Unprecedented Times? The Pandemic in Its Historical Context

by Jonas Sauder


Ramesseum image by Christopher Michel on Flickr

I suppose I’ve heard the term unprecedented used more often in the last six weeks than I have in the last sixty years. I’ve used it myself. Until I realized how often it’s being misused.

“This is unprecedented!” What many people mean to say is “I’m not aware that such has ever happened before in my lifetime.” Which testifies either to the youthfulness of the speaker or the limits of his awareness.

“This is unprecedented!” Others mean “I’m not aware that any such thing has ever happened.” Which testifies to either not knowing the stories of history or not comprehending their meaning. Or not understanding Solomon’s insight:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after. Ecc. 3:9-11

Amnesia is as common to man “as the sparks fly upward.” We do well to ponder precedents as we encounter circumstances unlike any we have experienced.

A Plethora of Precedents

Pondering the cascading events of Spring 2020, noting their trajectory, experiencing their acceleration, and witnessing their cumulative effects reminds me of more historical precedents than I can list here. It’s increasingly common to see news headlines use the term biblical as they seek for an adjective to capture the enormity of unfolding tragedies. A grasshopper plague, famine, or pestilence that seems to have no precedent in modern history is labeled biblical. Which reveals tacitly that while the tragedy may seem new to us, it has precedents which are actually more solidly documented than is any modern historical record—they are noted in Scripture. They are not unprecedented.

Several categories of precedents along with sample illustrations of each include…

A. Precedented New Normals

We are being conditioned to anticipate what is euphemistically termed a new normal. One of the most common precedents in history is for people to be subjected to a new normal, ushered in by plague, famine, war, revolution, inventions, or decay—or a combination. A new normal is a radical change in the way daily life is lived. A new normal is required for survival under radically changed circumstances. Changes so radical that someone from a previous generation or so before, were he to step into the current way of life, may feel totally disoriented by what is going on around him. Or unable to survive.

It’s often claimed that one of the few constants in history is change. New normals are not new. What would be unprecedented is the passage of a century or more without a new normal.

The first new normal accompanied the expulsion from Eden: thorns, sorrow, sweat—and death.

A short sampling of new normals from Old Testament records:

  • Post Flood restart.
  • Post-Babel scattering, with ensuing tribalism.
  • Israelite migration to Egypt.
  • Needing to hide the firstborn from Pharaoh’s death decree.
  • Rigors of slavery/bricks without straw.
  • Wilderness wanderings.
  • Conquering for possession of a Promised Land. Rest.
  • Idolatry. Suffering marauding bands. Copying neighboring paganism. Oppression.
  • Dispersion and captivity.
  • Multiple OT kingdoms, as they conquered/reconquered each other.

Many of the radical, far-reaching new normals we read about in history draw hardly more than a yawn from us, insulated as we are from them in time and geographical distance, and also by our unawareness of how the same could befall us. A few candidates for such yawns are to ponder the new normal experienced by:

  • Peoples subjugated by the Mongolian horde
  • Europeans under the threat of Vandals, Huns, & Norsemen
  • Peoples subjugated by Alexander the Great
  • Serfs living under feudalism as it developed in its various forms in Europe, Russia, Japan, China
  • Europeans adjusting to Post-Black Death or Post 30-Years’ War life as Europe reorganized with a great re-start.

To avoid yawns, we might consider a few more recent new normals such as…

  • Life of pre-colonial-era Africans→colonial-era Africans→post-colonial-era Africans
  • The Cherokee people pre-white contact→in the time of Sequoyah→post Trail of Tears
  • Native American life pre-white contact→during “Manifest Destiny” era→current reservation life
  • Irish life before the enclosure movement→famine years→post-enclosure movement years
  • Pre-industrial agrarian life→industrial era city life→post-industrial/service “solutions.com” life
  • Chinese peasant life before Mao→Great Leap Forward famine→mushrooming industrial cities
  • African-Americans as slaves→under Jim Crow→current conditions
  • Russian Mennonite life in Prussia→wealth in Ukraine→devastation in Ukraine→life in Canada and other places of dispersion (Mexico, U.S., Bolivia, Belize…)
    The experience of the colony Mennonites of Russia just 100 years ago is particularly instructive for us to consider. If you’ve never listened to the account of their story recorded in Mysteries of Grace and Judgment, you will find it instructive. You can find it posted on The Dock.
  • Swiss Anabaptists under persecution & oppression in Europe→free to worship, own land, and develop prosperous agrarian economy in Pennsylvania→recent shift to business economy
  • Formerly well-established residents from Africa and the Middle East overflowing refugee camps

Some new normals grow imperceptibly, perhaps noticed only by the older generation. Or by historians. Or by nobody. Others happen suddenly. But what they share is common is a great shift (change) in one or more elements:

  • Location: group migrations, or mass refugee movements, or moves for better opportunities
  • Opportunity: (without moving): economic opportunity and/or religious freedom—or the opposite
  • Language: by choice, acculturation, or government edict
  • Livelihood: type of work, role as worker, source of income or food—or lack thereof
  • Housing and home life: serf/slave quarters, cottage, house, tenement, apartment, refugee camp
  • Education: From freedom to teach your own children (at home or school) to required state-controlled schooling (or vice versa)
  • Land ownership: From peasant/serf way of life to land ownership/self-sustaining yeoman. From land ownership to worker status via land confiscation/communal farms. From family farm to agribusiness.

