Thoughts on the Vaccine, Gratitude and Ingratitude

[This post also appears on the Jesus Creed blog at Christianity Today]

2021 looks like a pretty dark year ahead Pandemic wise. It sure is beginning that way.

Just for the record….  In Ireland record levels of new cases of Covid-19 continue to rise. Only people with symptoms are being tested, not close contacts due to limitations in testing capacity. Testing centres are working expanded hours at full capacity. ICUs expect the peak in the next few weeks to be higher than back in March/April 2020. The new variant may increase the surge and perhaps the current Level 5 lockdown will not be enough to stop cases rising.

The vaccines are coming, but it is going to be a long road back to anything like ‘normal’ – and I suspect a longer road than we’re hoping.

And if you live in Northern Ireland, most of Britain, Europe or the USA, it is worse still.

So what’s the point in recapping this tale of woe that we are all too familiar with? Well, I want to think a little about gratitude.

GRATITUDE

‘Thankfulness’ or ‘appreciation’ are probably the closest words to gratitude.

I’m not thinking about ‘counting our blessings’ – although that can be a very good thing to do.

Nor I am thinking of all the ‘good’ spin-offs from the Pandemic – like time with family, time to read, enjoy nature, learn a new skill and the like. Seems to me those spin-offs are mostly for the privileged who have kept jobs, have financial security and have a nice home & garden and such like and haven’t been too effected at all, except having holiday plans disrupted and having to work from home.

I’m thinking of a more specific sort of gratitude – gratitude for science.

Now science is a pretty broad term. To be specific I mean by it the discipline of scientific enquiry that has the knowledge, self-critical rigour, professionalism, expertise and sheer determination and hard work to research, devise, create, test, mass produce and distribute a vaccine in a matter of months.

I am only dimly aware of what that has meant in practice. I’m also aware that there big questions within science about the desperate rush to vaccination – dubious claims, wasted money, duplication of research and entire areas of science being ‘Covidised’.

So this isn’t a naive paean to saintly scientists. But from hearing and reading the stories, ‘science’ here means real people working 90 hour weeks for months to do something unprecedented in the history of medical research. And that work has global beneficial implications.

It’s a story that I hope will be told and celebrated because it makes a post-Pandemic world imaginable.

I’m also grateful for the doctors, nurses and volunteers working hard to get that vaccine out to the general population. I’m grateful for the institutional and political structures that makes all of this possible.

But that remarkable achievement has got pretty lost in all the in-fighting, arguments, politics and differences of opinion about the right strategy for the roll-out of the vaccines.

We hear about little else except administrative failures in get started early enough (eg The Netherlands), decisions to delay the second jab so as to give more people the first jab (UK), the failure to vaccinate health-care workers fast enough, arguments over who should be eligible for vaccination, scepticism over the efficacy of vaccines, anger at the anti-vaxxers, the failure of capacity to deliver vaccines to the right places, suspicion over deals done by governments with the drug companies  … and very legitimate concerns about the inequality of access to the vaccine between rich and poor countries globally.

In all the noise, there is precious little gratitude about.

Which leads me to ingratitude.

INGRATITUDE

The Pandemic has only highlighted the fact that ingratitude is an intrinsic characteristic of modern life in the West.

In the secular disenchantment of the West, all we have left is ourselves. And when life goes wrong there has to be someone to blame. And there is a lot of blame about.

Since this is a theology blog, let’s think about ingratitude as a spiritual issue. Why? Well because it goes to the heart of character and virtue.

And I’ll go as far to say that ingratitude is antithetical to Christian faith.

  • Ingratitude flows from a sense of entitlement – I have a right to what I am due.
  • Ingratitude is a symptom of judgmentalism – I am not getting good enough service. Others don’t live up to my standards.
  • Ingratitude is a form of selfishness – I am obsessed about my own rights, my own needs, my own opinions to a degree that I don’t appreciate or even see the work and good intentions of others.
  • Ingratitude is a close cousin of cynicism – I choose to focus on and complain about ‘the bad’: the perceived failures of others.

Entitlement, judgmentalism, selfishness and cynicism aren’t a very attractive quartet of anti-virtues are they?

I don’t know about you but I confess that I can all too easily lapse into a ‘glass half-empty’ pessimism that sees only what is wrong and not what is right and good. So I need regular reminders to practice the virtue of gratitude!

THE PRACTICE OF GRATITUDE

Gratitude affirms that there is goodness in the world and actively appreciates its presence.

Gratitude is hopeful. It sees evidence that the world can be a better place.

Gratitude is thankful: it recognises that I am a recipient of undeserved benefits and goods. Being loved by others is the greatest gift of all.

