Social distancing as theological action in the time of CoVid-19

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Social distancing as theological action in the time of CoVid-19

Thursday, 27 August 2020  | Guerin Tueno


Why have we stopped sharing communion?

Why can’t I sit where I like?

What do you mean the church is closed?

When are we going to be able to meet together again?

Are we following God’s law or man’s law?

SARS CoVid-19 has proven to be one of the most serious challenges of the modern era, and has certainly necessitated dramatic and drastic changes around the globe. It has brought profound disruptions to our way of life, profound suffering and a tragic loss of life. In places like Spain, Italy and the United States it has stretched health care systems and health care workers to the point of collapse. Educational systems were thrown into disarray, with education directorates and teachers scrambling to establish new distance teaching systems, while parents wondered how to make home schooling compatible with maintaining a job. People are out of work in numbers not seen since the Great Depression. Governments previously commitment to economic rationalism and the will of the market have suddenly gone so far into debt to keep the lights on, wheels turning and social security nets in place that political commentators may be suffering from whiplash. With new cases surging and no vaccine yet discovered, there is a long road of ahead of us still.

Christians and churches have not been immune from the challenges of the present moment. For some it has meant engaging with people for whom the virus has brought up anew the fundamental questions of theodicy – where is God in the face of death and misery? Alternatively, if he is there, he’s either immoral for doing nothing or irrelevant if he’s unable to do anything. For many churches the focus has been simply on the logistics of a move to an online form of worship service as a substitute for public gatherings, with Zoom and Skype filling the void of communal gathering and interaction. Beyond the physical illness caused by the virus, it has also disrupted social patterns and our normal cultural and religious rhythms; as NT Wright has sagely put it, CoVid-19 and the necessary social distancing to combat it have brought ‘…a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow’.[1] Tragically some elements of American Evangelicalism have seen the steps necessary to combat the spread of the virus as either a contravention of God-given liberty or the latest chapter in a conspiracy to unseat a President. Tele-evangelists have ‘blown’ the virus away from their viewers via their broadcasts,[2] while Christian Universities reopened despite the clear imperative for social distancing.[3] But a reluctance to address the urgency and seriousness of the situation amongst religious bodies has not been entirely absent in Australia either; early in the pandemic it was widely reported that there was a significant cluster at the Sydney Church of Christ.[4] I give thanks that in my own denomination, Bishops from the Anglican Province of New South Wales announced the cessation of public worship well in advance of the declaration made by the Prime Minister that public gatherings (including places of worship) would close for the foreseeable future as did other churches.

The pace at which things have changed has been frenetic and has not allowed for a great deal of reflective ministry. We have rushed from church with no limits, to capped at 500, to 100, to not meeting in the flesh at all. We have gone from hosting sermons online, to navigating how to do all public worship online with the bare minimum of people present at the time of broadcasting or recording. Pastoral care has gone from being about presence to the ecclesial equivalent of tele-health.

Exiles, the welfare of the city and agape love

How can we locate theology and ecclesial practice in the time of CoVid-19? There is certainly room for reflecting on the brokenness of God’s good creation through the lens of Genesis 3 and Romans 8. As we digested the reports on the death toll in Spain, Italy and New York, we yearned for the renewal of the creation to be set free from sickness and death.[5] We might even have felt afresh some humility through a reading of Genesis 11 and the realisation that our own attempts to order the world are not proving more successful at this time than those of the tower builders of Babel. Those questions that I began with, questions you may well have heard in church or in Facebook discussion groups, are I think addressed through a strand of thought that runs throughout both Testaments – other-centeredness, namely agape love and the imitation of the self-giving nature of God. It is a thread that takes seriously our being situated in geographic and temporal reality rather than disowning that reality in favour of an individualistic or private spirituality.

We find this strand in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon, encapsulated in the exhortation to seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’.[6] While the exile was a time of punishment, God was still with his people and was still using them for the good of those who had defeated and captured them. The people of God may have a distinct identity, but they are not a people alone; and in seeking the common good of those they now dwelt with, they would find not only the good of their captors, but also their own. There would be no good for the exiles apart from the good of Babylon, and later the Medes and Persians. This seeking of the good of their captors is not mere self-interested pragmatism, but rather as Fretheim argues it is earthed in God’s desire for the good of both Judah and Babylon.[7] This is not something new, but a return to the very purpose of God’s election of Israel to bless the nations.[8] Against Roy Clements’ view that Jeremiah’s exhortation was towards an intense internal spirituality, Fretheim helpfully reminds us that God’s concern was external – i.e. other focused.[9] The language of welfare for the other precludes an unengaged or uncaring position from the exiles.

