In the 2000 movie Memento, we see parts of the story played backward to help us feel the protagonist’s mental state after an injury leaves him unable to hold short-term memories. In the disorienting last few days, it feels our society is similarly reading Exodus 32 backward. We’ve started with a plague, moved to inappropriate revelry, and now seek to worship a statue of a cow.
As the modern-day plague coronavirus sweeps the globe, it has (as of the morning of March 25) infected more than 440,000 people worldwide and killed more than 19,000 people made in the image of God. Nearly every country has been impacted. Appropriately, many are mourning. We lament those suffering and dying alone, unable to catch their breath or hold their loved ones. We lament those hastily buried without a proper community funeral. We lament those unable to travel to see loved ones, those who have lost jobs, those who are feeling lonely and anxious in quarantined isolation.
Well, at least some of us lament all of that. Among others there is, as Moses complained of hearing, “the sound of a celebration.” In a time when the only way to flatten the curve of the virus’s spread and save millions of lives is to stay home and to especially avoid large gatherings, many Americans just can’t let a time of lamenting stop their party.
Spring break partiers still crowded the beach of Florida, declaring defiantly, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” Then adding, “We’re just out here having a good time. Whatever happens, happens.”
We’ve heard that line before, since there’s nothing new under the beach’s sun. In Isaiah 22 we hear God noting the people were supposed “to weep and wail” but instead we “see there is joy and revelry” with “eating of meat and drinking of wine!” And the people, God adds, defiantly declare with carefree irony: “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die!”
Multiple spring breakers tested positive for coronavirus, as did someone who attended a “coronavirus party” in Kentucky held merely to defy rules on mass gatherings. And we’ve seen numerous outbreaks at church gatherings, including at a church that met even after governmental leaders specifically requested they cancel to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“It doesn’t sound like they are shouting because they have won or lost a battle,” Moses said. “It sounds more like a wild party!”
And now we’re moving backward to the start of the story: the worship of the cow. Our reckless celebrations in response to the plague seem related to our next response. In a time of pandemic, we reveal who we really are and who we really worship. And we cannot worship two masters.
In a time of prayerful concern, our leaders seek salvation from that angry, charging bull down on Wall Street. And he’s hungry, waiting for sacrifices. ‘Come, sing, dance, celebrate around the idol,’ we’re told, ‘and everything will be okay.’ Just appease the god and this plague will go away. Just like the demands of the god Moloch, to whom the ancient Israelites sacrificed their children in fire in the Valley of Hinnom (also known as Gehenna, or – as it’s often translated in our Bibles – hell). Except the priests of the charging bull seek not our children but our parents and grandparents.
The Lt. Governor of Texas suggested grandparents should be willing to sacrifice their lives to keep the economy rolling for their grandchildren. Thus, he urged everyone to “get back to work” despite the millions who would die without social distancing. Media commentator Glenn Beck added to the sermon, saying old people should be willing to die so we don’t kill the economy.
Even President Donald Trump joined the choir, arguing the cure of temporarily shutting down businesses could be worse than the disease. And let’s do it all by Easter, the prophet of profits says. Let’s resurrect our god, no matter how many lives we must sacrifice. After all, those old people are going to die anyway so why should it hurt his golden businesses?
This is nothing new. We’ve heard these calls before. Sacrifice those other people to save our own wealth. Kill the kids before Moloch so we can be blessed. Offer up that troublemaker overturning tables in the Temple to save our own religious power. Burn the Jews in the ovens to protect the nation from what the leaders say is a “virus.” Let grandma die to save the Dow Jones.
But rather than ending plague, we instead each time create our own hell.
We take on the character of that we worship. And that character is most clearly unveiled in apocalyptic times like now.
Yes, it seems we do, in fact, have everything backward.