2020 has been an unprecedented year of lockdowns, disruptions, and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The semblance of “normal life” has been forced into a sudden pause worldwide with new senses of normalcy emerging slowly and cautiously. While the crisis is disorienting, even devastating to many, biblical faith encourages us to view this period as a dynamic moment of potential for true fruitfulness. But what are we to make of this complex and volatile pandemic experience? This topic was on the hearts and minds of theologians Martin Accad, Rima Nasrallah, and Gary Nelson during the first webinar in the series, Middle East Conversations 2020, on 18 June. The speakers led a vibrant discussion on A Dynamic Pause: Reflections on Simplicity, Purpose, and Transformation in this Time of Pandemic.
Martin Accad, of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, provides a thoughtful opening keynote presentation that delivers a broad examination of the pandemic’s far-reaching impact and delivers a helpful way of conceptualizing this dynamic pause. He argues that individuals and communities of faith are seeing long-held assumptions challenged and enduring habits upended by forced encounters with new realities. The experience is mixed. Frustrations mount as economic, political, and social crises intensify. Concurrently, senses of solidarity have been fostered by renewed bonds between family members in their homes, neighbors in their communities, and fellow citizens around the world. Accad contends that the pandemic is a moment for serious scrutinizing. The world may have been required to pause, but the pause has certainly been dynamic.
Accad then provides three metaphors as lenses that characterize attitudes and responses to the present crisis: the storm, the tunnel, and the cocoon. The metaphor of the storm conveys an inclination to take hold of whatever we can grasp and wait until hard times blow over. The tunnel is a response that involves cutting back and trimming down, usually on human and financial resources, whether at the individual, family, or corporate levels, to fit through a narrowing passageway until (hopefully) we emerge on the other side. In both the storm and tunnel metaphors, the goal is to survive and return to an old, familiar normality. The latter is more active while the former involves a more passive waiting. But is there a more purposeful way to conceptualize this moment? Accad proposes such in the metaphor of a cocoon. Here a forced pause is in fact a moment of transformation via a dynamic metamorphosis: caterpillars enter their cocoon pause in one state but emerge as butterflies! Embracing change and expecting metamorphosis elevates the vision for this historic moment from one of mere survival to that of transformation and changing into something new. In the words of Accad, “it will be a world of butterflies, and nothing less than metamorphosis will make us fit for it.” He proposes a few things and habits that we may want to take along with us from this moment of pause, which may define who we are in the era of the “new normal.”
Rima Nasrallah, professor of practical theology at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, provides a first response. She comments on how the pandemic ushered a type of sabbath where life has indeed simplified and new skills have been learned. For many, including churches, this has been a valuable experience. But for many others, this has been a time of increased vulnerability and accentuation of inequalities; the human cost of the pandemic and its lockdown has been extreme. Day laborers have been cut off from their livelihoods, victims of abuse have been trapped in dangerous situations, and many schools have not been able to adapt their teaching methods, thus leaving children deprived of education. Rima sees the metaphor of the cocoon as a beautiful picture of what can happen in a moment like now, but she questions if this imagery is practical, even possible, in the midst of such daunting times when systematic corruption and injustice are so pronounced. She pushes back against an overly-optimistic view of the human capacity for good. God does call us to transformation, just as Accad presents, but the ability of humans to manage this is undermined by human sinfulness. It is the work of God.
In the second response, Gary Nelson, President of Tyndale University in Toronto, conveys his experiences and observations of this pandemic with the following, “the pace of change is faster than the pace of learning.” Change in these past few months has been dramatic on many levels, and has created a type of tipping point into disorienting dilemmas that must be navigated and negotiated. Gary agrees that this is a moment of needed transformation as “old ways” are proving inadequate for addressing the practical and theoretical issues of now. This moment is likened to the biblical account of the Hebrew people entering the promised land and their “crossing moment” at the Jordan River as they reach a point of no return. Is the Church ready to embrace “crossing moments” and enter something new? There is a choice to be made, and this always carries elements of risk. (Being wrong is always a possibility.) Gary notes that great reformation, renewal, and cultural change have historically taken place in conditions like our present moment as people lead with imagination and courage in the midst of disorientation. The transformation sought at this time may not be the silent and tame change of a cocoon but, as Accad put it, a revolutionary event that ushers something new.
The panel discussion draws from submitted questions to expand ideas and stir conversation among the presenters. A theme of working within tension resonates the conversation as we struggle to balance the theoretical and practical as well as the realistic and the desired. Scripture maintains this complexity on different occasions as we see great things happen, but these instances are often accompanied by great suffering. The suffering of our present time must be acknowledged within hopefulness in transformation. Tensions also stem from eschatological convictions as the hope for transformation now and anticipation of future transformation shape our understandings and inspire our responses to crises. The panel discussion period also explores how human inequalities are exacerbated by unequal access to the systems and technologies driving the change, and questions are raised about the connection between the pandemic and the outburst of social justice demonstrations witnessed in recent weeks.
This Middle East Conversations 2020 webinar seeks to ask questions and consider ideas with the aim of recognizing challenges and identifying opportunities for faithful witness. Watch the webinar and continue the conversation facilitated by Martin, Rima, and Gary, and keep the discussion going by sharing questions and thoughts in the comments section below.