One of the persistent comments I’ve read and heard in the midst of this pandemic is ‘nobody saw this coming’. At this point I always have to decide whether opinionated Jenn shows up or pastoral Jenn. Why? Because the fact is that some people did see this coming. Bill Gates in 2015; epidemiologist Larry Brilliant in 2006; even my medically trained husband had mused about it over the dinner table. They even warned us. Disease + high volumes of global travel=pandemic waiting to happen. From 2014-2018 the U.S. government even had a task force to prepare for it. Sure, maybe we didn’t have an exact date, but we knew it was coming. For those of us in North America with any news connection (‘Hey Google, Good Morning’) we even had a couple of months to brace for it as we watched it begin in China and slowly make its way towards us. This was no stealth missile in the middle of the night. The story that we didn’t see it coming may be more comforting than admitting we chose not to prepare, but it is a story that has no grounding in fact. While I don’t believe a media fueled game of finger pointing is particularly useful, facing the truth in order to do better next time would save countless lives.
Inviting people to change their story in order to embrace the facts was the life work of Dr. Hans Rosling. As a physician and an educator he became fascinated with the erroneous story of the world his students, and as it turned out most adults, held. The mythical story was that the world was divided into two parts: the first world and the third world; the developed world and the developing world; the west and the rest. Whatever terminology was applied, the assumptions were similar. A smallish part of the world is wealthy, healthy, educated and stable a much larger part of the world is poor, diseased, uneducated and volatile. The myth is that there is a significant gap between these two worlds which is quantifiable. The trouble, as Dr. Rosling energetically liked to point out, is that this picture is 30-60 years out of date and hasn’t even been true for the majority of his audience’s lifetimes: there is no gap. While the world does have some who are very poor and less who are very rich, the majority of people live between those two extremes and that in general more people are doing well. Rosling isn’t the only one who is exposing the widely believed ‘doom and gloom’ story. Andrew McAfee is a principle research scientist and the co-director of the MIT initiative on the digital economy. In his book More From Less: The Surprising Story of How we Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and what Happens Next, McAfee traces how innovation has contributed to this improving reality. He also highlights the trend towards dematerialization. The shift towards higher efficiency production and a consolidation of gadgets (such as the smart phone) suggests that the free market and technology are successfully reducing humanity’s overall demand on natural resources. If governments act responsibly, he ventures that the fatalistic part of the story of the world that we are telling about the planet is wrong as well. While he affirms that their continues to be existential problems to address, he points out that we are on the right track and simply need to move ahead letting the free market lift up the eco-friendly technologies.
Telling a story about the world that is both current and shaped by fact is imperative if the church has any hope of loving the world and participating responsibly in the work that remains in order to elevate those who remain in extreme poverty. Much as a parent who infantilizes their adult children fails to love them appropriately, so too is this the case when one country offers ‘aid’ to another country without taking the time to listen to what the actual needs of the people are. Does the adult child need their things tidied when he or she comes to visit? No. Does the village that is growing in economic stability through local small businesses need our used donations shipped across the ocean? Usually not. In fact not only can this harm the local economy, but it also fails to recognize local cultural values and elevates the material over the communal or spiritual.
There is research based work being done to identify what is actually useful in improving the state of the world. In many cases there is simply a need to continue what is already being done. In Lomborg’s book How to Spend 75 Billion Dollars to Improve the World, he shares the results of the Copenhagen Consensus approach where 16 world improving investments were identified and ranked. Economist Paul Collier suggests that the key to empowering the ‘bottom billion’ is stable democracies with strong checks and balances. Too often nations gain a democratic election without accountability.  This is certainly different work than churches are often promoting in their missions updates. Collier implores that “we need to get past gestures through an informed citizenry.” It is true of our governments and it is true of our churches. If we truly want to love our neighbours and not just feel like we are loving our neighbours than we need to do the work of telling an accurate story about the state of the world. The other bonus is that we might just see that God has answered a lot more prayer over the centuries than we have been giving Him credit for—and that is the most hopeful version of the story that I can think of.
 Sinéad Baker, “Here’s What Bill Gates Once Said We Needed Do to Prevent a Crisis like the Coronavirus, and What We Need to Do to Stop the next Pandemic,” Business Insider (Business Insider, March 19, 2020), https://www.businessinsider.com/bill-gates-coronavirus-how-to-prevent-another-pademic-ted-talk-2020-3)
 Steven Levy, “The Doctor Who Helped Defeat Smallpox Explains What’s Coming,” Wired (Conde Nast, March 19, 2020), https://www.wired.com/story/coronavirus-interview-larry-brilliant-smallpox-epidemiologist/)
 Lena Sun, “Top White House Official in Charge of Pandemic Response Exits Abruptly,” The Washington Post (WP Company, May 10, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/05/10/top-white-house-official-in-charge-of-pandemic-response-exits-abruptly/)