The year that God forgot

Christ Stopped at Eboli is one of my favourite books (and movies). It’s a memoir by Carlo Levi, a doctor and painter, of his time as an internal exile in fascist Italy. Eboli is a train station on a line south from Naples, which is the last place on the line Jesus could have visited, the locals said, because everywhere further on was cut off from hope.

Careers and businesses will be lost. Dreams smashed. It will be random, seemingly, and certainly unfair.

Further south, the peasants toiled in abject poverty, living lives of utter futility. Levi explained that his title came from a saying he heard throughout the region during his year of exile for being an anti-fascist.

“We’re not Christians,” they say. “Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.”

“Christian,” in their way of speaking, means “human being,” and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority. We’re not Christians, we’re not human beings; we’re not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden, or even less than beasts, mere creatures of the wild.”

Just like Levi’s peasants, cut off by misfortunes of geography and an uncaring nation, we are tested by the thought that we are cut off by a misfortune in timing.

In the railway line of history, did Christ stop at 2019? Is 2020 the year that God forgot?

Is the tribulation of a pandemic something that strips away our human dignity, like those toiling in the dusty unproductive fields of southern Italy?

Well, yes, at least in part. Possibly to a great extent. Many will die. People I know, may die alone. I may die – I am in a risky category. Careers and businesses will be lost. Dreams smashed. It will be random, seemingly, and certainly unfair.

And as I write those words I think of my parents’ generation.

Two world wars. The Great Depression. And yes the Spanish Flu. (I was adopted, and my parents were older than they otherwise might have been, so they lived through all that tribulation).

These were not years God forgot – whether you were living in a tent for years  in “happy valley” (the Depression-era camp), suffering in the trenches of World War I, the extermination camps of World War II, or your family was wiped out by the flu.

Perhaps in my parents’ time people were more aware that they lived in a time of periodic worldwide disaster. By contrast, in Australia at least, we have lived through a long boom, a time of continuous (though far from just) prosperity.

Christ Stopped at Eboli reminds me of two stories Jesus told, which – somewhat like Levi’s exile or our coronavirus self-exile – define a new normal.

The exiled Communist Carlo Levi is a reluctant Good Samaritan. He’s forbidden from practising medicine, and tries hard not to, but practises surreptitiously when confronted by emergencies. But in Jesus’ story, a passerby, the Good Samaritan, enters wholeheartedly into rescuing a man attacked by thieves while travelling on the Jerusalem to Jericho road. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Luke 10:31–32) Using that story is so ironic – we are all literally walking by on the other side of the road or, rather, 1.5 metres apart as we socially distance.

But this story remains Jesus’ powerful answer to “who is my neighbour?” A test the two religious leaders in the story fail. And, just as in Jesus story, those of us who claim to have a relationship with our Heavenly Father run the risk of falling short of the standards of care shown by those outside the kingdom.

Perhaps the sudden arrival of a “new normal”, of peril, of disaster, is what Jesus was speaking about when he gave us his word picture of two houses. “’Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock,’ said Jesus. ‘The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Christ has not left us. He made it past Eboli.

A storm has arrived. This storm,  may reveal to us whether we have built our lives on the rock of Jesus, or maybe added a few rooms that are built on sand.

When Levi left his peasants – summoned suddenly back north by a funeral – he broke a promise. “Buffeted here and there at random I have not been able to return to my peasants as I promised when I left them, and I do not know when, if ever, I can keep my promise,” he writes.

He never went back.

But Christ has not left us. He made it past Eboli. He made it past 2019 into 2020. He made it to the cross.

May we like the good Samaritan respond well to whatever the needs of other people are put in front of us as we go into exile. As we experience a new normal may we build our lives on Jesus’ sure foundation.

*Christ Stopped at Eboli was included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.