Most of us are still adapting to the extraordinary events of recent days as Coronavirus has spread across the world! Philippa and I are in lockdown at home and have been joined by our two adult daughters which has provided us with some rich, unexpected time together. I have been sick with a moderate dose of Coronavirus but am recovering well and have been thinking a lot about how we can work for cultural renewal at a time like this. Whilst few of us have experienced anything like this before, the church has lived through many pandemics and the stories of their response provide us with some great inspiration for how we can respond today.
The church did not have to wait long to experience the challenges and traumas of life in a pandemic. In the middle of the 2nd century the Roman Empire experienced what was probably the first appearance of smallpox, killing somewhere between 25% and 35% of the population over 15 years. Then only one hundred years later, there was what was probably the first appearance of measles, which also had a devastating impact.
These diseases not only killed huge numbers of people and terrified even more, but they brought out the worst in those who were not yet infected. Bishop Dionysius describes how families threw sufferers out of their homes and fled for the country, leaving the sick in the roads to die and corpses unburied where they had fallen.
In sharp contrast to the response of most of society, Dionysius reports that:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need”.
Unsurprisingly, this response had a big impact on the broader population.
More people survived: experts today argue that informal nursing care, without any medications, can cut the mortality rate by up to 66% and it seems clear that something of this order occurred.
People came to faith: as they saw the sincerity and care with which these Christians cared.
And, by their very actions, the Christians challenged the cultural value of the empire that the weak were to be despised and might was to be celebrated. In fact, it was these sacrificial, caring actions that kick-started a long Christian history of caring for the sick, building hospitals and helping the dying which has made a huge contribution to Western culture.
These Christian actions also challenged the empire’s conceptions of what God was like.
The classical gods were a rotten, violent lot. Zeus, for instance, was praised for being more destructive than anyone else and would appear on earth in disguise looking for those that he could rape!
The Christians argued that the nature of the God they followed was totally different, that He was not capricious and violent but a God of love. To suggest that God loved mankind and also wanted man to reflect His love through their care for their fellow citizens was a radical, society changing idea.
These early Christians lay down a gauntlet before us: if they could bring so much good to society in crisis so long ago, how can we contribute towards the flourishing of our communities at this point in time?
First we must keep in the forefront of our minds our responsibility to love those who are in need: to care for those who we find ourselves in lockdown with right now, the vulnerable in our own families, and to look to play a role in our broader communities too. Christians, of course, are leading the way in doing this in a vast array of activity right now as they volunteer for the NHS, staff Foodbanks, shop for vulnerable neighbours and offer online support. We must continue to build on this in the coming days.
We must also remember the global poor. They look frighteningly vulnerable, as we hold our breath waiting to see the impact that the Coronavirus will have on the slums of our huge global cities and the refugee camps from which people have no way of escape. We must pray for them and equip those who will be working on the frontline in situations of chronic need and danger in the coming days.
By our care we are reminding people again of the value of every individual and especially those who are vulnerable because of their jobs, age, health and living conditions.
It is also possible at a time of such human frailty that we can point the way back to God.
In recent decades, popular authors have argued that all the progress we have made means that we should be celebrating the power and future of mankind not just as “Homo Sapiens” but by becoming “Homo Deus”.
However, one can actually see in the history of the last two decades, that amidst the progress is a stark story of human vulnerability: in 2001 we were reminded just how hard it is for people of opposing worldviews to live together in harmony as we watched the World Trade Towers crash to the ground. In 2008 we felt our own powerlessness in preventing depression, poverty and economic collapse. Since then we have seen tech’s “dark side” as we have watched addictive behaviours multiply and mental health crises take hold of our teenagers. And one day it is likely we will be reminded of the cataclysmic dangers of weapons of mass destruction as a rogue actor threatens our lives as we know them. As one commentator recently put it, “The coronavirus is merely the latest blow, the ultimate proof that the Four Horsemen have not been conquered and never will be.”
Times of crisis are times when people will face facts and consider truths that they would normally want to avoid. Virginia Woolf said that when you are not well, you blurt out truth that “the cautious respectability of health conceals”.
This is a time for us to do just that: through the fear, anxiety and vulnerability of the moment to point people again, through our words and actions, to the God who loves, heals and transforms.