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A Christian Response and Witness in the time of COVID-19
By Annette Brownlee
Mar 18, 2020
On Friday, March 13, 2020—just before the University sent out its directive moving all classes online—several students said to me over the course of the day, “I’ve never been through something like this.” The current global pandemic is unprecedented in the experience of almost everyone living. There have been, to date, greater death tolls (the 1918 flu pandemic killed 50 million worldwide, the 2009 swine flu pandemic killed 150,000 to 575,400 worldwide). There has been greater national and international devastation (WWI and WWII). But the COVID-19 pandemic has its own distinctive character: states of emergency, nation-wide lock downs, travel bans, the closure of most public institutions, and dire economic repercussions due to this devastating virus.
How do we shape a Christian response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
- First, we follow all directives of public health officials, the University or other places of employment, and follow the advice of medical experts. This includes suspending the primary Christian practice of gathering to worship the Lord. It is our Christian duty to take responsibility for ourselves and those we live with, so that we do not inadvertently spread the virus and tax already overwhelmed health care systems.
- We pray for all medical personnel daily and repeatedly. They are risking their own health to care for others. They are already exhausted; and they carry the burden of having to make difficult decisions about the allocation of scarce resources, such as ventilators and in some places, oxygen.
- We do not hoard. In the face of our own fears and personal anxieties we act responsibly and turn outward in prayer and concern for others more affected than we.
Many in previous generations took for granted—in ways that are unthinkable to us—that life was not predictable, that disease, the inability to travel, death at an early age or in infancy—were a part of life. No so anymore. Ephraim Radner in his blog about COVID-19, “The Time of The Virus” (https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/the-time-of-the-virus) makes the observation that previous Books of Common Prayer contained prayers for times of plague. No more. Most in the minority world would be quite uncomfortable praying, as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer put it, that God might “have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality.” This prayer turns to Scripture as the lens through which to make sense of God’s agency in their (1662) own time: Moses, Aaron, the Israelites in the desert, and David with his imprudent census and the resulting pestilence. What about us? Is COVID-19 God’s will? God’s hand? We are ill-equipped to reflect theologically on God’s agency in a time like this. The Church raised the white flag years ago, surrendering its distinctively Christian voice in the public square. We imposed our own kind of self-quarantine: limiting our sermons, prayers, and teaching to the realm of the personal.
Scripture: a compass for our times
COVID-19 calls us to learn again from our forbearers, who looked to Scripture’s descriptions of God’s agency in times of disaster as a compass for their own times. One obvious place to turn is to the story of the plagues visited upon Pharaoh and Egypt at the time of the Hebrews’ deliverance from slavery. Can this story help us to see how God cares for the world during our own difficult time? Ellen Davis, in Opening Israel’s Scriptures (pp. 44-48) notes a key difference between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses recognizes God in extraordinary events. Pharaoh does not. When God shows up in the burning bush Moses recognizes something bigger than himself and listens to and heeds God’s voice. Pharaoh refuses to recognize any power larger than himself. He tells Moses, “Who is the LORD that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.” (NRSV, Exodus 5:1-2). The ten plagues which follow (Exodus 7:14-12:26) cause economic, natural and personal hardship and devastation. They are an opportunity for both the King of Egypt and for the Hebrew people to recognize God’s sovereignty over creation and their own lives. God tells Pharaoh as much just before the seventh plague. God says to Pharaoh, “For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. 16 But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth” (Exodus 9:15-16).
Reflecting theologically with great care
It is with great care that we look at the COVID-19 pandemic in light of God’s actions. Any quick or simplistic theological reflection fails to do justice to the complexity of the Scriptural witness to God’s character. God describes the purpose of the ten plagues clearly: they are not punishment. They are an invitation to know God: “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them” (Exodus 9:15-16). A catastrophe is no time for the Church to begin straining its unused vocal cords in the public square. The Church’s response then, must be through the witness of our actions. Actions born of our recognition of our participation in God’s care of the world through our participation in Christ’s ministry. The ethicist, Philp Turner, in Christian Ethics and the Church Ecclesial Foundations for Moral Thought and Practice observes that at this time of a diminished public voice the Church’s greatest contribution to society is its people. “The exemplary power of lives well lived, is perhaps a key way the church models the truth of the life and death of Jesus Christ in the west today” (205).
