This Is Not Unprecedented
There is a difference between "new" and "new to us."
Type the word “unprecedented” into a search bar and narrow the results to the past twelve months. It might take another twelve to get to the bottom of the list.
Evidently, everything was unprecedented. The word has lost all meaning.
I was in my Brooklyn apartment last March when the world stopped. First came the alert that schools were shutting down. Then that restaurants were closing. Then that we had to stay home. Then the year unfurled the rest of its mayhem.
It all felt unprecedented. And to us, it was.
But not to history.
Many began noticing similarities to the Spanish flu a century ago. Pastors quoted Martin Luther’s response to the plague in the 16th century. Epidemiologists sought various lessons from prior experience.
How eerie is this description of New York City during a yellow fever epidemic in 1798?
“In September , 45 victims perished per day…Robert Troup described the terrifying paralysis that gripped New York: ‘Our courts are shut up, our trade totally stagnant, and we have little or no appearance of business.’ Wealthier residents escaped to rural outskirts while the poor were exposed to a disease that multiplied around.”(1)
There is more.
During a similar yellow fever scare in 1793, the competing medical strategies of one Dr. Rush and Dr. Stevens coincided with the emergence of the two-party system in the United States. Though yellow fever knows nothing of political parties, one technique for treating the disease became known as the “Republican” approach, and the other the “Federalist" method. The matter was hotly politicized.(2) (Last April, when it somehow became “Democratic” to wear a mask and “Republican” not to, I thought, “How could we tribalize over this? This is a new low.” It turns out it wasn’t.)
Racialized violence and rioting aren’t unprecedented, either. Much of the pain over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd resulted precisely because such events are precedented. Too precedented.
Political upheaval is also not new. Some say, “We’ve never seen America divide like this,” but that depends on who “we” is. “We” baby boomers, Gen X’ers, millennials, and Gen Z’ers have never seen America divide like this. But “we” America have seen worse. (The Civil War comes to mind.) And “we” humanity at large have seen immeasurably worse.
Christianity offers a more reality-matching viewpoint than the illusion of newness: that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10). The core human experience doesn’t change, despite its endless re-packagings and fresh presentations. Our highest highs and lowest lows have been lived before. We are not pioneers in pain, pioneers in crisis, or pioneers in heroic or cowardly responses.
When it comes to setting expectations about suffering, the Bible is second-to-none. The Bible teaches the assumption that the nations will rage without exception (Psalm 2:1), that evil people lie in wait to kill (Proverbs 1:11), that human life is frail and brief (James 4:14), that the world is corrupt (Romans 8:20-21), that bad things happen to good people (1 Peter 3:17), that when unrighteous kings govern, the people groan (Proverbs 29:2), and that somehow people will still keep looking to human leaders for the justice only God can give (Proverbs 29:26).
So, though our pain is terrible, it is not original.
In teaching this, Christianity doesn’t veer into heartlessness. Christians don’t say to the world, “Toughen up because this is common.” We say, “Our hearts are broken because this is common.” Christianity teaches us to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15), whether those are individuals or groups (Proverbs 31:8-9). The Suffering Servant is at the heart of our faith (Isaiah 53:5-6), who cared for hurting people (John 11:35) and inspired generations of humanitarian work. So we don’t look at 300,000 virus-hastened deaths and say, “Well, that's life on earth for you.” We grieve, pray, serve, give, and sacrifice to say, “No more.”
By this point, Christianity emerges as uniquely balanced. Only by absorbing the empathetic heart of God and recognizing the patterned nature of human suffering can we be engaged, but unpanicked.
How does false belief in “unprecedented” suffering cause panic? By subtly undermining our confidence in God’s providence and the full arc of the biblical narrative.
In other words, if we think the world is reaching unprecedented levels of chaos, we’ll wonder if God is reaching unprecedented levels of carelessness. If he’s allowing more harm, maybe he's feeling less love, we reason. But if he warned us of this kind of pain (Genesis 2:17), personally entered into and conquered it (John 19:30), assists us through it (John 14:25-27), and will one day rescue us permanently from it (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17), he is to be trusted more, not less.
Christians must be able to tell the difference between what’s new and what’s not.
The creation of a perfect world was unprecedented (Genesis 1:1). Human sin plunging our quality of life and security into eternal ruin was unprecedented (Genesis 3:1-24). God entering into this pain-filled world in the person of Christ and living, dying, and living again to rescue us undeservingly were unprecedented (Romans 5:6-8). And the re-entrance of this Christ (Matthew 24:42), the wrapping up of human history (2 Peter 3:10), and the creation of a painless, endless world will be unprecedented (Revelation 21:4).
Until then, we all get to choose whether we'll live faithfully or faithlessly in the patterns.
(1) Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 585.
(2) Ibid., 450.