These are indeed fearful and anxious times. The Psalmist, as he faces diverse dangers, seems to mirror our sentiments at times such as this. Psalm 31 echoes many of the feelings and circumstances we are currently experiencing. The pandemic of the coronavirus has caused our world to hear, “terror on every side,” (Psalm 31:13). But the Psalmist places these feelings of dread between two sureties both at the opening and end of the psalm as he concludes saying, “I trust in you, Lord … My times are in your hands;”, because, “In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge”. If so, Christians who draw their values and beliefs from God’s given revelation should respond in a distinctive way. And in that context of trust are several roots that form the basis for why we should respond.
Our Biblical Roots
The instances of disasters in scripture, sometimes gives us an explanation of why they happened, and sometimes it does not. Jesus, on one occasion in Luke 13:1-5, uses a recent tragedy to set aside suppositions and redirect people’s attention to the real issue. In most cases, whatever the cause, a disaster was a wake-up call for the population.
The church’s concern for COVID-19 should also be rooted in its theological foundations. Biblically, every human being is made in the image of God, and thus is entitled to dignity and respect. This truth was established way ahead of the UN declaration of rights. This means that as the body of Christ and as fellow believers we have a responsibility and obligation to care for those in difficult circumstances. In as much as this foundation falls within our mandate of care, it also falls in line with the command of Jesus to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Our Historical Roots
Christians in ages past were no strangers to epidemics. It has been said that the way we respond to disasters (including epidemics) has to do with our values and views of life, death, and humanity. There were outbreaks of plague and serious devastation approximately every decade1.
In response to these outbreaks, Christians wrote many “flight theologies,” seeking to expound what steps a Christian could take with a clear conscience. Johann Hess asked Martin Luther the question, “Whether it is proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague?” An article2 that resurfaced recently in the light of COVID and church’s response to it was the response to this question. For Luther, our loving God though hidden, surely works for our good even in the places we do not expect, including amid the evil of deadly epidemics. The fear of bodily illness and death should drive us to pray and to care for our souls, remembering that this world is not our lasting home. Luther regarded the epidemic as a temptation that tests and proves our faith and love. Christians must think first how to contribute to the physical and spiritual care of those who are vulnerable, self-isolated, sick, or dying. Only then did Luther permit Christians to make private decisions about whether to flee. He quotes Psalm 41, ‘Blessed is he who considers the poor. The Lord will deliver him in the day of trouble’.
What does this mean for us and COVID-19? Our attitude toward COVID-19 should be marked not by panicking and stockpiling so many masks that there aren’t enough for healthcare workers, or so much pasta or grocery items that others can’t find any. Instead, we should be asking: How can we as a church and I as an individual help those in need?
Our Ecclesiastical Roots
By the fourth century, it is said that the churches in Rome were feeding an estimated 20,000 people each week. The church at that time presented to the world a visible alternative to the prevailing social order3. Churches are, of course, integral parts of their communities and are often on the front lines responding to disasters, both practically and pastorally. Experience from previous epidemics has shown that churches are particularly well-placed to build trust and hope, to counter fear, and to build community resilience as well as individual mental and spiritual resilience. Below are several comments of lessons learnt in the response of faith-based agencies and churches during the recent Ebola crisis in East Africa.
Dr. Janice Proud, Anglican Alliance Relief and Programme Manager, commenting on the Ebola outbreak report and the response of the churches, said: “Once faith leaders were involved, the report found that they were transformational due to their trusted, respected long-term presence in communities and their ability to contextualise the response to take into account local beliefs and traditions.”4 The World Council of Churches (WCC) consultation, held 29 September 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland, affirmed a greater role for the churches and faith-based organizations in helping to stop the epidemic. Dr. David Nabarro, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for COVID 19, said churches and faith-based organizations have a massive role to play in dealing with emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of people’s lives, engaging them on questions of life and death5.