How then in this time of COVID-19 do we witness to the truth of the life and death of Jesus Christ in the West today? The civil mandate to go home and stay home is a kind of imposed civil sabbath: no shopping, no running around, no going out to eat, to movies. No making plans for the future or worrying about money. It is meant to be a time of rest not only for God’s creatures but for the land. (Already air pollution is down in many parts of the world). A time for God’s distracted and self-absorbed creatures to remember that we are first and foremost recipients—and not the creators—of all that is good in our lives: the land, rain and sun, family, friends, work, and most of all God’s grace and provision. We receive this imposed civil sabbath as such, letting go of the illusion that we can control our lives and futures. In the middle of our anxieties we do pray, sing, and give thanks.
But we know that in this imposed civil sabbath there are many who have no homes to go to. Or have homes that are safe. Some cannot get home because of travel bans. Wycliffe College has a residence for 80 graduate students, many of whom are international students. Fifty of the 80 cannot go home. Wycliffe is caring for them.
We know that this imposed civil sabbath is devastating for those who are hourly wage earners, who run Mom and Pop stores, who run home-based day care centres, who live off of tips received in restaurants and bars. Starbucks and Loblaws will survive. What about the others?
Sufficiency for all
God’s provision of manna in the wilderness for the anxious Israelites included provision for food on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:1-36). God’s provision (bread for all seven days of the week) is characterized by its sufficiency—and no more—for all. “Those who gathered much [manna] had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed” (Exodus 16:18).
Here is the witness we can make. As we pray, sing, and rejoice, we also participate in God’s promised provision by working to provide for those who suffer: either financially from the pandemic or emotionally from the social isolation and dislocation. We witness through the most obvious of ways: we continue to contribute to our congregations even if we cannot gather together weekly. While maintaining safety, we provide meals, phone and Skype calls (not only texts), babysitting (if it is safe to do so), and money sent by cheque or electronic transfer to those in need. Buy gift cards at local small businesses. Save them to use at another time (or to give to an hourly employee) but get money in the owner’s hands now. Find real and creative ways of helping those who are suffering financially because of the pandemic. Crowd funding, foregoing rent if you are a landlord, simply giving money to those who need it.
A consistent, sacrificial witness over the long haul
To participate in God’s provision of the world at this time, the Church needs to prepare to provide a consistent, sacrificial witness over the long haul. This is the easy part. In an interview on the Friday, March 13, 2020 edition of PBS News Hour, New York Times columnist David Brooks reflected on the effect of the 1918 flu pandemic on the West. (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/shields-and-brooks-on-leadership-in-a-time-of-crisis). His reflections are a warning to us of the cost of the Christian witness we might be called to make.
Brooks wondered why the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 675,000 Americans and 30,000 to 50,000 Canadians had no lasting impact on the culture. He spent a week reading about it. What he learned is not good news. At the beginning of the 1918 pandemic people stepped up: they volunteered, and sacrificed themselves for the greater good—just as the West is doing now through social distancing and self-imposed isolation.
But Brooks concluded that pandemics are not good for social trust. In 1918 as fear increased people stopped caring for others, they stopped volunteering and sacrificing for others. The massive pandemic left no trace on the national culture.” Why? “People were ashamed of how they behaved,” said Brooks, “because they looked after themselves. And that's understandable. Fear is just this terrible thing. And we haven't really been hit by the raw, gut-wrenching fear of seeing hospitals overwhelmed … but we will.”
We pray that things will not get as dire as many foresee, that lives will be spared, and the shutdown of society will level the spread of the virus so the medical system is not overwhelmed to the point of breaking. But whatever the next few months bring we are called to take our place as witnesses to God’s provision through our provision for those most harmed by the virus. To do so is to recognize God at work in this plague.
We do not let fear have the final word.
With the Psalmist we say:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 He shall say to the Lord,
“You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust.”
5 You shall not be afraid of any terror by night, *
nor of the arrow that flies by day;
6 Of the plague that stalks in the darkness, *
nor of the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.
9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge, *
and the Most High your habitation.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, *
and show him my salvation. (Ps. 91:1,2,5,6,9)
Refusing to let fear turn us inward, away from our suffering neighbor: this is our witness.
Annette Brownlee is Chaplain, Professor of Pastoral Theology and Director of Field Education at Wycliffe College.