Fr. Dr. Yuriy Shchurko, Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) and himself an UCU graduate, wrote an article published in issue No. 3, winter 2021, of the European Federation of Catholic Universities (FUCE).
“Christians and The Pandemic – A time to serve?”
Rev. Dr. Yuriy Shchurko, Dean of Philosophy and Theology at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, reflects on three inter-connected questions: What does COVID-19 have to say to humanity? What does the Bible say about all of this? What do we have to do with all of this?
What does the COVID-19 Coronavirus have to say to humanity?
One year ago, no one would have thought that Christian theologians, apologists, and philosophers would pay so much attention to what seems at first glance to be a solely medical issue – the epidemic of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. However, the extent of the problem is very significant. Its impact on the whole world is so unprecedented that many people are trying to reflect on and deal with this issue, which clearly shows that all humanity is more closely united than we realized or imagined before this happened. Oxford mathematician and Christian apologist John C. Lennox writes:
“Never before have we experienced the lockdown of cities and even countries, the closing of borders, the banning of travel, the shutting of all but essential services, the banning of large sports gatherings, and the silent towns and cities that shout of fear and self-isolation.…
One major effect is the universal feeling of increased vulnerability. Many of us had got used to a fairly stable world, where life was reasonably predictable. Now that all appears to be crumbling away: the things we have always counted on have gone and we are exposed as never before to forces way outside our control. People fear for their health, both physical and psychological; for their families and friends, particularly the elderly and infirm; for their social networks, their food supply, their jobs and economic security, and a host of other things.” Old, primitive fears have awakened with a new force and are dressed in old, forgotten clothes. It appears that many of those fears have very ancient roots. In his recent book written to present a Christian view on the problem of COVID-19, perhaps the most renowned biblical scholar of our times, N. T. Wright, says: “In most of the ancient world, and many parts of the modern world too, major disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, fires, plagues) are regularly associated with angry gods. Something bad has happened? Must be because ‘someone’ has it in for you. In the old pagan world of Greece and Rome, the assumption was that you hadn’t offered the right sacrifices; or you hadn’t said the right prayers; or you did something so truly dreadful that even the old amoral gods on Mount Olympus felt it was time to crack down on you. The high-minded philosophers didn’t think much of that. They came up with three alternatives. First, the Stoics. Everything is programmed to turn out the way it does. You can’t change it; just learn to fit in. Alternatively, the Epicureans. Everything is random. You can’t do anything about it. Make yourself as comfortable as you can. Then the Platonists. The present life is just a shadow of reality. Bad things happen here but we are destined for a different world.
We have our modern equivalents. Some just want to tough it out. If the bullet’s got your name on it, so be it. Most of the modern West is implicitly Epicurean. Stuff happens, but we want to scramble for comfort, so settle down, self-isolate, plenty of Netflix. This too will pass. Some – including some Christians – opt for Plato. Death isn’t the worst that can happen. We’re heading somewhere else anyway. All right, let’s be sensible, but please don’t shut down the churches. Or the golf clubs.”
In addition to these pessimistic conclusions and considerations, Wright observes “there are specifically (would-be) ‘Christian’ conspiracy theories. Some people think they know exactly what’s gone wrong and what God is trying to say through it all. Some are saying, eagerly, that this is the sign of the End.” And even if these theories may seem too pretentious, unfortunately there still exist theories more frivolous, but at the same time no less dangerous, which are unfortunately widespread in many Christian circles. He underlines: “For other Christians, this is simply a way of saying: This is a moment of opportunity! Now that everybody is thinking about death rather than wondering which cupcake to buy, perhaps there will be a massive turning to God. Perhaps we can use this moment to tell our friends about Jesus and how he can take them to heaven. Perhaps this time they’ll listen. Others quote the Old Testament prophets to produce a version of the ancient pagan theories. When bad things happen, it must be God that’s done it (because he’s responsible for everything), so that must mean that he is angry with us for some reason.”
All that is mentioned above clearly points out that, as humans, we are more united than we usually think. Having made many achievements in recent years, we still feel vulnerable when facing challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic. We still hold old fears in our collective memories, especially when this memory is not illuminated by the truth and power of the Good News.
What does the Bible say about all of this?
In fact, only a few events in the Old Testament make it clear that some tragedies are the result of sin – mostly the fall of our ancestors, Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19), and the Babylonian captivity, which, according to the prophets, was a consequence of the sinful life of Israel and its attempt to imitate, as we say today, the “culture of death” of neighboring nations. Many other events – such as the famine in the time of the patriarchs, which forced Jacob’s family to go to Egypt, when Joseph, who at that time was the second person in the country after Pharaoh, prompted prudent action to save lives in the future – are not considered as punishment for someone’s sin. When the famine came to Egypt, Joseph did not tell Pharaoh that this famine was a punishment for sin because they were Gentiles and led immoral lives. No. He said that specific measures should be taken that would allow everyone to survive in the future. Even in the texts of the book of Exodus, when it comes to Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (the most important event of the Old Testament) and, accordingly, in the Passover Law, it is not said that Israel was in Egypt because of the Jews’ sins.
The perfect picture of the world presented in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament was that the Jews believed that there was a primordial order of things in the world – צְדָקָה) tzedakah). The art of living is to recognize this all-encompassing order throughout life and bind it together by creating righteousness. Axiom: righteousness produces שָׁולֹם) shalom: happiness, salvation, freedom, ease, peace). Peace is not the absence of war but a concept with a positive meaning. Wisdom theology’s starting point is a conviction gained from experience: from right action, good happens (to society and oneself) – from an evil act, there is harm (to society and oneself). Wisdom is choosing what leads to life.