Gratitude is other-orientated: it recognises others and the good they do. It affirms and encourages others. It deepens relationship.

Gratitude fosters community and acknowledges that ‘I’ only flourish in relationship with others (which brings us back to the vaccine as a fantastic corporate scientific enterprise that benefits all of us)

This is why gratitude is a profoundly Christian virtue.

For, fundamentally, a Christian is simply someone who has received an undeserved gift.

Every Christian – regardless of money, intelligence, possessions, achievements, social standing, gender, or skin colour – are recipients of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And that grace leads to being adopted, forgiven, restored, empowered, and reconciled to God and to one another to be people of hope in the world.

That’s a lot to be thankful for.

So for 2021, why not set about practicing the virtue of gratitude?

– Look for good in the world and in others

– Focus on reasons for hope

– List things to be thankful for

– Encourage others, say thanks

– Appreciate that your life only flourishes in relationship with others

Advent Reflection: Jesus versus Covid-19

Romans 5:15-17

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

‘The gift is not like the trespass’ is a profoundly important phrase within Paul’s comparison of Jesus and Adam in Romans 5.

We see what Adam and Jesus share in common: both are men (vs 15); both are representatives of humanity.

It is from an emphasis on shared humanity that Paul develops an argument ‘from the lesser to the greater’. Both are human, but Jesus is a far superior human figure to that of Adam.

Adam’s trespass results in sin, death, judgment and condemnation.

God’s gift in Jesus Christ brings justification, grace, righteousness and life.

In other words, what Adam did, Jesus un-does to excess. Jesus confronts and overcomes the destructive effects of Adam’s sin due to the surpassing provision of God’s grace.

This is why that little phrase – ‘the gift is not like the trespass’ – is actually a wonderful way of describing the limitless, self-giving love of God in Jesus Christ.

So, as we celebrate Christmas 2020, we are reminded of the astonishing fact of the incarnation. Jesus is a truly human saviour. There is an indissolvable bond between Christ and humanity – he is one of us.

The Nicene Creed (381AD) puts it this way:

“Who for us and our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.’

But these verses remind us that Jesus is in crucial respects, a human unlike any other.

All of humanity is ‘in Adam’ – we are under the reign of death (vs 17). Death is a ‘dark lord’ of destruction from whom we have no ability to escape.

This Christmas 2020 death crowds in on us, compounding memories of absent loved ones. Daily coronavirus fatalities flash across our news screens. Death, usually kept in the background in rich Western nations, has rudely taken centre stage.

BBC News – candles lit in Bern for those who have died of Covid-19

Images of death colonise our imaginations. Who could have imagined at the beginning of this year that the success or failure of governments globally now revolves around the management of death?

We grasp on to hopes of a vaccine, literally as a life-saver. We long for life to go back to the way it was – with death pushed back into the shadows – for as long as possible.

And this is right and good. Life is a gift to be lived well. We are made to live in relationship, not locked up staring at screens.

But vaccine or not, the rule of death unleashed by Adam still reigns.

And so the gospel is powerful good news.

But through the ‘one man, Jesus Christ’ (vs 17), all in him are freed from the reign of death and are ushered into a new realm – the reign of life.

God is a God of life, not death. His agenda for humanity is freedom from death. The Spirit is the life-giver. Jesus is the human Lord of life who has been raised from the dead.

This is why Christians celebrate the incarnation at Christmas.

Should churches be kept open?

Last week, in the Republic of Ireland, the four Roman Catholic Archbishops wrote to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin requesting a meeting to talk about lifting the ban on people attending religious services under Ireland’s Level 3 Coronavirus restrictions. Level 3 is now in place for all 26 counties – with a high likelihood that it will go to Level 4 or 5.

In the North, religious services are permitted, highlighting the difference between ROI and the UK on this issue. Apparently, Ireland is currently the only place in Europe with such restrictions on public worship in place.

From a Catholic perspective being unable to attend Mass is not just an inconvenience, but strikes at the core of Catholic practice. The Archbishop’s letter talks of Mass not being simply a gathering of people ‘but profound expressions of who we are as a Church’.

This conversation echoes one happening in the UK. At the end of September a letter signed by 700 church leaders (including quite a few Presbyterian Church in Ireland ministers) across the UK was sent to Boris Johnston and the leaders of devolved parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, urging them not to stop people from attending church services.

As far as I understand, it was signed on a personal basis rather than being a formal submission from denominations and church networks.

