Faith and Pestilence

On 31 December 2019, Wuhan, the largest metropolitan region in China’s Hubei province reported an outbreak of cases of people who have become ill with an inexplicable respiratory infection (‘pneumonia of unknown aetiology’). Sequencing reveals that the culprit is a strain of coronavirus which the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses identified as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2). WHO subsequently named the disease it causes COVID-19.

By the end of March 2020, the deadly virus has spread to 190 countries round the world, leading WHO to characterise it as a pandemic. At the time of writing, there were more than one million coronavirus cases across the globe and a death toll of 59,206. Despite the amazing advances in modern medicine, there is to date no vaccine to protect against the coronavirus and no treatment for COVID-19.

Singapore is not spared from the ravages of this merciless and silent disease. Despite the best efforts of the Singapore government that have won the repeated praises of the WHO, the island has more than 1,000 cases of the disease and six fatalities.

The pandemic has also brought in its wake great economic and social upheavals. Some sectors of the economy, such as tourism and travel-related industries, will be more affected than others. For example, the International Air Transport Association warns that COVID-19 could cost global air carriers between USD63 billion and USD13 billion in revenue in 2020. With stay home and social distancing advisories, restaurants and the entertainment industries will also suffer significant disruption and losses.

Estimates of the global economic impact of COVID-19 vary somewhat. In early March, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that the pandemic will lower global GDP growth by one-half a percentage point in 2020 (from 2.9 to 2.4 percent), while Bloomberg Economics warned that full-year GDP growth could fall to zero should the already dire situation worsen.

The sudden appearance of this novel coronavirus and the speed with which it is spreading across the globe has filled the world with dread. This is in some ways exacerbated by the wide use of social media and made worse by malicious actors, fearmongers who create anxiety and panic by spreading false information.

Catastrophic Disaster

The coronavirus outbreak could be described as a ‘catastrophic disaster’, a term coined by the late pastoral theologian Larry Kent Graham. In his 2006 article published in The Journal of Pastoral Theology, Graham describes the features of this phenomenon in this way.

The first feature of a catastrophic disaster is its intrusiveness. ‘A catastrophe’, he writes, ‘is intrusive because it befalls individuals and communities, contrary to their intentions and expectations, and violently throws their world into misery and disorder, characterised as “disaster”’.

Secondly, a catastrophic disaster is comprehensive in scope. It does not only impact individuals, but families and communities also. As a result of this unexpected invasion, public services are either overwhelmed or temporarily suspended. ‘In worse case scenarios’, Graham writes, ‘the fabric of life is either torn to shreds, or removed altogether.’

Thirdly, catastrophic disasters are tragic events. The term tragic, of course, has a wide range of meanings. But, as Graham points out, ‘[i]n common parlance “tragedy” indicates any unexpected misfortune that negatively alters the expected course of life.’

Tragedy, according to Graham, can either be due to ‘fate’ or ‘flaw’. The former describes the tragedy brought about by events that are beyond our control. The latter refers to ‘a failure of a community or individuals to do the right thing, either out of defiance or neglect, thereby bringing horrendous catastrophic consequences into the world.’

Whether it is the result of ‘fate’ or ‘flaw’, or both, a tragedy impacts individuals and communities in profound ways. Graham explains:

Tragedy therefore inaugurates a very complicated mixture of living with unwanted and unexpected loss and of confronting the perplexing challenge of assigning proper accountability, facing unanswered questions and searching for positive meaning.

Fourthly, catastrophic events often result in what Graham calls ‘evil consequences’, by which he means that they bring about ‘discord or triviality’. The social unrests in Kenya and South Africa sparked by government lockdowns and curfews to curb the spread of COVID-19 are cases in point.

And finally, catastrophic disasters ‘mobilise a huge amount of material and human resources, including massive media attention and involvement and elicit multiple levels of interpretation and evaluation.’

