on other days.
This issue won’t try to predict what the “new normal” post-pandemic might look like (despite any speculation, this is something we cannot know). Instead, it aims to bear witness to what is being revealed by the crisis – and to ask what is needed for the regeneration that, God willing, will follow it. Our hope is that this project will, to borrow this magazine’s tagline, help “break ground for a renewed world.”
So what can readers expect as this issue rolls out week by week? Writers such as Edwidge Danticat and Eugene Vodolazkin will help us see more clearly the truth of the time we’re living through. Scholars such as Stanley Hauerwas and Sarah Ruden will help us think deeply about what is at stake. Social critics such as Bill McKibben and Zito Madu will address questions of justice and sustainability. Pastors such as Will Willimon and Eugene F. Rivers III will speak to this time’s spiritual challenges. In addition, historical articles and readings will draw out the wisdom that people of faith have gained over two millennia in facing pandemics and economic collapse. Profiles and interviews will highlight individuals and communities who in exemplary ways are doing the works of mercy needed now. Look for a visual portrayal of a poem from Julian Peters and a Dostoyevsky story rendered in graphic novel format by Natalia Osipova and Elena Avinova. We have other exciting contributions in the pipeline too; readers can sign up here to receive our weekly email notifications.
As I wrote earlier, the coronavirus crisis has had a big impact on our publishing house. Like most businesses in New York State, we’ve had to close our main office in Walden, New York. Even before that, since our team is largely made up of parents of young children, most of us had already begun working remotely or taken time to care for family.
In view of the formidable logistics of producing a print edition of Plough Quarterly during the lockdown, we’ve postponed our next issue “Solidarity” from June to September. (Note to subscribers: You should rest assured that you’ll receive the full number of issues you signed up for. And look for a bonus mailing from us around the time when the June issue would otherwise have arrived.)
So in the intervening months, this special, ongoing digital issue will be our main way of staying in touch with our readers. But not the only way. We’re planning a series of online events, in part featuring contributors to this issue. In addition, we’ve put together classic spiritual readings for difficult times, by authors such as Augustine of Hippo, Teresa of Ávila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and J. Heinrich Arnold. And readers are invited to download ebooks of some of our best-loved titles, which during the crisis are available for free on our website.
This crisis reveals many truths, but in itself will not transform or heal or renew.In a time of crisis – whether a pandemic, a terrorist attack, or a war – people are quick to say that “things will never be the same.” This comes from an understandable urge. Faced with suffering of such magnitude, our instinct is to find meaning in it by claiming it has shifted the course of history. In reality, while some things may change in the wake of the pandemic, most will not. This crisis reveals many truths, but in itself will not transform or heal or renew.
Christians should not be surprised or discouraged by this. We expect regeneration from another source. For us, the decisive turning point was not in 2020, or 9/11, or 1945, or 1776, but – as Stanley Hauerwas likes to remind us – in AD 33, when Jesus, who had been killed, rose again in the flesh, alive from the dead. The only way to face mass death honestly without despairing is to believe that resurrection is real, that death will not have the last word.
“God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of His mercies,” wrote John Donne. “He can bring thy summer out of winter, though thou have no spring; though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite His mercies, and all times are His seasons.”
This time, too, is his season. It’s up to us to help break the ground; he will renew the world.
Peter Mommsen is the editor of Plough Quarterly and lives at the Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York.