To: The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, First Minister Mark Drakeford, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill Cc: Members of Parliament, Members of the Scottish Parliament, Members of the Welsh Parliament, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly

24 September 2020

Dear Prime, First and Deputy First Ministers,

As church leaders from across the four nations of the UK, we have been deeply concerned about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic across society. We have carefully followed government guidance to restrict its spread. But increasingly our concern relates to the damaging effects of anti-Covid restrictions on many of the most important aspects of life.

Our God-given task as Christian ministers and leaders is to point people to Jesus Christ, who said he came to bring ‘life in all its fullness’. Therefore, we are troubled by policies which prioritise bare existence at the expense of those things that give quality, meaning and purpose to life. Increasingly severe restrictions are having a powerful dehumanising effect on people’s lives, resulting in a growing wave of loneliness, anxiety and damaged mental health. This particularly affects the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, even as it erodes precious freedoms for all. In our churches, many have been working tirelessly to provide help to those most affected.

We entirely support proportionate measures to protect those most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. But we question whetherthe UK Government and the devolved administrations have it in their power either to eliminate this virus or to suppress it for an indefinite period while we await a vaccine. And we cannot support attempts to achieve these which, in our view, cause more damage to people, families and society –physically and spiritually –than the virus itself.

The public worship of the Christian church is particularly essential for our nation’s wellbeing. As we live in the shadow of a virus we are unable to control, people urgently need the opportunity to hear and experience the good news and hope of Jesus Christ, who holds our lives in his hands. The supportive relationships that churches nurture between people are vital, and simply cannot be dispensed with again without significant harm. And most of all, we know that regular gathering to worship God is essential for human life to be lived to the full.

We have been and will remain very careful to apply rigorous hygiene, social distancing and appropriate risk assessment in our churches. As a result, church worship presents a hugely lesser risk of transmission than pubs, restaurants, gyms, offices and schools; and it is more important than them all. We therefore wish to state categorically that we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again. For us to do so would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers.

We therefore call upon the Westminster and devolved governments to find ways of protecting thosewho truly are vulnerable to Covid-19 without unnecessary and authoritarian restrictions on loving families, essential personal relationships, and the worship of the Christian Church.

Yours sincerely,

It is a debate worth having. What do you think? There are no easy right and wrong answers here.

Is this unreasonable special pleading by churches? Is it in danger of being perceived as putting ‘our’ interests (the need to meet for worship) above the health of others? Where does government start to ‘overstep’ its role? At what point does government concern to protect public health (and in Ireland a chronically underfunded health service and woefully inadequate ICU capacity) become overly destructive of other critical aspects of life?

Notice that neither the Catholic Archbishops nor the UK church leaders are talking about economic damage. This is very welcome. While of course crucial, evaluating policy via a narrow economic lens is profoundly destructive. Rather, the UK letter talks of the ‘dehumanising’ effect on people’s lives and, like the Archbishops, that gathering to worship God is essential for human life to flourish.

Ian Paul is someone I read and highly respect. He was interviewed on Sky News about the UK letter which he signed. Here’s his take. (And it’s very well worth reading his reflections on communicating in this sort of public context on his blog here). And see how he well be brings the conversation around to hope, fear and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Easter Sunday Reflection: Christus ist auferstanden!

And here is my reflection for this Easter Sunday to finish a series written during Lent by members of our church in Maynooth. Easter greetings to one and all.

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Christus ist auferstanden!

If we were physically in church this morning, retired German teacher Ian Stanton, with a mischievous smile on his face, would likely come my way and say “Christus ist auferstanden!” (Christ is risen!). I say ‘mischievous’ because he knows I will be panicking trying to remember the few words of German that he expects me to know one day a year. For the record they are “Er ist wahrhaftig auferstanden!” (He is risen indeed!).

These are days of deep uncertainty and loss. Walking around Maynooth it’s heart-breaking to read sign after sign of businesses closed. Behind those notices are stories of lost jobs, debt and fear for the future. One talks honestly about the owner’s ‘trepidation’ over the ‘big and scary’ decision to shut. I find myself praying for her and make a promise that, hopefully, when that café reopens, I’ll go and give her some business.

Walking along the canal parallel to the railway, empty trains go past. I wonder how long this is going to go on, aware there is no easy fix and multiple lockdowns could come and go for over a year or more. I think of health-care workers in MCC like Andy and Susanne on the front-line. I think of friends who have suddenly no work and no income. I wonder how many in MCC are in a similar situation. I think of other friends at high risk and pray they can stay free of infection. I think of my dad in his 90s and living at home alone and find myself strangely grateful that my mother died over a year ago and is not now stuck in a nursing home, confused, with no-one able to visit her. And if I’m honest, I also wonder about my own job.

