The Coronavirus and God
Where is God in this Coronavirus crisis? The answer of liberal Christians that God is in the midst of our suffering is not sufficient to assuage our concerns and doubts. God was manifestly not in the midst of Jesus’ suffering on Calvary because He cried out ‘My God. My God, why have you forsaken me?’ God may well have been present in the foreboding elemental happenings which occurred at the time of Jesus’ death, a darkened sky, an earthquake, the disruption of graves.
It is not the whole story to say that God is accompanying us in our struggles, losses and deprivations. Theologians have wrestled with the issue of evil in the world for millennia. If the Coronavirus is disregarded as a judgement of God on humanity, there is still the issue of why a supposedly good Creator allows humanity to suffer so. We know how the Coronavirus began and how it spread. Bats. A Chinese ‘wet’ seafood market with live and dead animals including marmots and snakes for sale illegally. Transmission of Coronavirus from bats via animals to stallholders. Communist totalitarian denial. Travelling Chinese and hence to humanity.
Who is asking the God question? People in the United Kingdom have largely given up on God, abandoned Christianity and have made Jesus Christ into their second favourite swear word. Political expediency from the Blair years has manufactured a supposed equality of ‘religions’. Christianity is diminished, reduced in status and relegated to second or third reference in television news bulletins behind humanism and Islam.
There is virtually no prophetic Christianity alive in these islands and none that would be regarded with any respect. Stories of some American preachers saying that such pandemics are God’s punishment for human sins are met with contempt and incredulity. According to Christian theology Jesus is our Saviour. Saviour from what? Our sins. We no longer think of our behaviour as sinful because we do not consider our behaviour in relation to God.
The Bible offers uncompromising insight into the relationship between human wrongdoing and misfortune. In 2 Samuel 24 we read that the Lord was angry with Israel and incited King David (ruled 1010 to 970 BC) to order a census. Joab, the captain of the army disagreed and said the census would bring judgement. David pressed ahead. A plague then broke out among the people. Was it caused by the unnatural gatherings of people? Did they not observe safe distancing? The text says ‘the Lord sent a plague on Israel’. David then realised that he was to blame and set about making public repentance and sacrifice. He uttered one of the greatest truths of the human-God relationship. ‘I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God offerings that cost me nothing’. The text then says ‘Then the Lord answered his prayer on behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel was stopped’.
At that time people believed that God was the first cause of everything that happened, both good and bad. This was because they shared in the Covenant with God established on Mount Sinai with Moses. There was immediacy in their relationship. David’s personal relationship with God is perhaps best expressed in Psalm 51, regarded as the greatest penitential Psalm. ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin’.
The New Covenant in Jesus Christ offered immediacy with God to all humanity over the centuries of the Christian dispensation. Beginning in the European middle ages that understanding began to be replaced with distancing. Scientific observation became the interlocutor. This brought about the separation of first and second causes. However, devout and practising Christians still claim to experience God at first hand and relate to God personally and intimately.
One Christian position on the Coronavirus is that it is an evil visited on humanity by primitive unhygienic food practices in the context of the Chinese totalitarian political regime which initially denied its existence. Another Christian interpretation is that this is the work of an intelligent cosmic enemy of God and of humanity sometimes called Satan. We have lost the immediacy of relationship with God that allows us to cry out collectively and nationally for deliverance. We do not put the blame on the Queen or the Prime Minister for our misfortune and we do not expect either of them to be the means of overcoming this pandemic. We trust in science to suggest a strategy and then find a cure. We are unlikely to re-establish immediate relationship with God. We might take the opportunity to revalue what we live for and ask if our free and easy lifestyles are best practice. We have abandoned Judaeo-Christian teaching on personal ethics, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount. The Scottish National Party is riven by a debate on whether transgender men identifying as women should be allowed to use female toilets. As Wilfred Owen, the first world war poet asked ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’
Had we in the liberal secular west become over-confident, complacent and far too trusting in many announcements of DNA manipulated solutions to diseases? Were we subconsciously thinking that we were immune from any future global pandemic? It did not even cross our minds. Some scientists warned but politicians did not respond pro-actively. The public knew little of it. We had become obsessed with the planet. We castigated ourselves for its condition and some advocated immediate draconian solutions. It was all about us. We did it. We should sort it. Coronavirus has taught us a severe lesson. We are not as much in charge as we thought. We are not as immune as we thought we were. We have become frightened and insecure. Panic and anxiety abounds.
People are dying. Yet the numbers are comparatively small in relation to overall national and global populations, small too, in relation to previous similar pandemics. There is an additional paradox. There were 192,900 abortions for women resident in England and Wales in 2017 and 197,533 abortions including non-residents. This is an increase of 4% since 2016, the highest level since 2008. In Scotland there were 12,212 terminations in 2017, a rise of 1% on the previous year. Not only is there no outcry about such destruction of life but it is the law of the land. Yet for fear of the Coronavirus the country has ground to a halt, the population is under house arrest, the economy has been trashed and people are being impoverished. So far just over 11,000 have died in the UK. This is a very large hypocrisy.
Pity political leaders who have to try to do the right thing and to be seen to do so else retribution will be visited on them, electorally and historically. Reliance on experts is their fig leaf of respectability. None have any alternative strategy or mode of operation. No political leader has invoked God’s name and help. Christian leaders have been woefully weak and circumspect. There has been no Christian challenge to our values, lifestyles and idolatries. In the face of this menace what many live for is exposed as shallow and absurd; football, entertainment, pub life, buying things in shops and online, holidays, pursuit of money, the illusions of happiness. Debt has been allowed to multiply at macro and micro level and has become an accepted way of life. Poverty relative to visible wealth bounds.
Good neighbourliness is essential to survival and recovery. That we know whether Christian or not. But may there be more to it than that? Can we appeal to our Maker and Creator for help? Can we imagine taking this all consuming problem to Jesus Christ who Christians claim has Lordship over everything seen and unseen? After all, Jesus healed the sick. On earth He had authority in the dimension unseen by the human naked eye where viruses proliferate. The Sacraments of the Christian Church are means of healing for the inner soul and mind and body. They have been thought dispensable. In fact they are part of our cure.
We are not allowed to congregate in churches to worship and pray. We understand. But this is also a denial of the Christian claim that the primary purpose of our existence is to relate to God. For our own good. So far have we strayed from that defining role that we think we can relegate God to become only in our estimation a tangential, ghettoised, patronised option. The chilling words of the prophet Isaiah chapter 59 are relevant. ‘Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear’.
Christians throughout the world are praying for deliverance from this scourge. We are praying for health care workers and front line staff. We as a nation are not doing so however and we are making no connection between our collective lifestyles, values, the loss of our Christian inheritance and this pandemic. We expect to carry on as we were until and after a vaccine is found. There is no sense of confession or repentance. No Christian leader is advocating as much. Justin Welby suggests a big party when it is all over. Will we learn anything? Will there be a new moderation of life and living? Beyond the scientific scramble for a vaccine and a Nobel prize, everyone needs to do more than self-isolate. Will Jesus Christ be brought again to the centre of our national life? Will there be services of thanksgiving? Will the many online worshippers begin to attend church services? Will our political leaders show an example?
12th April 2020