Our Faith Roots
Disasters of this nature only highlight to us our fallibility and limitations. This pandemic has made us aware how vulnerable we are, it has altered what we thought was valuable in life. We realise the value of the very air we breathe as we spend thousands of Euro for one day on the ventilator.
Anxiety and stress are common factors of society today and, as believers, we are not an exception to experiencing such emotions. Fear becomes a constant companion. As a Church this presents another opportunity to minister hope and encouragement to His people. The words of scripture often echoed, “Do not fear, for I am with you,” are a strong affirmation of His presence as we face this crisis. Above all, the church is the community of hope. And hope comes from what we do and who we are.
As Christian leaders in uncertain times, our first response must be to love our neighbors. In this moment, this includes taking early, active measures to protect against the transmission of the coronavirus while being a source of peace, clarity, and hope in a time of confusion. It is time for us to understand and practice the fact the church is not the building but its people out there in society. In my local church we sent out a photograph of the empty church with the words, “The church has left the building.”
We are also called to lament at this time. Dr. Ajith Fernando in a reflection on Romans 8 writes, “…The whole creation is subjected to frustration (8:20). There is sickness, disappointment, pain, and death. That frustration includes us …who have a taste of what heaven is like here and now. But we groan (8:23) with the rest of creation (8:22). Through that groaning with the rest of creation, like Jesus, we develop deep ties with the world and have a deep impact on it6.”
There are also questions that many churches are asking around the current coronavirus pandemic.
- Is our Christian testimony damaged when we cancel our worship services and gatherings?
- Is the integrity of our gatherings compromised when we cancel them?
- Is it a reflection of our lack of faith when we cancel?
- Is it a lack of our commitment when we fail to gather and avoid gatherings?
A few guidelines were suggested by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka regarding these concerns:
- God is concerned with humanity’s holistic wellbeing (Leviticus 17-26). These reveal that the physical, social, economic and religious are closely intertwined and that hygienic laws have spiritual bearings and social laws have spiritual impact.
- Christians need to consider the wider community in decision making. (1 Corinthians 6:12). Acting upon our individual preferences may cause us to fail to act in love (Romans 14:15).
- Zeal and knowledge must go hand in hand (Proverbs 19:2). One cannot make decisions using ‘faith’ as the sole criteria in the face of overwhelming other information. Facts are God’s signposts in making faith-based decisions. The two, faith and facts are not contradictory but complimentary.
- We must maintain the balance between divine order and human responsibility.
Our Mission Roots
Times of disaster as we have seen right from Biblical times were a means for the church to engage in mission. A mission of compassion and demonstration of the love of Christ. We also see in the book of Acts that with every crisis the early church grew, every crisis that scattered and sent the church underground caused its growth. We also see an example of compassionate ministry in looking after the widows as well as the famine aid collection for Jerusalem. As mentioned earlier, the two epidemics in the second and third centuries that overtook the Roman empire were the reason for the growth of the Church7. It is said the church grew from an estimated 45,000 believers at the time of the epidemic to over 1.1 million believers by the time the second epidemic struck in 251 A.D.
As we consider the Coronavirus pandemic let us realise that while it is virulent and pervasive, causing almost the entire world to come to a grinding halt, God is still at work. Whatever the reasons and causes for this in His sovereignty, the Lord has not been caught unaware. He is not in a panic or a fright. Just as scripture promises us, He is able to make a way in the desert and God turns everything we experience into good (Romans 8:28), making us more than conquerors in all things (Romans 8:37). Therefore, this is an opportunity for us as the church to survive and serve in this crisis. This is a time when we are reminded more than ever how much we need each other; To be a channel of blessing to the nations; To minister His word to troubled and anxious population. Let us pray for one another as we together seek to be light and hope in this hurting and fearful world. We are called for such a time as this … for together we are stronger.
3“The Church her Nature and Task”, The Universal church in God’s Design,Vol I, SCM Press,1948. quotes from Georges. FLOROVSKY, Antinomies of Christian History : Empire and Desert,” Christianity and Culture. Vol. II of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Nordland Publishing Company: Belmont 1974, 67-100.