And yet, as I enjoy the Spring air and blue sky, I know I’m deeply privileged. I have health, family, a home to live in, access to technology and food to eat. I wonder if this pandemic has caused such angst because it has hit the rich West. It has shown us to be far less safe and in control than we thought. It has made us face the possibility of sudden death. Yet millions of people in the world are only all too familiar with disease, famine and war. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone there are over 400,000 deaths annually of malaria and over 2 million new infections.

And so I think of countless Christians in the past and today who have never known the safety nets of stable employment, fair pay, a home, access to health care, physical security, food and clean water or the expectation of a long life.

And I start to wonder if this pandemic, awful as it is, is bringing more sharply into focus just how relevant and important it is that Christus ist auferstanden.

For if Christ is raised, then we can trust that our futures are in the hands of the risen Lord.

If Christ is raised, then, those in Christ through faith already have resurrection life.

If Christ is raised, then God has already won the victory over death and evil powers and that therefore Christians can rest assured that

“… neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

And if Christ is raised, we can have a sure and certain hope that, regardless of when we die, we will share one day in Christ’s resurrection to a new life within a renewed world – one that will be gloriously free of viruses, disease and death itself.

Lenten Reflection – Sinead Hussey

This week leading up to Easter I am posting with permission a series of Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth. This one by Sinead Hussey is well suited to this Good Friday – ‘Hope in the Darkness’.

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Hope in the Darkness

The terrifying term “pandemic” has been headline news now for weeks.  You cannot turn on the TV, radio, or social media without hearing the statistics about the Coronavirus.

We are living in a world where everyone is facing some level of increased anxiety, stress and fear. Some of us fear catching the virus or losing a loved one, while others fear losing their jobs and what this virus will do to the economy. Fear is a natural reaction to danger, uncertainty and death. Fear, however, can be crippling and can drag us down into despair and hopelessness. Fear can distract us from our relationship with God and the truth that He is in control and “Lord of Heaven and earth” (Matt 11:25).

So what should we do with our fear?

During this lockdown I have been making a list of what the Bible says about who God is.  Writing the list has helped me focus more on who He is and has helped me with the stress this virus has inflicted. I find reading Scripture helps alleviate my stress. It comforts me to know that God is in control, that He is Sovereign and that He has a plan, whether I know his plan or not. By turning my attention to God my worries ease a little.

To remember that God is gracious and compassionate (Ps 145:8-9), merciful (Lk 6:36),  trustworthy, faithful (2 Tim 2:13), good (lk 18;19), kind, (Eph 2:7), wise (Job 9:4), unchanging (Deut 7:9), just (Dan 9:14), holy (Ps 77:13), loving and forgiving (Ps 86:5) helps refocus my thoughts on Him and I feel reassured that we are in this together.  Knowing that He is our refuge and our hope (Ps 46:1), and that He has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us (Deut 31:6) comforts me during these unprecedented times.

Turning my attention to God lifts the stress and anxiety that I feel during this pandemic.

Remembering the truths of who He is, and what he has done, brings me a sense of peace and calm. This peace alongside our future hope moves me/us to respond to this crisis.

So, how do we respond to anxiety, stress and fear during this crisis?

By redirecting our minds to God we can become the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. By focusing on who He is we can be released from fear. We need to remind ourselves that He has a plan and He will protect us.

We respond by offering prayer to others, by keeping in touch with those who are alone, by calling on our elderly neighbour, by doing some shopping for someone who needs it, and by going to the post office for those who are cocooned.

Prayer is an amazing tool we have as Christians. I recently prayed with an elderly woman who has parkinsons. When I opened my eyes after the prayer, she was still, her jerking movement had stopped momentarily. She looked up at me, smiled and thanked me for bringing her so much comfort and peace. This is our privilege as Christians.

Technology is a wonderful tool also and we can use it to stay connected with the more vulnerable.

We can overcome fear and respond to this crises with courage and compassion in knowing we are not alone and that we are part of God’s plan. Hear God say to you today, “Do Not Fear”. Germany Kent says

“Let your life reflect the faith you have in God. Fear nothing and pray about everything. Be strong, trust God’s word, and trust the process.”

Let us join in prayer together and ask God to be merciful and stop the spread of this virus. We ask God to look after the elderly in our nursing homes and to give our healthcare staff the strength and energy to keep doing their job.  We pray that we do not panic. And we pray that  the peace that passes all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen

10 suggestions towards responding theologically to the Coronavirus pandemic

M12597 Dept of Health_COVID-19 Poster_For Public Offices AWLast 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 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 1,450000 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.

7. Pray

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.

8. Economics

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.

empty square

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.

I have posted about this before, 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.

infographics_malaria03-25If 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).

10. Witness

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)