The New Testament language of exile was not about God’s bringing judgment on his people, but rather on them being sojourners, away from their true home. This sojourning raises the question of how the people of God will live in the here and now, while still awaiting their saviour to bring them to their eschatological rest.

Peter and Paul would both later use language that draws on the concept of the exilic people of God making a positive contribution to the common societal good. In Philippians, Paul reminds believers are that their citizenship lies not with Rome, but in heaven.[10] Fee comments that, as a Roman colony in Macedonia, Philippi would have been expected to demonstrate that its citizens exemplified the Roman life to their barbarian neighbours. Paul inverts this and makes the Christian community an outpost of heaven, whose citizens living in the world are expected to exemplify the ways and virtues of their true home too.[11] Paul also expresses this new ethic and modality of relationship for believers in Romans when he writes that Christians are to be subject to the governing authorities as his servants for justice and good order in the world.[12] God has delegated to the state power for the good governance of the world and society in its sphere of operation; while a government may sometimes exceed its mandate, the onus on the Christian is to submit to the governing powers in whatever is right and just.[13] Paul then sums up the law and commandments through the call to agape love – love doing nothing wrong to a neighbour.[14] Moo points out that not doing wrong and actively doing good are the heart and soul of the Old Testament law’s intent – this is how love is the fulfillment of the law.[15] Love is to be the determining dynamic of relationship between Christians and the other – not love as a theoretical concept but rather ‘Love is something that takes effect in the home, in the marketplace, in the workshop, on the village green, wherever people are met’.[16] Agape love requires not merely a pleasant emotion in the lover, but a costly action towards the beloved. Agape love is not measured in my sincerity, or how I feel, but in how I treat the other – the one I claim to love. McKnight helpfully echoes this concern in reflecting on Jesus’ appreciation of the heart and soul of the law:

Jesus’ amendment of loving God is revealing: He adds to the sacred Shema of Israel a verse from Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Jesus hereby endorses the authority and meaning of “love” in Leviticus at some level. Jesus never defines what he means by love, but by quoting Leviticus he doesn’t have to: That chapter does it for him. Love in that book of Moses means respecting parents, providing for the poor, protecting private property, honouring one’s word, caring for the physically challenged, seeking justice for the powerless, living in sexual purity, showing love for one’s enemies – and lots more.[17]

The linkage back to Jeremiah’s message is more explicit with Peter who refers to Christians around the eastern end of the Empire as exiles,[18] and then later in the epistle he directly links his readers’ exilic status with their willingness to accept the civic governing authorities for the Lord’s sake.[19] This goes beyond merely living in a society, and actually becomes a matter of discipleship – followers of Christ are still to engage positively and obediently with the established authorities, who may not themselves be believers and who in fact may be antagonistic if not hostile to the people of God living away from home. As Green notes, the very cost of discipleship for these early churches and believers was rendered as becoming ‘other’ in what had previously been their own communities.[20] Indeed, as God’s servants, believers are actually to honour all (even beyond the ecclesial family), abide by the human governing systems and honour the rulers they now live under.[21] Our ‘otherness’ – our being exiles and sojourners – is not a cause for disengagement and withdrawal, but rather for:

taking their standards of behaviour, not from the culture in which they live, but from their “home” culture of heaven, so that their life always fits the place they are headed to, rather than their temporary lodging in this world.[22]

Using this approach of exile and agape love for the other, we come to ask questions in a new light. What does love of the other look like in the age of CoVid-19? What does it mean to seek the welfare of the city in 2020?

Social distancing as imitating Christ

This current moment has highlighted the western churches’ assumed position and privilege: any attempt to act for the greater good and health of the society (including the church’s own members) will be and has been greeted with questions of legitimacy and loss of religious freedom. While in Australia our church leaders have responded with readiness to the situation, it is the voices from the pews that have ofttimes protested the changes that have been necessary. We have become too used to having our doors open when we like, too used to meeting without real fear or consequence, too used to the church ‘event’ being something that brings us pleasure. By this all I mean is that we as western Christians do not think of ourselves chiefly in the language deployed by the apostle Peter; we are not exiles (even chosen exiles), but rather residents, with expensive buildings full of possessions. Christians are too often scandalised by some perceived breach of morality for the same reason that our inability to meet when and how we like shocks us. We think we belong here. We think this is our place. We have forgotten that we are exiles, sojourners, people passing through. If our concerns are chiefly keeping a building open, it may legitimately be asked how eschatological our hope and orientation truly is.[23] The CoVid-19 moment should be a wake-up call for us, reorientating us through the Apostle’s words:            

