Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.
Morgan Freeman famously portrayed former the late Nelson Mandela in the 2009 sports documentary Invictus, a film adaptation of John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy. The title of the film was borrowed from William Ernest Henley’s poem of the same name, which famously ends with these words: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
Henley’s words capture well the attitude of the average South African. We want to proclaim ourselves as master of our own fate and captain of our own soul. We prize our independence. However, not unlike many Western societies, we tend to equate independence with autonomy. And, if we are not careful, we tend to prize our autonomy to the neglect of our responsibility to others.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought our illusion of independence into sharp relief. Panic shoppers have emptied shelves to meet their perceived needs, completely overlooking the needs of their neighbours. Many have flaunted any thought of responsibility to their neighbour by ignoring the pleas of government regarding social distancing.
It is not all doom and gloom, of course. Some positive lessons have been learned. Neil Cable recently told me about the drastic change in cleanliness in hospitals. Because people are more congisant of their responsibility to others as they visit hospitals (washing hands, etc. before entering wards), medicine resistant bacteria within the wards has reduced drastically.
For some, the pandemic has highlighted our tendency to selfish autonomy. For others, it has highlighted the biblical reality that humans are not as independent as we would like to believe. By design, we are deeply interdependent creatures. Your health may well depend on my commitment to wash hands, cover my mouth when I sneeze, or steer clear of you when I am not feeling well.
When Israel, fresh off a famous victory over Jericho, suffered humiliating defeat at Ai, Joshua cried out to the Lord, “Alas, O Lord GOD, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us?” Yahweh responded, “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you” (Joshua 7:7, 11–12). The Lord said that Israel had corporately sinned, even though it was only one man who actually took what God had forbidden. Achan quickly realised that his illusion of independence may well bring great harm on others.
The Bible teaches that we all individually reap what we sow. It also highlights the truth that we often reap what others sow. Financial collapses affect honest, tax-paying citizens as well as unscrupulous thieves. The coronavirus has affected, and will continue to affect, both the reckless and the cautious.
In point of fact, Jesus’ atoning death doesn’t make biblical sense through the prism of radical autonomy. He did not think of you above all when he died. He died to save his people from their sin (Matthew 1:21).
As we respond to the present crisis, let’s keep this principle in mind. Yes, we relate to God on a personal level, but let us also recognise that we are designed to live interdependently. Recognising that, let us look beyond ourselves and act lovingly for the common good of the society in which we live. Your decision with affect your neighbours, as theirs will affect you. That is how God designed things to be.