A theologian reflects on how to respond Christian-ly to the pandemic
Last Sunday in church we received a communication about Coronavirus from HQ. It was perfectly commonsensical and useful: consider how to greet one another, especially those on welcome duty (probably not shaking hands). Wash hands and generally be sensible in trying to limit potential for spreading the coronavirus as you meet in community.
This is all fine and good to have the issue acknowledged and basic guidelines set out.
But it did strike me as a bit odd that the advice from a church is basically identical to that of the Health Service Executive (HSE, Ireland) / National Health Service (NHS, UK).
What might be some distinctively Christian things to say at a time of confirmed pandemic? What theological issues are being raised by potential quarantining of whole countries, wall-to-wall media coverage; limitations to travel; economic crisis; pressure on health services; and heightened vulnerability among the aged and ill?
What to make of wildly divergent estimates of potential numbers of deaths? In Germany Angela Merkel said possibly 58 million people in Germany could get it (70% of the population), while an expert virologist said, based on China, it would be more like 40,000. So, give a death rate of say 2.5% of those who get it and that is a rather large margin of error of between 1000 and 145,000 deaths!
In Ireland you have health minister Simon Harris say that he takes seriously the possibility that the country with a population of 4.8 million could have up to 120,000 deaths. If the death rate is 2.5% that means everybody would have get the virus (he is obviously working with a worst case scenario much higher death rate).
The maths isn’t the issue and I am not qualified to dispute the figures one way or another. The issue is the massive fear and uncertainty of just how bad things are going to get.
These are just initial sketches written on the train home from work, please feel welcome to add your own suggestions for relevant theological themes.
1. Love your neighbour
From Christianity’s earliest days, it was known as a movement of compassion and care for those in need. Such teaching is embedded in the gospels and in John, James and Paul. Their teaching is in turn rooted in the Jewish scriptures which speak of God’s impartial love for the widow, alien and stranger. Christianity lay behind the development of hospitals and the idea that all people, made in the image of God, are worth caring for.
Such love is costly and other-focused. It is impartial – given to those in need rather than making judgements about who is worth loving. The twist in the tale of Jesus’ story of neighbour-love in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that loving your neighbour means practically caring for your enemy.
As the pandemic spreads, love means considering others before yourself. It sure isn’t panic buying in supermarkets. Obviously self-care is part of this – you don’t want to catch Covid-19 and pass it on. But the pandemic calls Christians to consider how they can prioritise helping the weak, the isolated, the elderly who may not have the resources and physical ability to look after themselves.
2. Do on to others as you would have them do unto you
The ‘golden rule’ should govern all Christian behaviour all the time. As Bob Dylan puts it in ‘Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) in Slow Train Coming
Don’t wanna judge nobody, don’t wanna be judged Don’t wanna touch nobody, don’t wanna be touched Don’t wanna hurt nobody , don’t wanna be hurt Don’t wanna treat nobody like they was dirt.
But if you do right to me baby I’ll do right to you too Ya got to do unto others Like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you.
As much as possible we are to be responsible for not unnecessarily risking the health of others. Especially if in good health and/or young, we may think there is massive hype after what is probably something like a dose of flu. But Jesus’ teaching calls us to put ourselves in other’s shoes – and those include the slippers of the elderly and those with underlying health issues, especially respiratory.
3. Hope not fear
There’s a lot of fear about. Not only for our health but also economic – and that means jobs and all they represent. There is proper and responsible caution about trying to contain the virus. Already today we are told no indoor gatherings of over 100 people which will stop a lot of churches meeting. And this may be necessary.
But when does concern for health and safety turn into unfounded fear? Fear that becomes corrosive and destructive? Fear than becomes overly self-protective? Fear is not a Christian characteristic. Crisis should reveal Christian virtues of faith, love and hope, not anxiety, selfishness and despair.
4. Pandemic as ‘a school for exercise and probation’ of faith
Eusebuis’ Ecclesiastical History tells of how the early church was known for its sacrificial care for the sick in times of war, famine and plague. This is a description of events in Alexandria as recorded by Dionysius (Eccl Hist XXII)
For the very heart of the city is more desolate and impassable than that vast and trackless desert which the Israelites traversed in two generations … men wonder, and are at a loss to know whence come the constant plagues; whence these malignant diseases; whence those variegated infections; whence all that various and immense destruction of human lives…
… But now all things are filled with tears, all are mourning, and by reason of the multitudes already dead, and still dying, groans are daily resounding throughout the city…
[This pestilence was} a calamity more dreadful to them [the pagans] than any dread, and more afflictive that any affliction, and which as one of their own historians has said, was of itself alone beyond all hope. To us, however, it did not wear this character, but no less than other events it was a school for exercise and probation.