Anyone who has been following the way the new coronavirus has been making its way across the globe (and who hasn’t!) would immediately recognise all these features of catastrophic disasters inherent in this current global calamity cause by COVID-19.

Christians and Pestilences

The Church is no stranger of epidemics and pandemics. Throughout her history she has seen numerous catastrophic disasters that have ravaged cities and empires.

For instance, in the years 165 to 180, the Antonine Plague (also known as the Plague of Galen) broke out in the Roman Empire, wiping out one quarter of its citizens. From 249 to 262, a pandemic called the Plague of Cyprian ravaged the Roman Empire, claiming more than 5,000 lives.

Pandemics were also very common during the Renaissance and early modern period of European history. The renown historian of medicine, Vivian Nutton, has observed that from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, ‘A town would experience an epidemic of plague approximately every decade, and a serious devastation once in every generation.’

In the 14th century, the Black Death (bubonic plague) spread rapidly across Europe, taking more than 30 million lives in the course of five years. And in 1527, a pestilence struck Martin Luther’s Wittenberg which caused great disruption in the university town and many deaths.

Christians throughout the centuries have written what may be described as ‘flight theologies’ as they responded to the devastating contagions of their day. The most famous of which is – arguably – Martin Luther’s letter to his friend and fellow pastor, Johann Hess, entitled, ‘Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.’

It is not my purpose here to discuss this fascinating letter. But I would like to highlight an important point that Luther makes with regard to an epidemic being a temptation that tests and proves our faith and love.

‘Our faith’, writes the Reformer, ‘in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognise how we should act toward our neighbour.’

In what ways has this coronavirus outbreak tested our faith and our love? What has it revealed about our attitude towards God and towards our neighbours?

A Call to Trust in God

The current pandemic has startlingly and rudely exposed the illusions of invulnerability that we secretly harbour.

In an age where science and technology are advancing in such an unprecedented way, not only offering explanations to what was once seen as an impenetrable mystery, but also solutions to intractable problems, it is not difficult for us to think of ourselves as being somewhat invincible.

Yet, a bug that is so small that it is not even visible to the naked eye could wreak so much havoc, baffle experts across the globe and bring some countries to their knees. This pandemic reveals the unbidden truth that despite its achievements and prowess, the human race remains extremely vulnerable.

Vulnerability is a complex human condition that becomes real in various forms and in different situations, for example, in disease, dying, harm and violence. The Swiss theologian Heike Springhart has helpfully distinguished two forms of vulnerability.

Ontological vulnerability, according to Springhart, addresses the fundamental condition of being human. ‘There is no invulnerable human life’, she writes.

Birth and death mark the vulnerable transitions in which the interrelated dependency, fragility and bundle of possibilities ahead and behind become real. Human life is susceptible to harm and to love, to transformation and violence, to disease and decay.

Although Springhart does not make this connection explicit, we must stress that human vulnerability is due to the fact that we are fallen human beings that inhabit a world marred by decay and death. But ontological vulnerability, it must be quickly pointed out, is not only due to human sinfulness; it is also an aspect of human finitude.

The second type of vulnerability Springhart describes as situated. ‘Situated vulnerability’, she explains, ‘addresses vulnerability in different levels of realisation as there are social, cultural and environmental conditions that increase or lower vulnerability.’ In addition, she points out that vulnerability has somatic, psychic, and systemic dimensions.

It is not difficult to see how these various types of vulnerability are at play in the current coronavirus calamity.

From the standpoint of Christian theology, the COVID-19 pandemic can be said to be iconoclastic. It smashes human ‘colossalism’ and exposes the false sense of security that we have nourished. It challenges all secular ‘eschatologies’ – the utopias that we thought we could bring to realisation through our science and technology – and the ‘titanism’ of the human spirit that inspires them.

The pandemic serves as a reality check and forces us to adopt a more objective assessment of ourselves and our world. Most importantly, it should cause us to repent of our idolatrous self-confidence, and of the ‘atheism’ that shapes our delusional sense of self-sufficiency. It should cause us to disabuse ourselves of the illusion that we are gods, in control of our destinies.