Commenting on Peter’s greeting, The Venerable Bede recognized that we who truly say we are but travellers on this earth are in a position to believe “that the Letters of Blessed Peter were written to us as well and to read them as having been sent to us.” 1 Peter invites a reading among those ready to embrace the identity and status of exiles in the dispersion.[24]


Called to be aliens

Social isolation is not merely an act of self-preservation, but an act of love, a theological action. Our society has been seeking to slow the spread the virus, to buy precious time for health workers and researchers – to reduce the burden on the medical system and allow a vaccine to be found. We are sparing families and friends grief by preventing their loved ones from becoming infected.

Through social media and word of mouth I received anecdotal stories early in the crisis of churches that wanted to keep meeting for as long as possible. They resented the imposition of denominational instructions to cease public worship or feared a loss of income should congregations stop meeting. In March, belief in the power of the Eucharist to prevent transmission via a common cup was hindering serious preventative action being taking by churches in Greece.[25] Others disbelieved that the situation was that serious or was escalating that quickly; in the United States, megachurch pastors have disregarded health orders, calling the virus overblown and the public health orders in effect a threat to religious liberty.[26] Even in congregations in Australia there was scepticism and some resentment as we progressed from introducing hand sanitiser, to ceasing passing the peace, to ceasing communion, to the cessation of public worship.

The question is not one of how quickly did your church or mine adopt to the new realities of an online provision of services or small groups, but rather, what does the practice of agape love look like when community as we are used to practising it has itself become the problem, or more specifically a potential vector of transmission? Churches have spent so much time trying to gather people, to ensure a good morning or afternoon tea, to encourage a warm reception for people visiting our communities, that CoVid-19 has left us floundering. The virus and its associated dual repercussions in social and economic spheres cannot help but threaten the viability of churches. Some of the initial resistance to change may have had its genesis not entirely in love for people, but in fear of unsustainability should attendance drop or weekly offerings no longer occur. The virus has exposed unsustainable or outmoded forms of ministry that we were continuing to support because change was considered to be too difficult despite the contractions in both giving and congregational attendance.

However, if we put aside our concerns about coercion (by either state or church leadership), and recognise our fears and refuse to allow them to control us, we are left with question: what does it mean to seek the good of the city (indeed the country) when we reside here during a time of global pandemic? Love now means physical distancing. Love now means a time not to embrace. Love has meant closing the spaces and places that we hold dear. Love means filling in thirty-page CoVid Safe documentation and meaning it, not just going through the motions. Love means limiting the number of those able to gather when doors reopen. Love means continuing new patterns of meeting – maybe even without public singing or Communion for the time being. All of this is done to protect not only our immediate ecclesial family and community, but also the broader community – the polis as a whole.

What reputational damage is done to the gospel and to the church’s mission when stiff-necked churches refuse to close their doors and continue to meet in some fashion when governmental and medical leaders are pleading with people to practice social distancing? What damage is done when we as churches fail to love by following the best practices regarding social distancing ? There is a clear distinction here between a Pauline appreciation of being a fool for Christ’s sake[27] and just being a fool, if not a rank idiot. We may also want to question what submission to the governing authorities means, when on the one hand we want to encourage it in regard to the prevention of transmission of a virus, while on the other hand we stand with oppressed people groups in the face of the misuse of power by the government and police. Paul’s call to submit to the governing authorities is not absolute – there is a place for conscience, but it is too easy to reach for this escape clause too quickly because something inconveniences us.[28] The line of division between what God has rightly given to the state to order retreats when it impinges on what we would like to be doing (and conversely, like children bickering, we appeal to it when we want others to respect the government’s due authority!). Reflecting on Peter’s words, David Helm wisely reminds us that the point of Peter’s call to submission is not to elevate the act of coming under authority as the highest good, but rather the imitation of Christ himself;[29] in our time of exile, ours is a radical countercultural submission, because it is not the state that that determines the good, nor the many through an appeal to utilitarianism, but rather Jesus the divine one who emptied himself for others:

At the end of the day, Christians willingly submit themselves to people in authority because we desire our lives to be pleasing to someone, not something![30]

Reframing the Question: What are our practices communicating?

