It’s becoming cliché to say it, but it seems we are living in extraordinary times. Times when previously common, everyday items — items we barely noticed in our day-to-day living — become scarce commodities. Toilet paper. Tinned beans. Trust in our neighbours. Common civility. Times when Australia has come to lead the world in emptying supermarket shelves and fighting in the aisles — only to see such behaviour become globally viral.
Viral. Now there’s a word. And these extraordinary times have indeed been triggered by a virus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or 2SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes (coronavirus disease, or COVID-19). And the conditions of late modern globalised economics and mass transport allow for the possibility — and actuality — of its rapid spread. Despite the early rhetoric of some world leaders, it is a serious illness — now a pandemic — that poses serious risks to people’s health, especially to the elderly and those with underlying respiratory conditions or who are immune compromised.
So, let me be clear: we are facing a serious, global pandemic that poses serious risks for millions of people if not handled well.
‘Extraordinary times’ and the illusion of control
But, to be fair, that does not make these extraordinary times. They feel extraordinary to those, like me, who have been shaped by life in a modern, ‘Western’ environment, with good, reliable access to clean living conditions and sophisticated medical services. But in terms of global realities and world history, epidemic and even pandemic illnesses are hardly extraordinary.
Many communities today, and most urban communities throughout human history, have not had reliable access to safe drinking water or decent sanitation, making regular epidemics of typhoid, cholera and dysentery a fact of life. Moreover, it is only in the post-WWII era that antibiotics have become widely available, allowing us to effectively treat diseases that used to kill us. But all of that is now taken as given in a country like ours. We expect to be shielded from the kinds of diseases that have ravaged human beings through most of our history on this planet. It’s no wonder, then, that we feel that these times are extraordinary.
So, let me reflect on all of this from a theological and philosophical perspective, seeking to diagnose, so to speak, the underlying malaise and suggest a possible remedy for it.
As has been frequently noted, one feature of a society like ours is a desire for control and the illusion that we have it. Ours is the most technologically sophisticated era of human history, allowing us to shape almost every aspect of our lives. The cities we live in depend on a complex network of services which, in turn, depend on highly developed infrastructure, transport and communication systems, and human expertise to function. All of which we take for granted. We have a degree of control over our housing and energy use, our patterns of living, even our landscape and our own bodies that would have been unimaginable to people a century or two ago (except, perhaps, science fiction writers — predictions of hoverboards and interstellar transport notwithstanding!). We have the means to bend our world, and even our bodies, to our wills.
There is, I would suggest, a corresponding blindness to the inherent vulnerability of the human condition, even a willed blindness, a refusal to acknowledge it. We tend to think of vulnerability as an occasional state that is suffered by everyone occasionally, or the occasional person regularly or permanently. It is a condition of early childhood or advanced age; of serious disease or infirmity; of those with chronic illnesses or permanent disability. It is not something that characterises people like us. Of course, this is profoundly wrong, as the rule of threes makes clear (three minutes without oxygen, three hours without shelter in a harsh environment, three days without water, or three weeks without food will kill us — as might a passing bus, or a falling tree or a ruptured aneurysm). We are vulnerable creatures, dependent on a well-functioning world, a well-functioning community and a caring God for our life and flourishing. But that awareness doesn’t seem part of our social imaginary — indeed, it seems to be systematically excluded from it.
"We are vulnerable creatures, dependent on a well-functioning world, a well-functioning community and a caring God for our life and flourishing."
And so we don’t quite know what to do when something interferes with the control (or sense of control) we are used to, when the world or the human condition shows itself not subject to our will, when the vulnerability that is actually a constitutive element of the human condition is exposed. Other than seek to reassert that thwarted control, to deny at a fundamental level the inherent vulnerability of the human condition.
Something like COVID-19 both strips away the illusion of control to reveal the vulnerability that always lurks beneath, and confronts us with the anxious realisation that we are frail and mortal. It also exposes the way we’ve been captured by an economics (and sociality) of scarcity and competition, rather abundance and grace.
