Today in church we discussed the coronavirus crisis from a Christian perspective. 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 some basic things from a Christian's perspective to practice during this time:
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 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.
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.
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.
A well-functioning economy is crucial for human flourishing. You only need to look at waiters standing in empty restaurants 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, but perhaps this is a good time to reflect self-critically on those expectations. It’s worth reminding ourselves how localised geographically and novel historically our modern expectations are.
The job of every disciple, whether in a pandemic or not, is to reach the hurting and lost.
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)