“Indeed, the most of our brethren, by their exceeding great love and brotherly affection, not sparing themselves, and adhering to one another, were constantly superintending the sick, ministering to their wants without fear and without cessation, and healing them in Christ, have departed most sweetly with them.”
Many also, who had healed and strengthened others, themselves died, transferring their death upon themselves … So that this very form of death, with the piety and ardent faith which attended it, appeared to be but little inferior to martyrdom itself.
Among the heathen it was the direct reverse. They both repelled those who began to be sick, and avoided their dearest friends. They would cast them out into the roads half dead, or throw them when dead without burial, shunning any communication and participation in death, which it was impossible to avoid by every precaution and care.”
Compared to this the Coronavirus is pretty mild stuff! The Pope’s call to priests to visit the sick is an echo of such courageous love. Putting others first at risk to yourself is profoundly Christian. It is not every man and woman for themselves, but how as communities of disciples we can look after those in need. Of course the Pope’s call is problematic as to how it would work without risk of infecting the healthy. But its instinct is absolutely right.
Behind such action is a belief that death does not have the last word. Christians believe death has been overcome already in the death and resurrection of their Lord. It has lost its sting and power.
5. The illusion of control
In this excellent article (tks SS) the author, wandering empty streets in Venice, reflects on mortality. Is a subtext of panic in the West about loss of control?
If we can only cling to these totems, if we can only wear these items, if we can only take these precautions, we will be safe — not just from death but from the consciousness of its possibility. We will be, once more, comfortably sterilized; we will exist, once more, in a world in which our bodies are under our control.
The virus has confronted us Westerners – cocooned in our technology, medicine, knowledge and freedom – with our own mortality. My daughter says sometimes that human civilisation is only a couple of short steps away from anarchy and chaos and I think she’s right. We are being reminded that we are not in control – however much we like to think we are masters of events, our lives and even our bodies.
As Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, in the West we like to think we have the medical technology to get out of life alive.
The trouble is life has a 100% death rate.
6. Grace not blame
The illusion of control is closely linked to the blame game. There has to be someone to blame for things going wrong. And so you have xenophobia, racism and verbal and physical attacks on individuals or communities associated with ‘causing’ the virus and threatening ‘our’ way of life. Rather than solidarity, sympathy and help and “there but for the grace of God go I”, there is judgment, fear and hate.
I don’t need to say more here – Christians are called to the former, not the latter.
I liked Ian Paul’s comment that when washing your hands, don’t sing Happy Birthday twice, pray the Lord’s Prayer. [SMcK: or the Jesus Creed]
Prayer is bringing our concerns and fears to God in faith and trust. It is asking his blessing on others. It brings us consciously into his presence and re-orientates us to think, talk and act in light of the truth that God is God and we are not.
There has been plenty said on this blog over the years about the destructive myths of hyper-capitalism and the toxic effects of the love of money. But of course a well-functioning economy is crucial for human flourishing. You only need to look at waiters standing in empty squares in Rome to see that the days ahead hold much uncertainty for millions of people in regard to possible recession, closures and loss of jobs.
There are pastoral and practical responses here for churches to help those effected. There is prayer for those in our church communities in management of businesses and organisations to make wise decisions. There is debate and lobbying of government to use its unique authority and power to help individuals unable to work and businesses to survive.
9. Gaining a sense of perspective
There is a deep modernist narrative to life in the West: expectations of endless growth, freedom, happiness, travel, insurance against risk, comfort, health, low infant mortality and long-life. The pandemic poses a moderate and probably temporary challenge to that narrative. Perhaps in a year it will be all but forgotten.
If we lived in sub-Saharan Africa we would be used to death and the fragility of life. See this graphic of malaria, a preventable disease. Annual deaths are 438,000. There are 214 million new cases each year (thks SS).
The job of every disciple, whether in a pandemic or not, is this
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15a)