By Charlie Johnston
Sometimes I am glad people know so little about history. Quite frankly, it is horrifying – mostly an unending tale of brutality, cruelty and strife. Thomas Hobbes was just being frank when he said, in his Leviathan, that life is “nasty, brutish and short.” At other times, it pains me, for if people knew history a little better they would appreciate how much of a rare holiday from history modern western civilization, in general, and America, in particular, is. I often say that the freedom and security we take for granted is akin to a half a postage stamp of safety on a football field of mayhem and misery.
In modern America, people seek to draw attention to themselves, to be noticed. Throughout most of history, common people sought to avoid notice, for nothing good – and much bad – could come of it. To get just a little idea of how things ‘normally’ are, study the history of the English Civil War, the Terror in the French Revolution. I don’t even touch on the Holocaust – for most moderns are, at least, aware of it. In modern times the most brutally cruel are those who posture as the most enlightened and compassionate. Read Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago to get a taste of the ugliness of the Russian Revolution; Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities to get a sense of the horror of the Terror in Paris; Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai for a first person survivor’s gripping account of the brutal madness of Mao Tzetung’s ‘idealism; and the introduction to Malachi Martin’s chilling Hostage to the Devil for a taste of the horror of the rape of Nanking. Two of what I suggest are historical novels and one just an introduction to a larger work – to make your task easier. If you want to make your study broader or deeper, you had best have a strong constitution. The casual and gleeful random murder of innocents – including children – abound. For anyone who has a competent grasp of history, the bleatings of those who posit micro-aggressions and identity politics and such are not comical; they are infuriating. Western Civilization, the robust progeny of Christianity, is -like its Founder – the liberator of humanity, not its slave-master. What is most horrifying is that, if you drill down hard, you discover that the most vicious and accomplished mass murderers of history sound a lot like those bleating today about micro-aggressions and identity politics. We have been cavorting along the cliff’s edge of a terrifying new dark ages for over half a century now. I pray this vast global disruption sobers us enough to pull back from the edge rather than pushing us over.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is now estimating that we could see 100-200,000 deaths in the U.S. from the Wuhan Virus before it all burns out. That means that, at the low end, it could be like an extremely bad flu season (an average of between 30-60,000 people in America die each year of the flu. In the worst seasons, the number can gravitate up to 80,000) and at the high end, it could be a miniature of the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 500,000 Americans from 1917 to 1921 – and 50 million worldwide. At 200,000 deaths, the Wuhan Flu would have about a seventh of the impact the Spanish Flu did in America (after adjusting for population). As I have mentioned before, I have a lot of confidence in Dr. Fauci’s medical opinions. One of my team members forwarded (with permission) the clinical description of the course of the disease and some comments from a doctor who is a relative and working in a very stressed hospital. (I think it inappropriate to mention which hospital or even which state here). It seems, if I understand correctly, that the biggest dangers are that, while early on, it resembles a flu, it does not respond to the normal treatments for flu and, in fact, some of those treatments can make it worse. It gears up to a sort of storm of symptoms attacking many organs on the 10th day of symptoms presenting. If you get past this, which a little over 80% do easily, you are out of the woods. But the ones who don’t are in real trouble. In some ways, this was comforting, for I could see from the doctor’s comments and those medical people who commented on his private site, that the medical professionals are puzzled about many things on how this virus behaves and reacts, too. And I deeply appreciated their obvious concern to find their way through this for their patients.
One country is taking an entirely different approach than most of the rest of the world. Sweden is largely leaving people to make their own decisions, refusing to shut down anything except in several targeted cases, while urging the most vulnerable to self-isolate. It believes that establishing “herd immunity” will, in the long run, produce the best results. The idea behind herd immunity is that as each person gets infected, he becomes immune. Most immunologists say that once the immunity level reaches 80 percent, it gets very difficult for a virus to cause extensive damage to a population. Some of you are old enough that, when you were kids, parents often used this strategy with their kids on the common childhood diseases – chicken pox, the mumps, and measles. Certainly, the curve is bending up swiftly in Sweden – but that is what they intend. The bet is that if you urge vulnerable populations to isolate themselves that the virus will be relatively innocuous with most other people – and the “herd” immunity will protect the nation from any second waves in the fall. It has worried me that all this isolation is preventing any herd immunity from developing – which would make the quarantined nations very vulnerable to a second wave. The Spanish Flu began its greatest damage during its second wave in 1918. The bet on the quarantine technique being used in most of the world is that we will buy enough time to develop more effective treatments and a vaccination (which, itself, creates a herd immunity) and that then it will not be as bad because we will have established a partial immunity in the general population. I have had one serious commenter tell me that you would need almost 100% infection for herd immunity to work in this case. I did not really understand why this is different than the 80% threshold almost all others recommend. It’s a hard thing to figure. I call some of these things “Black Swan” events. Matt Shapiro of the American Spectator amusingly calls this a “Zebra Swan” event.