Precedented Ruins

Numerous ruins across the earth leave mute testimony to the fall of great civilizations that probably assumed they would last indefinitely (many did in fact last much longer than any modern era civilization). Consider Angkor Wat, the Incas and Macchu Picchu, Mali under Mansa Musa, Norte Chico of Peru, the Harappans, Nubians, Guptans, Mayans, Mughals… Many of these endured for centuries, developed writing systems, engaged in commerce, built huge cities with elaborate temples and infrastructure—and left only ruins.

Like a tombstone, a civilization has three parts: date of birth, the life of the dash, and date of demise. Ozymandias (by Shelley) captures the irony well: Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Isaac Watts states the same theme: “…all nations rose from earth at first, and turn to earth again.” Bible prophets named specific empires that would fall to ruin. One, the mighty Hittite empire, disappeared so completely that only the Bible testified to its existence. Skeptical historians in modern times questioned its existence until they found supporting archaeological discoveries in the late 19th century. A common precedent is for a highly developed empire to disappear.

Precedented Plagues and Pestilences

These decimated populations worldwide. In the wake of the Black Death, Europe’s economic system underwent a complete makeover, with feudalism fading out, ushering in the Modern Age.

Unprecedented?

Because our historical knowledge is finite, we can’t prove from history that any given event is unprecedented. Nevertheless, I’ll suggest a few recently unfolding events or situations that might actually be unprecedented. Judge for yourself.

  1. Unprecedented Quantity? The scale of unfolding events today is greater in its magnitude due to a much greater world population now than in former centuries. As noted above, war, famine, plague or new political/economic systems have often ushered in radical changes. However, the same changes occurring in a world population numbering in the billions rather than hundreds of millions are greater in scale and quantity. So while the quality or degree of change in the “new normal” may not be greater today, the quantity or scope is.
  2. Unprecedented Material Prosperity? It’s likely that the ease of life and the material wealth enjoyed by so much of the West from the end of World War II to 2020 in the West is an anomaly in the history of the world. We’ve probably just lived through an “unprecedented” era with little awareness of it. If the West now needs to shift to a survival mode, that would be precedented.
  3. Unprecedented Expectations? It’s probably unprecedented that so many people blithely assumed that the prosperity of their times would continue unabated. Again, this is probably based on quantity. Have there ever been so many people who assumed ease and prosperity was here to stay?
  4. Unprecedented Unawareness? It may be unprecedented that so many people, with unprecedented access to unprecedented amounts of information available at unprecedented speed and ease ever witnessed the speed and scope of disintegration around them, yet seem unaware of its enormity.
  5. Unprecedented Speed? The ungoverned speed to which we have become conditioned in the last several decades was typified by fast foods, same day deliveries, and instant digital downloads. Now we witness a correspondingly (and exponentially) fast unraveling towards a new normal.

Consider

In the day of adversity, consider. Consider the precedents. Hebrews 11 reminds us of God’s faithfulness to His people as they join their forebears by sharing current (precedented) experiences with them.

Bursting Balloons

Watching someone blow up a balloon produces a degree of suspense: we know it will burst if he keeps blowing, but we don’t know when. Some balloons are so resilient that it seems their stretching can go on forever. But they will burst.

My generation has been watching balloon blowing from our youth. I’ve been shaking my head since the turn of the century at the seemingly unprecedented inflation of balloons on several fronts, including economic and ethical. At the multitude of truly “unsustainable”–even by the world’s standards—trends and practices. Wondering when and how the burst would come.

We know that the law of sowing and reaping is built into God’s order: it’s just a matter of time until the “seed” bears its fruit. And while we don’t what form the fruit (new normal) will take, we know what its nature will be: after its kind. Every seed bears fruit of its own kind. Virtual reality bears virtual fruit. Man cannot live by virtual fruit. A great re-ordering is upon us. To prepare to adapt, we do well to utilize the remnants of heirloom fruits in our hand. In the next post, let’s examine our storehouses and bring out our treasures new and old:

Seeds to Carry with Us: Anabaptist Values in the New Normal

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CONTRIBUTOR: Jonas Sauder

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