Christians in the crisis
What are Christians to make of the world as coronavirus spreads and brings disruption, perhaps even death close to us? Terry Young introduces a new blog series exploring different aspects of our response
Do we believe God has anything to say to our world, our country or even to us through what is happening? Will we lament bad things happening around us while messaging the news of miraculous recoveries made by a few lucky friends?
Niall Ferguson was reflecting on coronavirus and climate change recently in The Sunday Times (March 1, 2020): ‘the gods have a cruel sense of humour. Even as we were becoming obsessed by the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions and rising global temperatures in the decades ahead, they sent a virus almost perfectly designed to throw us into confusion right now, at this moment.’
I’ve enjoyed his books on empire, civilisation, money, and read his column most weeks. He was brought up an atheist, and I doubt if the irony of a world in the pincers of nearby and distant calamities has brought him to the brink of faith, although many Christians may be tempted to move in the opposite direction: from faith in a God who interacts even with empires towards a helpless, if more acceptable, agnosticism.
Matt Smethurst has published an interesting contribution: C.S. Lewis on the Coronavirus. The article is a reprint from 1948 on living with the atomic bomb and enables us to think about today’s uncertainties in the light of something our parents or grandparents faced for the first time: a bomb to end society. Ironically, as Smethurst looks back to Lewis, Lewis’ does the same for his audience and tells them that they were not the first to face the catastrophe of plague or war, either.
As a teenager in the ‘70s, I was not seriously worried that World War III would close history, but it certainly concerned friends of mine. I remember a poster on one couple’s fridge that said, ‘One atomic bomb can ruin your whole day!’ There was, however, an alarming spell for me when I discovered that UV might pour through the ozone layer and fry us all. Looking back and trying to fit in my worries with what was happening at the time is tricky, but I distinctly remember sitting on a train going on holiday and wondering whether there would be any more holidays.
We know, then, that fear is not new, even if what threatened us has receded. Armageddon has not yet arrived. The chap who warned us about the hole in the ozone layer has collected his Nobel prize, and we all were spurred into action, so that now the hole is now healing nicely.
However, many communities in my lifetime have suffered the devastation of drought, famine, flood, plague, violence and war. These experiences may new to us, but our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world have walked through the valley of the shadow more times than we appreciate.
What, then, are we called to believe? First, that God works through times of disaster on a grand scale and on the smaller scale of each life. From the Tower of Babel in Genesis to the Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Revelation, the Bible maintains that God has the power and the interest to disrupt international affairs. We often share the gospel as God’s personal appeal to the individual, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Apostles saw it as a message of cosmic significance. Our first challenge, then is to work out what kind of belief in God’s power and intent we are called to affirm.
Second, there is personal reassurance to those facing calamity at scale. While Isaiah (41:10) thunders, ‘[D]o not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God’, Jesus quietly poses the question after the storm (Mark 4:41): ‘Why, were you so afraid?’ The reasons behind the call from fear to confidence have many layers. Ultimately, Jesus tells us that death is not the foe it was and calls us to enjoy our birthright of freedom from the fear of death. The layers go deeper still, reminding us of our responsibility to tell others of how God has worked in the past, and how the community grows by sharing these recollections.
Third, and for the individual believer, this creates a conflict between trusting God and taking appropriate precautions. The story at the heart of Isaiah tells how Hezekiah struggles with this. To safeguard Jerusalem, he re-channels the water supply underground into the city, and after the Assyrian threat has receded, he befriends the ambassadors of the nation that represents the greatest threat to Assyria. Isaiah berates Hezekiah for his lack of faith in building the watercourse, and for his pride in seeking to build new political alliances. Both sound puzzling to us, but it is worth trying to tease the puzzle apart, since we face the same predicament between failing to read the signs, as Jesus warned, or falling into the trap of trying to save ourselves.
Finally, we risk focusing exclusively on the unpleasantness of disaster and missing the upside. Sometimes, and for many of us, there are unexpected blessings. Sometimes, it takes a disaster to make us think differently, or try something new. Sometimes the blessing comes hand in hand with the disaster. Many of us will find ourselves with an empty diary, or a few weeks of isolation: it is a gift of time! Time to reflect, to plan, perhaps to repent or simply to recover: it may come wrapped in unpleasant packing, but it is something to be treasured.
Over the next four blogs, we will explore each of these responses in turn.
Image | Brian McGowan | Unsplash
Terry Young was born to missionary parents working in the Middle East. He has always tried to unify his life of worship and secular missions, and has been part of church leadership teams in Essex, and at Slough Baptist Church. He has written a few books that link worlds, including After the Fishermen, and Jake, Just Learn to Worship.
After a mobile early childhood his family settled in the UK to the northwest of Birmingham, and eventually he studied at the local university. After his doctoral studies he worked for 16 years in Chelmsford undertaking research and business development in the aerospace sector, where his interest was in fibre optics and photonics. In the end he gravitated to healthcare systems and move to Datchet with a position as a university professor
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