Dr Keith Rowley’s prime ministerial rebuke that ‘some people believe they have a pipeline to heaven and God knows them personally … if you are congregating, you will be giving us no chance to escape the ravages of this virus’ is unfortunate. He should not have been put in this position.
No politician wants to be directing a religious group on whether they can or cannot meet. Health Minister Terrance Deyalsingh’s broad hint in the Saturday press conference when he commended the RC Church for their ‘stay home’ guidance to their people was ignored since ‘we are not like them’ informed other leaders.
The medical recommendations and the stealthy nature of the virus should have prompted proactive measures. On average, each infected person spreads the infection to two other persons (Fauci et al, 2020). The long gestation period that precedes getting visibly ill makes this virus different from H1N1 or even Ebola. You can be ill and do not even know it. Anyone who reads the news casually would understand the risks.
In this context, Christian leaders should not act like Jesus’ disciples who wanted to send away the people in the story of the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14: 13–21). Jesus stopped them and explained that doing so was not cool.
That story teaches that physical and spiritual care are integrated. Christians ought not to be concerned only with spiritual food but must look after the physical needs. Defiant hubris, as displayed in several incidents this week, can kill. The Church should model humility.
When confronted with events that challenge us, Christian leaders should be asking, ‘What is really happening? What is God doing?’. A state of wonderment is healthy. To bluster is not helpful. Our first thought should be: how do we model Christ in this circumstance?
Viruses and bacteria are part of a finely balanced ecological system created by God. We should resist blaming the Devil. Viruses outnumber the stars in our universe by a factor of ten billion! In 2012, there were over 200 identified viral species with an estimated three or four new ones found each year. Not all are bad, indeed a vast number is for our good.
The vast majority of viruses infect bacteria and other single-cell organisms. Bacteria are essential to life in that they make biologically relevant compounds, but they reproduce very quickly. They are kept in check by viruses. But at times, this balance goes off-kilter.
There are two possible causes that we can contemplate for those that threaten us. Mismanagement of creation puts us at risk and creates the conditions for mishaps. In other cases, as seen often in the Bible, there may be an indiscernible intervention by God. But even in those examples, the desire is not to damn the world but to bring them to an acceptance of Him.
In the Genesis’ account of creation, God appears to have built-in decay in the design process. Remember the story of the Tree of Life? While He heals some of us, He clearly does not get rid of all viruses and diseases. The Bible promises that He saves from sin, not death. Bad things happen to good people. Ask Job.
Job essentially said: “I do not know what is happening here, but you are God and I trust you.” Not knowing yet trusting is Christian. The presence of doubt is not anti-faith. Joshua doubted that he could fill Moses’ shoes, but God stepped in and assured him. That doubter never lost a battle thereafter.
We misrepresent the Bible when we do not acknowledge that doubt is a pathway to greater faith. Elijah and Elisha and Paul and Jeremiah all tell that tale. Why should we be reluctant to admit that we do not know everything?
The other position that should be adopted is the recognition that we live in and as a community. Christian faith is the antithesis of radical individualism. Christians have a mandate to come alongside those in need and those who suffer and help them bear that burden.
This is most applicable in these scary times and in the communities where older people form a large proportion. In our country, we now have our largest proportion—one third—of people over 60 years, based on data provided (Harewood, 1963). Helping this age group is, therefore, a key opportunity for modelling Christian practices.
A Christian should not downplay the risks associated with this virus or any disease. The very nature of the Christian community—close physical contact—can cause harm through the spreading of infections. We need God’s grace to give us strength to face life’s challenges, but we also need medical expertise (a gift from God) to get better and to stay healthy. These two things are not in opposition.
Christian leaders need to protect their members and others from being infected by properly assessing the risks. The Church, because of its influence over its members, has a major role in reducing the risks faced. It needs to lead, not follow. It should not wait for the government, even as it should obey the government. The Church has a prime responsibility to care for its members and to practice social justice.
Christians have to go beyond practising social distancing, they need to model compassion by focusing on the aged, the weak and the poor, not on themselves. This focus demonstrates the powerful attractive love of Christ. This is more important than when the next meeting can be.
Does a church have to meet to be a congregation? Does cancelling physical meetings demonstrate a lack of faith? We should balance our desire to worship God with the sanctity of those in need or at risk.
A crisis shows the true character of a Christian. It shows up whether we are living for the right stuff or whether we are occupied with material things, personal comfort or ego. Whether our talk and our walk are matched is clearly revealed. In these anxious times, Christians need to shine as examples of love.
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, coined a word ‘eucatastrophe’—the sudden joyful turn of events at the end of the story when all seems lost. The Church should keep its eyes on the end and bring hope and faith and love to others in the community. Cast the vision of how God’s people live.