Right now we have designated some businesses as “essential” and kept them humming. As we continually extend out the length of a nationwide quarantine, I can’t help but wonder whether those “essential” businesses, will be able to get the parts they need to continue to make the medical equipment and other essential things. There are a lot of consequences we have not yet thought through – and they will get magnified as this goes along.
Some state and local officials have gleefully unleashed their authoritarian spirits. People who exercise arbitrary power in a crisis often end up exercising more of it for the fun of it – for the frisson of telling people what they must do and seeing those people do it. I do not understand why some localities have decreed that abortion is essential, but church services are not. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio threatens to shut down houses of religion permanently if people go there now. Of course, a lot of these threats – $5,000 fines and a year in jail for being out for anything non-essential in some venues (even as the same venues are releasing real criminals back onto the streets because of the virus) are clearly improper exercises of power in normal times and, one expects, the electorate will punish those officials whose authoritarian spirits got too bold and arbitrary during this crisis. I would not want to be either of those governors who banned chloroquine, the most promising treatment for the Wuhan Virus to date, simply because Trump spoke well of it. Political extinction is in their future. Even as central authority is being exercised to contain the crisis, centralization itself is being largely discredited. The nations which comprise the European Union are closing their borders to each other. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been such a propagandizing toady of Communist China that its reputation is probably permanently shot. A few leftists impotently argue that socialized health care is what we need to deal with emergencies such as this – whistling past the graveyard of the disastrous performance of most socialized systems during this crisis. They also have to ignore such performances as these hospital administrators who fantasized about denying care to Trump supporters.
I don’t know who we will be as a people going forward, but who we have been is being stripped away from us. God willing, we will get back to work and living, but we will not be the people we were. May we be a better people.
A distinction I have long made between Armageddon and the Apocalypse is that Armageddon is NOT the end. It is the decisive battle between good and evil – which is followed by the satan being chained for a thousand years. I have thought that we had entered the early stages of Armageddon about two decades ago, though the man who would become St. John Paul II spoke of it two decades before that, at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in 1976 when he said:
“We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think that the wide circle of the American Society, or the whole wide circle of the Christian Community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, between the gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously.”
Like just about everyone, I have been baffled at the speed at which all this came upon us. On Monday, March 9, I was busy developing plans for a nascent SuperPac for people of faith targeting five key states. It was going to be a very busy year. And on Friday, March 13, I realized that everything was going to be shut down for a while – which seemed a dramatic over-reaction to me at the time. I’m still not sure it isn’t – a rifled approach protecting the truly vulnerable makes more sense to me – but there were enough unknowns about this virus at the time that justified this massive approach. Now, I agree with President Donald Trump and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that we know enough that we can and should start rifling, rather than shotgunning, our defense against the Wuhan Virus in order to protect from a long and deep economic depression.
I am grateful for what this crisis has revealed, even as I am disappointed at much of our Christian reaction. I’m not talking about the suspension of Masses. A couple of weeks ago, authorities in one Diocese (not my own) asked me for my take on a potential shutdown of Masses. The Bishop involved hated the idea, but the governor of his state had ordered it. I said I hated it, too, but that to defy it would be to enter direct confrontation with civil authorities – and we have not prepared for that. Going off on a half-cocked charge could do permanent damage to our rights. But I had hoped that this time would be used, in part, to prepare contingency plans for another such confrontation in the future. Once civil authorities exercise power for just reasons, some fall in love with exercising the same power for unjust reasons. I had several such conversations with authorities in other Dioceses that were not so direct.
There has been an enormous surge in televised Masses – and I appreciate that, though I think it might be a bit of a double-edged sword. What I have watched for is how individual Dioceses handle such things as Confession, Anointing of the sick and such individual approaches to ministry. Some have made absolutely heroic efforts. But I have seen a lot more who refused these, as well as Mass – except for those in genuine mortal danger. I cannot help but think, for heavens sakes, we Christians are historically the people who go forth to comfort the lepers. What happened to us?
