I have yielded to the latest scheme of publishers: books recorded on cassette tape. Now, some of my best “reading” time occurs as I jog, outfitted with Walkman and headphones, along Chicago’s lakefront.

This past winter the city’s dingy streets and rat-gray skies formed a perfect backdrop for one book I listened to: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. In meticulous, matter-of-fact prose he described the bubonic plague that afflicted London in 1665.

Defoe wandered the streets of a ghost city. Over 200,000 people had fled London. Those who remained barricaded themselves indoors, terrified of human contact. Tradesmen starved to death for want of work. On main thoroughfares, where before there had been steady streams of traffic, grass grew.

“Sorrow and sadness sat upon every face,” said Defoe. At the peak of the plague, 1,500 to 1,700 people died each day, their bodies collected on carts nightly for burial in huge, open pits. Defoe witnessed gruesome scenes: dead children locked in the permanent grip of their parents’ rigor mortis, living babies sucking in vain at the breasts of just-dead mothers.

As I listened, Defoe’s account took on particular poignancy in view of a modern-day plague that is much in the news. My wife and I live in a neighborhood populated by many gays, and I could not avoid reflecting on the parallels between Defoe’s time and ours as I would jog past a clinic for AIDS patients and dodge lampposts plastered with “AIDS Benefit” posters. In comparison to the Great Plague, the AIDS epidemic has afflicted very small numbers, but it has stirred up a remarkably similar response of hysteria.

In Defoe’s day, it seemed as if God’s judgment was being poured out on the entire planet. Two bright comets appeared in the sky each night—sure signs, said some, of God’s hand behind the plague. Wild-eyed prophets roamed the streets. One cried out, like Jonah to Nineveh, “Yet forty days and London shall be destroyed.” Another walked around naked, balancing a pan of burning charcoal on his head to symbolize God’s wrath.

We have our prophets today as well. Most are well-clothed, however, and they narrow the focal point of God’s judgment down to one particular group: homosexuals, who are disproportionately represented among AIDS sufferers. In some circles I can almost detect a sigh of relief, a satisfaction that at last “they are getting what they deserve.”

The AIDS crisis taps into a mysterious yearning among human beings, a deep-rooted desire that suffering ought to be tied to behavior. A book in my library, Theories of Illness, surveys 139 tribal groups scattered around the world. Of them, 135 hold that illness comes about because of God’s (or the gods’) disapproval.

Virtually alone among all civilizations in history, our modern, secular one questions whether God plays a direct role in such human events as plagues and natural catastrophes. (Even we have our doubts: insurance policies specify certain “acts of God.”) We are confused. Did God single out a town on the slope of a Colombian volcano for judgment? Did he withhold rains from Africa as a sign of his displeasure? No one knows for sure.

But AIDS—ah, there’s a different story. The likelihood of AIDS transmission increases among those who engage in promiscuous sex. For some Christians, AIDS seems to satisfy at last the longing for a clear tie between behavior and suffering as punishment. In a general sense, the tie to promiscuity is clear, in the same way that smoking increases risk of cancer, obesity increases risk of heart disease, and heterosexual promiscuity increases risk of venereal disease. The natural consequences of such behavior include, in many cases, physical suffering. But did God send AIDS as a specific, targeted punishment?

Other Christians are not so sure. They see a grave danger in playing God, or even interpreting history on his behalf. We can too easily come across as cranky or smug, not prophetic. “Vengeance is mine,” God said, and whenever we mortals try to appropriate his vengeance, we tread on dangerous ground. Among the gays in my neighborhood, Christians’ statements about the AIDS crisis have done little to encourage repentance. Judgment without love makes enemies, not converts.

Even the apparent cause-and-effect tie to behavior in AIDS raises troubling questions. What of victims who are not gay, such as a baby born to a mother infected through blood transfusion? Are they tokens of God’s judgment? And if a cure is suddenly found—will that signify an end to God’s punishment? Theologians in Europe expostulated for four centuries about God’s message in the Great Plague; but it only took a little rat poison to silence all those anguished questions.

Reflecting on these two plagues, the scourge of the buboes that killed off one-third of all humanity and the scourge of AIDS that summons up the hysteria of the Middle Ages, I find myself turning to an incident from Jesus’ life recorded in Luke 13:1–5. Some local folk asked him about a contemporary tragedy. Here is his response:

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“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (NIV).

Then Jesus tells a parable about God’s restraining mercy. He implies that we “bystanders” of catastrophe have as much to learn from the event as the victims. What should a plague teach us? Humility, and gratitude that God has so far withheld the judgment all of us deserve. And compassion, the compassion that Jesus displayed for all who mourn and suffer. Finally, catastrophe joins together victim and bystander in a common call to repentance, by reminding us of the brevity of life. It warns us to make ourselves ready in case we are the next victim of a falling tower—or an AIDS virus.

I have yet to find any support in the Bible for an attitude of smugness: Ah, they deserve their punishment; watch them squirm. Indeed, the message of a plague seems directed to survivors as much as to victims. In other words, AIDS has as much meaning for those of us jogging past the clinics as for those suffering inside.

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