Note: As I offer the following thoughts on one possible Christian response to this global crisis, please understand that nothing I say should be understood as an explicit or implicit suggestion to disregard the by now well-known CDC guidelines for staying healthy while this pandemic rages (1-800-CDC-INFO; https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html). I simply wish to place this current crisis in something of an historical context to illuminate what we as followers of Christ might learn from our forebears in the faith.
Last Sunday (March 15) during our worship service I read the following quote from C.S. Lewis’ “On Living in an Atomic Age.” Apparently it has been making the rounds of churches recently, and for good reason:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. … It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering [with] long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
Those words, prescient as they are, were written in 1948.
This present crisis: COVID-19
As I write this our city, our country and much of the world is in the grips of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 contagion, the most widespread pandemic in perhaps the last 100 years (https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest). The current toll in the U.S. is 11,355 total cases, with 171 deaths (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries). By the time I finish writing both of those numbers may well have increased. The former almost certainly will have, the latter perhaps a bit later today.
We can look at that and say, “How awful!! Let’s head for some remote location far from any known hot zones.” We can try to escape … or we can face the pain and brokenness of our city and say, “Lord, how would you have me / us be an agent(s) of healing in this frightened, wounded place?”
God’s people have always gone where the pain is, where the brokenness is most pronounced and the hurting most intense. Consider the following – Christians ministering to:
- The unwanted, sick and dying: Early Christians took in unwanted, abandoned children, outcasts, lepers, the sick and dying, people no one else would care for. One group known as the parabolani (“persons who risk their lives as nurses”), members of a brotherhood, voluntarily undertook care of the sick and burial of the dead knowing they could die.
- Victims of the Black Plague: During the Middle Ages when the Black Plague swept through Europe, many Christians refused to flee from their villages when people started dying. They stayed behind to tend to the sick and bury the dead. History records that for that very reason the mortality rate among Christians was much higher than that of the rest of the population.
- Victims of Yellow Fever: Richard Allen (1760-1831), raised a slave on a plantation in Delaware, heard the gospel from a Methodist circuit rider and received Christ as Lord. He led many fellow slaves to Christ – along with his “owner,” who then realized slavery was wrong and freed his slaves. Allen taught himself to read and write and joined the Methodist Church. He became a preacher himself, in Philadelphia, preaching to thousands of (white, mostly) people each week. Allen served with the Continental Army in the American Revolution. He later met Dr. Benjamin Rush, the “Surgeon General” of the Army, and together they helped begin the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) denomination.
In the 1790s Yellow Fever repeatedly hit Philadelphia. With a population of 40,000, Philadelphia, third-largest city in America, was devastated, losing as many as 120 people a day. One-tenth of the people in the city died. 70 doctors left the city. Dr. Rush and his assistants, some of whom died, stayed to help fight the epidemic … with the help of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones (1746-1818), who would become the first black priest in the Episcopal Church.
- Muslim refugees: In Albania, evangelical Christians make up about one percent of the population. And yet during the Balkan war, they took care of about twenty percent of the refugees expelled from Kosovo – many of whom were Muslims (Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace, pp. 114ff).
- India’s Untouchables: In India the caste system is still in effect, if unofficially. Christians have led the way in embracing the Dalits – the official term for the “Untouchables” – and other low castes, building schools and clinics to serve them. Millions from the lower castes have subsequently left the Hindu faith, which excludes them from its temples, and have found a home among Christians (Yancey, Vanishing Grace, p. 119).
- Victims of the Ebola crisis: In 2014-16, when Ebola began ravaging Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the brave doctors and nurses with Samaritan’s Purse stayed behind, ministering to those who were suffering and dying in the “hot zones.” One doctor, Kent Brantly, and a nurse, Nancy Writebol contracted the deadly disease. Mercifully, both survived after receiving aggressive, groundbreaking treatment back in the States. Dr. Brantly and his family have recently returned to Africa, this time to Zambia, to serve at a Christian mission hospital. He says his goal in returning to the mission field is “to serve the poor … have compassion for the people in need and … participate in God’s work of making all things new and fixing the broken things in this world” (https://christianchronicle.org/ebola-survivor-dr-kent-brantly-returning-to-africa-as-medical-missionary). They aren’t there for the money, the prestige, the perks, or the cushy job conditions. There aren’t any. They are there in the name of Christ, seeking to be his hands, his agents of healing in a very broken and sick world.*
The healer risks infection
Again: nothing I say here should be understood to suggest in any way we disregard the CDC guidelines for staying healthy during this crisis. I hope and continue to pray none of our church members, school families or anyone associated with our ministries, nor anyone else I know, tests positive. I also pray God will extend his healing hand and stay the advance of this dreadful affliction. I offer these thoughts as perhaps one different perspective on how we as followers of Christ might view, and respond to, this crisis.
The late Henri Nouwen wrote: Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: Who can take away suffering without entering it? – The Wounded Healer.
How can we be a blessing to our city?
- Pray. Pray for those infected, those most at risk, for doctors, nurses, EMTs, paramedics and all first responders. Pray for our political leaders to have wisdom and put partisanship aside – for once. Pray for those whose jobs and livelihoods are so negatively impacted. Pray for churches, their leaders (including the pastors) and all who will be needed to attend to hurting people in the days ahead. And stay engaged with your church family: we need each other right now perhaps more than ever.
- Reach out. Whether by email, text, Instagram, FaceBook, or – radical thought – phone call, let’s check on people who might need help: the elderly, persons with those now well-known “underlying conditions,” single parents, the suddenly unemployed, whoever.
- Serve. Take someone a meal, make a trip to the grocery store (good luck!), drug store, Walmart, whatever, for him or her. Once the restrictions are lifted and we are no longer under the “social distancing” edict, visit people if they would welcome it. Let them know you’re praying for them, you’re available to them if they need you. And until the “lock down” period is over, follow all the CDC guidelines; when it’s over (and it will be over at some point) and even well beyond, please remember to support your church and other mercy ministries financially and in other ways if and as you are able.
Jesus entered the “hot zone” of our contagion 2000 years ago, knowing our pandemic, sin, was 100 percent fatal … and that it would kill him … but he came. Thank God, he came and gave his life for us. In this time of crisis let’s reach out to others in his name.
*Here is more on Dr. Brantly and the others from Time’s coverage:
Those who contracted the disease encountered pain like they had never known. … One doctor overheard his funeral being planned.
Asked if surviving Ebola changed him, Dr. Kent Brantly turns the question around. “I still have the same flaws that I did before,” he says. “But whenever we go through a devastating experience like what I’ve been through, it is an incredible opportunity for redemption of something. We can say, ‘How can I be better now because of what I’ve been through?’ To not do that is kind of a shame.”
To read a much fuller account of the experiences of Dr. Brantly, Nurse Writebol and many other heroic persons who stayed in the “hot zones” and fought the Ebola epidemic, see Time Magazine’s cover article “The Choice” from their “Person of the Year” issue, December 10, 2014: Why We Chose the Ebola Fighters as Person of the Year 2014.
Warning: It’s not for the squeamish.