There has been very little practical application of Christian principles in contemplating this crisis from officials and secular commentators. Even from the Christian press there has been more of an emphasis on “signs and wonders” than on how to live our faith well in a world in crisis. I think an ugly form of materialism has taken hold of the culture, even among the faithful – where we worry hysterically about our own mortality rather than how to minister to those around us while prudently protecting our loved ones.
I have been contemplating it in light of my pilgrimage nine years ago. For the first month and a half, I was scared of many things – perhaps most especially of being injured far from help. I prayed for my safety frequently. I had a little Facebook Page (that is Abraham’s Journey) that I updated at libraries and where there was internet service. Usually just a few lines every couple of days. My son, at one point early on, told me he thought the page had a lot more silent watchers than we knew. It didn’t even have a thousand people following, so I thought my son’s observation was more filial affection than anything else. But at that time, when you reached a certain level, Facebook gave you access to an administrator’s page where you could see statistics. about the page. I was stunned to see that it was getting an average of 50,000 hits per week – and even more stunned when, shortly after, it went up to over 100,000 per week. It would become a turning point in my attitude.
It was amazing to me how enthused people were upon finding out what I was doing. Walking mainly through rural areas of Alabama and Mississippi in the early days, I would wander into a little cafe and find that all the people around had been watching and talking about me for days – and were eager to hear what I was doing. It baffled me, for at the time I could not see what all the excitement was about. I was just an old man walking. I told everyone who asked that I thought the world was in a lot of trouble and that this time we were not going to get out of it without a terrible reckoning. I said people worried about the things they might lose – and they had good cause to worry…but that we had forgotten that our only reliable source of security is in God. So I walked in prayer for our poor, bleeding world and to throw myself into radical dependency on Him for a time. Some would ask me what group I was walking for – and when I would tell them I was walking for no group, just walking to see who I would meet along the way and praying for all, the enthusiasm would get even greater. I really didn’t understand the almost universal excitement and enthusiasm of the many people I met along the way. But before I began I had started praying that this pilgrimage could, in its little way, be a sign of hope to those I encountered. I was thankful that it had, in a small way – but already much bigger than I ever imagined – become a sign of hope and joy to a lot of people.
It was in Louisiana where my prayers changed. So many people were following me on Facebook and were so inspired, that I came to fear that if I was injured in a way that prevented me from completing my journey, it could crush the nascent hope and faith my journey seemed to be sparking. So I began praying that if I were injured, please let it be such that it would not stop me from finishing my walk. My prayers ceased to be inwardly focused and got much more outwardly focused. I delighted more and more in the people I met along the way.
There was a lot more danger and hardship than I ever let on. I figured my purpose in all this was to spark confidence in God and joy in His creation – not to scare or impress people with how hard it was. Truth is, I was threatened by two men with knives and one with a pistol along the way. Without skipping a cheery beat, I made it clear to the two men with knives that they were in for more than they bargained for if they did not back off and pretend it was all in jest. The fellow with the pistol simply ambushed me – and I was rescued by what I am convinced were supernatural means. The fellow went from threatening me menacingly in the woods which he had followed me into to suddenly looking wide-eyed with fear over my left shoulder and turning and running from the woods in raw panic. I looked to see what was behind me and there was nothing there – but I did have the wit to say “Thanks” to my unseen guardian.
Animals mostly treated me as if I belonged there and were not shy of me when I was alone. At the little Hattiesburg Zoo there is a platform you can climb above the tiger enclosure, surrounded by various trees. It feels a little like you are in a jungle. The weirdness of animals towards me was underlined when, after I sat down on the bench at the top, a brightly colored little bird landed on the rail next to me and starting chirping cheerily, after which two of his duller-colored friends joined him. I was tickled by this impromptu concert, and then the star bird looked at me with bright alarm and they all took off. Just a moment later a woman and her two daughters arrived at the top. Birds and squirrels liked to play with me. Foxes stalked me many nights – wandering in half moon circles as if to ask, “What ARE you doing?” The first time a cougar came into my camp at night it unnerved me, but I discovered the big cats are very shy of humans once they know what you are. I saw wolves, armadilloes, opossums (ugh), a LOT of deer and elk, wild turkeys – a family of rabbits made camp with me in Houston next to the Buffalo Bayou. Oddly, I never saw a coyote – which I see routinely when I am in civilization and never encountered a snake in the wild until I entered Colorado. The only animals that unnerved me were bears. They are not hostile to man, but they are also not at all afraid of him. Three once came into my camp and grunted around while I was helpless in my tent. Oddly, while they sniffed the food I had hung up from a tree branch, they took none of it.