However, even among Israel’s sages, we hear voices saying that the world’s perfect picture after the Fall has its nuances. In the book of Job, we see that a righteous person can endure. Koheleth polemically points out that the declarative connection between action and result often contradicts experience (Eccles. 7:15; 8:12-14). Of the book of Psalms, three sections (i.e., Psalms 42 to 106), which are the central part of the Psalms, talk of the anxiety, embarrassment, sadness, disappointment, suffering, and despair that a righteous person experiences in this world.
The question is: What does God do with all this? How does God want to solve the problem of sin and human suffering? God chooses Abraham and gives him great promises concerning the new future of all humankind (Gen. 12: 1-3). Therefore, the main task of the descendants of Abraham, the people of Israel, is to solve the problem of sin, to become the light of the world and the salt of the earth (cf. Matt. 5: 13-14). However, instead of becoming a solution to sin, Israel became part of that problem. That is why the prophets begin to say that God personally will come into history in the future and solve this problem. In the prophet Isaiah, we read of a mysterious Servant of the Lord who “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises, we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5 NRS) Similarly, the prophet Daniel says that, after all the peoples’ attempts to establish justice on earth, which ended with one totalitarian empire replacing another, the mysterious Son of Man will finally come, and He will establish a kingdom on earth that will have no end.
These hopes for the Servant of the Lord from the book of Isaiah and the Son of Man from the book of Daniel are embodied in God becoming the man Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Himself says: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” (John 10:10 NRS) This life comes into our world, wounded by sin, through His mighty deeds, brotherly attitude, compassion, solidarity, and lifegiving teaching. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mk. 10:45 NRS) The whole of Jesus’s life becomes the best and ultimate sign of the whole of humanity. People of His generation looked for a sign that God indeed acts in Jesus. But He answered them: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:39-40 NRS) In His Passion, He entered our pain and suffering and healed them by His suffering and death. On the third day, He solemnly rose from death so that we might live by a new life which death cannot destroy.
This new life appeared in the new relationship of Jesus’s disciples, their inspiring service and sacrificial life for others’ sake, which provoked a positive chain reaction of imitation by many other people that represented different races, cultures, and social statuses. In the Book of Acts, we read: “At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11:27-30 NRS)
When bad things happened to people, early Christians did not ask: “Why did it happen?” or “When will it come to an end?” Instead, “They ask three simple questions: Who is going to be at particular risk when this happens? What can we do to help? And who shall we send?
We know that, after the Fall, bad things always take place in our lives. “At the same time, however, ‘creation was subjected [by God] to ineffectiveness, not through its own fault, but because of him who subjected it.’ (Rom. 8:20) In the original Greek, the word for ‘ineffectiveness’ (mataiotēs) carries the meaning that something is all ‘in vain’: that is, it has not achieved the goal for which it was designed.” This is why “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom. 8:22-23 NRS) What St. Paul is trying to say is that people in the world suffer, and we can understand them since, even having been sealed by the Holy Spirit, we still suffer as well. But we are living by hope, since we are convinced that God is in charge of the world, He is faithful and responsible for His creation, and in some mysterious way takes part in the pain of the world: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26 NRS)
Scripture supports neither pessimistic ideas nor conspiracy theories. God does not want to threaten or frighten humanity to make us better. He enters our life in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, lives a life like us, and receives death so that we could live an eternal life. Jesus Himself showed us what it means to be human and expects us to behave humanly towards others.
What do we have to do with all of this?
How should Christians respond to the pandemic? We already said that, when facing this pandemic, the right questions will be: “What can we do?”, “Who is at most risk?” and “Whom do we have to send?” There can also be other important questions: “Who is God for me when I suffer or go through bad times?” or “Who am I when I am facing difficulties?” Every crisis can be an opportunity or occasion for failure or ruin. We must choose. N. T. Wright says: “In the first few centuries of our era when serious sickness would strike a town or city, the well-to-do would run for the hills (part of the problem was often low-lying, fetid air in a town). The Christians would stay and nurse people. Sometimes they caught the disease and died. People were astonished. What was that about? Oh, they replied, we are followers of this man Jesus. He put his life on the line to save us. So that’s what we do as well. Nobody had ever thought of doing that kind of thing before. No wonder the Gospel spread. Even when the Romans were doing their best to stamp it out.”
John Lennox says that, for the question “How should Christians respond to the pandemic? There are several different levels on which to answer this question.”10 He lists four suggestions. First, on the practical level, we would be wise to take heed of the best medical advice of the day. Second, Lennox thinks that we also should not begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Using some thoughts from C. S. Lewis on how Christians should respond to the existence of atomic weapons, he applies his reflections to our situation and reminds us that the end of our earthly life will be death:“When it comes, let it 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 [viruses]. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that), but they need not dominate our minds.” Third, Lennox reminds us that, as Christians, we are called to love. He lists many examples from the last 2,000 years when Christians have done many good things to many people – especially non-Christians in times of plagues and pandemics, which often saved more than half the population of certain areas or cities. Fourth and finally, Lennox exhorts Christians to remember eternity. He says that “the early Christians, living as they did in a dangerous world where all kinds of threats surrounded them and where life expectancy was relatively short, were given strength to live as sacrificially as they did, contributing so much to the wellbeing of others, by the fact that they had a real and living hope that went beyond the grave.”
N. T. Wright says that “the Church’s mission began (according to John 20) with three things which have become very familiar to us in recent days. It began with tears; with locked doors, and with doubt.”Thus, our mission today is to proclaim the Good News, not only with the words of Scripture but, above all, by confirming the vital importance of the Gospel by our service of wiping these tears and coming to closed doors to offer our help and kindly dispelling the doubts of those who do not feel valuable or loved.