The Year Without a Summer

The first Christians created an alternative culture in the midst of Rome's worst-case scenario.

This is the text of a talk given at Q’s Virtual Summit on 22 April 2020, with minor edits for readability.

Just about a month ago my colleagues Dave Blanchard and Kurt Keilhacker and I wrote a piece comparing the pandemic crisis to a blizzard, winter, and an ice age. We wanted to make the case that we are looking at lasting changes in the conditions that we’ll all be living through for a long time.

A blizzard comes on very quickly and it’s quite intense. The only real option is to “shelter in place,” to stay home. But it also passes relatively quickly, the snow stops falling, and you go outside. I think that’s actually how this pandemic feels today, about four weeks after we wrote that piece. We’re starting to think about going outside again in the United States and in many parts of the world.

But winter is different. We need to consider that we haven’t just experienced a blizzard, but the onset of winter. Winter is longer and harder than a blizzard. You can go out, but not for long. You have to wear protective clothing. A lot of activities that are normal at other times are not possible in winter. And maybe most of all, you’re always thinking about and aware of the possibility of another storm. You’re checking the forecast, having to plan around that. I think that’s going to be the reality of what life is like for many months.

At the same time, it’s very likely that what we’re entering into is not actually just a season—a matter of three or four months—but a much longer event. The year 1816 was called “the year without a summer.” A volcanic eruption in 1815, in what is now Indonesia, caused winter-like conditions, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, the entire following year. There were frosts in every month of summer in North America and Europe.

Just as the “year without a summer” started with a volcano but ended up with massive agricultural and economic effects, so our current pandemic may lead to massive effects long after the pandemic itself is addressed, effects that will take us a long time to recover from.

The immediate challenge in all of this is going to be survival. For many people, that will not be a metaphor; there will be literal life-and-death consequences that those who are older, who are immunocompromised, or who have the underlying conditions that make this virus more dangerous, will have to think about every time they go out—making decisions about their own survival in a very new way.

But there are also issues of economic survival. The former commissioner of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, projects that even as we return to some kind of economic normal, it’s likely to be what he calls an “80% economy.” An 80% economy implies a 20% contraction in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The last recession we had, the Great Recession of 2008-2009, was only about a 4.3% contraction from peak to trough. A 20% contraction is very significant. And it’s not going to hit all sectors the same way.

We have a mentor at Praxis who works with our nonprofit portfolio, who is himself the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He is a generous, hopeful, faithful leader. And he is urging the nonprofits he works with to budget for a 60% reduction in giving over the next couple of years.

What is your core mission? How could you accomplish it if giving declines very likely by 20%, but possibly by 40% or 60%? These are survival questions; these are winter questions.

Now you might think, “That’s just the worst-case scenario.” It’s not the worst case. This is not by any means necessarily the worst pandemic that will hit our own society and our globe in our lifetime. This is by no means the worst economic scenario that may come to pass.

And this is where it is great to be part of the story and people of God—because the people of God faced and experienced the absolute worst-case scenario, which was exile: to have your nation conquered, your leaders deported, your culture assimilated, eradicated, eliminated. And this happened to Israel twice in the Old Testament period. Assyria took the Northern Kingdom; and then Babylon, Judah and the Southern Kingdom. Psalm 137 preserves for us the lament of a people who said, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? By the waters of Babylon we laid down our harps, when we remembered Zion.”

The amazing gift of exile is that you discover a very unexpected answer to the lament of Psalm 137. Which is that you can sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, even as you have to make unthinkable adjustments. The rabbis had to ask, after the Temple was defiled and destroyed: We can no longer gather in the Temple and know that the presence of God is there. We can no longer be present by the thousands, all the clans and families of Israel together in worship. What is the minimum number, how few Jews do there have to be to be able to trust that God is present? They came up with the number called the minyan: ten. If just ten Jews could gather to pray, God would be there.

We are going to be living with small numbers for quite a while, because they emerge from the mathematics of viral transmission. Limits as low as ten, maybe fifty, maybe one hundred. The crazy thing is that these numbers, which are public health policy numbers, are also in our Jewish and Christian story.

Take the feeding of the five thousand, one of the big events of the gospels—five thousand men, plus women and children, says Mark. And Mark adds this detail, that Jesus had the disciples arrange them in groups of fifty and one hundred. Jesus actually doubles down on, you might say, or reduces the number of the minyan [an observation I owe to my friend Steve Froehlich]. The rabbis said ten, but Jesus says, “When two or three of you are gathered in my name, I will be present in the midst of them.”

Even at Pentecost, which we will celebrate in a few weeks, the birthday of the church, there’s only 120 people in the room—slightly over social distancing guidelines perhaps, but still a very small number.

Why? Why are small numbers such a big part of God’s story? I think it’s because of a sociological axiom: the only way to change culture is through an absolutely small group of people. Large groups can preserve culture, large groups can transmit culture, but if you want to change culture, you have to think small.

And so the question becomes, Why are we here? Are we here for cultural preservation? Preserving a way of life, preserving a certain standard of living? If so, we should be terrified at this moment.

Or are we here for cultural transformation? To bring a deep change in the world? If so, we should be energized, because we have everything that we need.

It wasn’t just Israel that experienced its worst case. All the nations that conquered Israel did as well. Empires are particularly susceptible to the three great scourges of humankind: famine, plague and war. Assyria fell to them. Babylon fell to them. And eventually Rome faced them. In the centuries after Augustus, the first centuries of the common era, Rome was beset by war, by plague, by famine.

And the paganism of Rome had no solution for these things, and had no plan for them. Rome was built on war; the only way they knew how to govern was war. When plague came, the pagan priests fled. And when famine came, Rome only fed its citizens. Eventually the grain shipments did not even suffice to feed their own citizens. Non-citizens were left to starve.

In the midst of that culture, the first Christians created an alternative. They did not participate in violence—they did not participate in the empire’s wars. When plagues came, they served and nursed the sick, often back to health. When famine came they fed anyone they could, all the hungry, whether you were a member of their community or not. They created a different culture in the midst of Rome’s worst case.

So these are the stakes for us. Yes, survival. Think about the survival of your own family, of your business, your ministry, your church. But the stakes are far deeper than that.

I do not know if this pandemic and its effects will turn out to be the worst-case scenario. But I do know that one day the worst-case scenario will come to pass, for this empire as it has for every other. And then the question will be, what culture were we creating? What had we created before that happened? What alternative did we have to offer?

If there is any gift in this year without a summer, it’s the chance to ask that question.