When our questions begin with our own rights and needs first, we miss entirely the call to live as sojourners with our passports marked as citizens of the new heavens and earth to come. When our concerns focus on ourselves first and foremost we miss the way of the one who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. To self-isolate and to suspend public worship during a time of global pandemic is not an attack on Christian liberty, rather it is a profoundly theological act for us to undertake. Just as Jesus would say of his own looming death – no one takes his life from him, rather he lays it down of his own accord[31] - so too we should approach this time as one not of the loss of liberty (though it may be) but something we do out of love for the other. Something we do to honour the authorities God has established. Something we do to love the most vulnerable. Something we do to love those undertaking medical care and scientific research. The cessation of public worship and deep concerns about its recommencement are not persecution or anti-Christian sentiment, but should rather come from our deep love and concern for each other, for the most vulnerable, for the common good; as Helm so succinctly puts it: ‘Freedom is for serving’.[32] As we contemplate recommencing public Christian meetings we must do so with this exilic principle of agape love for the other foremost in our minds. There is no going back to life as it was; there is only choice between acting so as to elevate our own desires (what the Bible would call sin) and acting with love for the other – a love that for now smells like hand sanitiser, that stays 1.5 meters away and that may even wear a mask to public gatherings. Love means bearing no ill will towards though who choose to continue to isolate, and indeed doing everything we can to support them.

With the first wave of the virus having receded (though Victoria is now facing a second wave), and calls to reopen churches alongside the economy, we must consider what love continues to mean in the ongoing age of CoVid-19. This time of ceasing public meetings has not been a negation of a Christian response to the moment, but rather a most profound action of theology in practice - of agape love in practice. What theology will our actions communicate to the world as we contemplate re-opening our doors?

Guerin Tueno is the Acting Rector of St Peter's Weston, Canberra. He was the 2010 Lucas Tooth Scholar, writing his doctoral thesis ‘Built on the Word: The Anglican Church of Australia and the Fresh Expressions of Church’ (2015). Ordained in 2005, he has served in churches in both Melbourne and Canberra.



[1] N.T. Wright, ‘Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To’, https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/, 29th March 2020.

[2] Alex Woodward, ‘Coronavirus: Televangelist Kenneth Copeland “Blows Wind of God” at Covid-19 to “Destroy” Pandemic’, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/kenneth-copeland-blow-coronavirus-pray-sermon-trump-televangelist-a9448561.html/, 4th May 2020.

[3] Elizabeth Williamson, ‘Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too’, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/29/us/politics/coronavirus-liberty-university-falwell.html, 29th March 2020.

[4] The Chronicle, ‘Seven Church Attendees Test Positive to Coronavirus’, https://www.thechronicle.com.au/news/seven-infections-from-one-sydney-church/3978118/, 21st March 2020. 

[5] Revelation 21 and Isaiah 65.

[6] Jeremiah 29:7.

[7] Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah. Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Georgia: Smyth and Georgia Publishing Inc., 2002), 410.

[8] Genesis 12:3.

[9] Fretheim, Jeremiah, 411-412.

[10] Philippian 3:20.

[11] Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William, B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 379.

[12] Romans 13:1-7.

[13] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans. The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William, B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 461-462.

[14] Romans 13:8-10.

[15] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William, B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 817.

[16] Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, 469.

[17] Scot McKnight, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2004), 58.

[18] 1 Peter 1:1.

[19] 1 Peter 2:11-17.

[20] Joel Green, 1 Peter. The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William, B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 67.

[21] 1 Peter 1:16-17.

[22] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William, B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 95.

[23] Green, 1 Peter, 68.

[24] Green, 1 Peter, 18.

[25] Michele Kambas and George Georgiopoulos, ‘In Era of Coronavirus, Greek Church Says Holy Communion Will Carry On’, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-greece-church/in-era-of-coronavirus-greek-church-says-holy-communion-will-carry-on-idUSKBN20W2N1, 20th March 2020.

[26] Tamara Lush and Chris O’Meara, ‘Florida Megachurch Pastor Arrested for Breaching Covid-19 Health Order’, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/31/coronavirus-florida-megachurch-pastor-arrested-church-amid-orders/5093160002/, 31st March 2020.

[27] 1 Corinthians 4:10.

[28] For a discussion of the topic in the context Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, see Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 805-810.

[29] David R. Helm, 1 and 2 Peter and Jude. Preaching the Word Series (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 92.

[30] Helm, 1 and 2 Peter and Jude, 92.

[31] John 10:18.

[32] For more on both the theology on care for the other, and particular preventative measures concerning Covid-19 see Matthew Pevarnik, ‘Walking by Faith and Wearing a Mask’, https://biologos.org/articles/walking-by-faith-and-wearing-a-mask/, 6th October 2020.

 


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