All in all, I was in mortal peril six or seven times and in great hardship or hunger a lot more than that. But I didn’t care to talk or dwell on that. On the other hand, when I was in Pearl, Mississippi, I was chatting with three ladies who worked in a little shop (come walking off the street with a smile and a heavy pack on your back and it is a GREAT conversation starter). I was delighting them with the joyful tales of my journey, but one kept looking at me with a knowing smirk. As I prepared to leave, she told me that her 21-year-old nephew had set out to hike the Appalachian Trail a year before. I asked her enthusiastically how he had liked it. With that knowing smirk she told me he didn’t last a week before deciding it was too hard. A little red-faced I conceded that it was tougher than I let on – but the joys really were incredible and well worth it. She patted my shoulder and then hugged me. It moved me. There is something wonderfully comforting in a person who sees deeper into you without being told.
Because I believed this journey was appointed by God, I took nothing to protect myself with. Oh, I had a knife, but had it in a place in the pack that was not quickly accessible. I was convinced that if I was called to throw myself on a radical dependence on God, I had to trust in Him completely – but without presumption. I had a fellow in Jasper, Alabama, with whose family I stayed a few days, absolutely in tears when I firmly – but gratefully – refused his offer of a 22-pistol for my protection. I routinely drank from streams and rivers – and never used any filter or purification. It was much in my mind that we are the sons and daughters of the pioneers. When the pioneers saw water, they thought, “Life!” and gave thanks to God. When we contemplate drinking water from the wild we think, “Death!” What happened to us? Sometimes there were little ironies. Once, coming out of several days of wilderness in California, I came upon a little primitive camp with a hand-crank water spout. “Ah, civilization,” I thought. And then I laughed as it dawned me that almost everyone else who came to this site thought, “Ah, wilderness!”
I am a prudent man. I have no desire to be a martyr. I want to live joyfully and hopefully die quietly in my bed decades from now. But what I most want is to spark new hope in those I meet along my pilgrim way. I want to live, but I would gladly accept death rather than knowingly crush the hope of one of my innocent fellows. Oh yeah, I can be combative with some naysayers, those who think they advance their status by attacking me, but I don’t pay them much mind. Truth be told, I usually think of them, with amusement, as the “Knights Who Say Ni.” They add a little comic zest to my journey, but they aren’t going to impede it in any significant way. But basically, I pray a lot to be a sign of hope – and get aggravated when my occasional crabbiness and sometimes blundering nature impedes that. Perhaps my outlook is a matter of faith, perhaps a matter of hubris – probably more than a bit of both. But everything I do is through a focus, maybe bordering on obsession, to defend the faith, hearten the faithful and defend the faithful.
We are all on pilgrimage. In the end, there are only two sorts: a pilgrimage to heaven or a pilgrimage towards hell. I have often said that I expected that in times of trial, we should expect that any whose prime source of security is in anything but God should expect it to be stripped away from them. I think of different sayings I cherish and think how appropriate for these times, such as, “What you desire most is most effective against you. Desire God and all shall be added.” I think if you substituted the word “fear” for “desire” in that saying, it would be almost equally effective.
I think we have begun a time when we must choose God or perish. If you have hold of God as your lodestone, however clumsily or stumbling, you will go forward, even if it is only stumbling forward. If you hold on to all the little pretties of this world that are already passing away, you will perish. Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world before he was 30 lies a-mouldring in his grave just like the wino who died in the gutter. If this life is all there is, what a miserable jest all nobility is. But it is not. It is our prelude to eternity; our audition, before God, for heaven. Why then, do we spend so much time clutching at what will perish anyway?
Apropos of nothing, it occurs to me that the Spanish Flu began in 1917 – the same year as the Fatima Apparitions – and raged in waves for the next four years. What If these pandemics are bookends of a sort? I am mainly grateful for this trial – thinking that God is giving us a taste so that we can assess where we are, whether we truly trust Him and are devoted to our neighbors or whether we just give Him lip service in hope of weaseling our way into heaven without any Calvary being involved.
We have all entered a stage in our pilgrimage where we enter the wilderness for a time. Do not fail to be prudent, to avoid rash presumption. But at all times, remember to focus your prayer outward, to be a sign of hope to those you meet along your way, to trust in God and get on with it. It is we, who are Christian in deed as well as word, who can keep this from becoming a return to the desperate and brutal strife that is history. Acting prudently and faithfully, let us worry less and get on with the business of proclaiming the Kingdom to a world grown more weary by the day.