It should drive us to our Creator and Provider and to the humble acknowledgement of our total dependence on him. It should urge us to put our faith (fiducia = trust) in the sovereign One who alone is control of the situation that each day appears to be spiralling into greater chaos because of COVID-19.

A Call to Serve our Neighbour

During the terrible Antonine Plague, Christians went out of their way to care for the sick and serve those who are afflicted by the scourge in whatever way they could. While the pagans speculated about whether this dreadful disease was unleashed by angry gods, Christians made the love of the true God manifest through their selfless service.

In his Church History (Book VII, Chapter 22), Eusebius reported the account by Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria, of the self-sacrificial service that Christians showed in caring for one another during the spread of the pestilential disease:

The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbours to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death.

But Christians did not only care for their own. They extended this self-disregarding service of love unconditionally to non-Christians as well.

Pontius, who served as a deacon under Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, from whom the plague which ravaged the city from 249 to 269 got its name, wrote a biography of the bishop where he described the plague in this way:

Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, everyone from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves (Life and Pasion of St Cyprian, 9).

While everyone was fleeing from those stricken by the disease, Christians reached out to them, offering help and care, for they believed that:

… there was nothing wonderful in our cherishing our own people only with the needed attentions of love, but that he might become perfect who would do something more than the publican or the heathen, who, overcoming evil with good, and practising a clemency which was like the divine clemency, loved even his enemies, who would pray for the salvation of those who persecute him, as the Lord admonished and exhorts (Life and Pasion of St Cyprian, 9).

As the COVID-19 situation in Singapore unfolds, the government continues to issue slews of ever stringent measures to halt the spread of the infection and to keep the population safe. Churches are also busy trying to change the way they congregate and worship in accordance with government directives and advisories.

But it is heartening to note that despite all the disruptions and adjustments, Christians here still make an effort to reach out to their neighbours, to help people in need, and to join in the government’s efforts to serve the community. In doing this, Christians are simply obeying Christ’s command to love our neighbour (Mark 12:31).

For example, some Christians assisted Malaysian workers stranded when their country was in lockdown to find accommodation in Singapore. Others joined grassroots leaders to distribute essentials such as soap, sanitisers and towels to those living in rented HDB flats.

These efforts are laudable and Christians can certainly do more to serve the larger community in these perilous times, especially the poor and vulnerable.

To be sure, there is a difference between foolishly putting one’s self and one’s families in harm’s way (for example, by ignoring safe distancing practices) and risking infection in order to help one’s neighbour.

In the wake of the epidemic in Wittenberg, Luther, in his letter to Johann Hess, writes:

… I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as state above.

This is surely a level-headed Christian approach! As Luther himself puts it, this approach is ‘neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.’

Our Christian responsibility towards our neighbours can therefore be carried out in two ways.

Firstly, we must do whatever is necessary to protect them and ensure their safety. This includes taking all the precautions so that we remain healthy ourselves, such as personal hygiene and responsible social behaviour (e.g., practicing safe distancing).

Christians must also do whatever that is necessary (including suspending church services and small group meetings) to halt the spread of the contagion. We must never endanger others through negligence or recklessness.

Secondly, we must always be willing to help our neighbour when they are in need, even though this might expose us to certain dangers. We must never follow the examples of the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan and leave a neighbour in genuine need unattended.

Our world is gripped by a health crisis the likes of which it has not seen for many decades. As the number of infections and the death toll rise each day, society may descend into fear, uncertainty and despair. Yet in these dark times there are evidences of heroism, courage and tenacity, not least in the fearless and tireless work of our healthcare professionals.

In times like this, Christians too have a role to play as God’s witnesses. Through their quiet and selfless service to their neighbours, Christians can bring solace and hope by imaging the compassionate God who is unbounded love and mercy, the God who never fails or forsakes.

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