Our economics (which has tended to drive social policy in public discourse) presupposes a world of limited resources and unlimited desires, a zero-sum competitive game in which one person’s (or community’s) gain entails another’s loss. When we play that game the result is the paradoxical creation of a scarcity that existed only in our fearful imaginations as we strip supermarket shelves to shore up the tissue-thin illusion of control, and make sure that I and mine don’t miss out. Anxiety’s acids dissolve the thin veneer of civility, and a Hobbesian state of conflicting acts of power ensues.
Surely, we want to be different, we are called to be different, to inhabit a different story. A story not of control and fear, but of vulnerability and love; not of scarcity and competition, but of abundance and generosity. The story of the gospel. What might it look like to inhabit that story?
Surely, we want to be different, we are called to be different, to inhabit a different story. A story not of control and fear, but of vulnerability and love; not of scarcity and competition, but of abundance and generosity.
A gospel-shaped response
A commitment to love and an economics of generosity would result in something very different to stripped shelves and fighting in the aisles. Sure, those in a position to do so need to provide for those who depend on us, but not at the expense of others in the community — a garage full of toilet paper, tinned beans and hand sanitiser doesn’t seem to me to reflect a community of shalom. We don’t need to hoard — in fact, we must not do it. If we do find ourselves with a surplus (whether by accident or previous thoughtlessness), perhaps we might offer to share that with others, and so help generate an atmosphere of trust in which others feel free to share their surplus, and so show that together we had what we needed after all.
A recognition of common vulnerability would result in something very different to fear and withdrawal. Sure, we would ensure appropriate social distancing. But not as a response of self-protective fear, but as an act of solidarity with the elderly and immune-compromised, demonstrating our shared vulnerability and the care that is proper to a well-ordered community.
The faith and hope and love that ought to drive us would result in something that looks very different to much of what we’ve seen on viral videos of xenophobia and violence. We would turn to God in prayer. Not as an anodyne excuse to ignore our responsibilities to our neighbour, nor as a panicked retreat from danger and distress. But as a way of standing in love with a fractured society and anxious people, converting our own anxiety into trust that might be reflected in care. Prayer — and practical care — that embraces (metaphorically, I suppose, in conditions of pandemic) the nurses and doctors, teachers and police officers, and, for that matter, bus drivers and café workers amongst us who are on the front lines of the response to people in their illness, and communities in their anxiety and distress.
We feel we live in extraordinary times, that we face an unprecedented crisis, requiring an extraordinary response. But, perhaps it’s not so extraordinary. Perhaps neither the circumstances we face nor the responses it should evoke are unprecedented. For millennia human beings and the societies they create and inhabit have faced — and faced down — contagion and pandemics. And for two of those millennia communities shaped by a particular vision of the world, of humanity, of human community and the God who governs it all have responded to these and other catastrophic exposures of human vulnerability. They have responded out of a vision shaped by the gospel, and they call us to do likewise. They call us to inhabit a good news story that combats whatever bad news we might hear and that shapes how we respond to it.
"They have responded out of a vision shaped by the gospel, and they call us to do likewise. They call us to inhabit a good news story that combats whatever bad news we might hear and that shapes how we respond to it."
And so, recognising the reality of our vulnerability and the fear that it generates, we refuse to ignore that vulnerability or be controlled by that fear. Instead, we turn again to Jesus, to his profligate generosity, to his embodiment of the God of creation and of Israel, the God of love and justice. We remember the grace that brings abundance out of poverty and showers blessing on every human being and every human community — just or unjust. We trust in the goodness of God and recognise that God has given us all we need — and more. And so we can be confident that the provision of our needs doesn’t require that we ignore the needs of others or deprive them of what they need now in order that we can have what we might — or might not — need in the future. For we know that our future is safe in the hands of the God of love, of redemption, of new creation. That even should our acts of mercy cost us dearly, even if this crisis overwhelms us in death, we have entrusted our lives into the hands of the God who will not let us go and who will raise us together in Christ in a glorious future.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we do live in extraordinary times. But if so, we are nonetheless invited to embrace an ordinary response. A response grounded in faith, fueled by love, confident in hope. The response of ordinary Christians throughout our shared history. The response of the gospel.
Andrew Sloane is Senior Lecturer in Old Testament and Christian Thought at Morling College, Sydney. He is trained in both medicine and theology, and has a particular interest in the theology and philosophy of medicine.
This article was first published by Ethos engage.mail at http://www.ethos.org.au/online-resources/Engage-Mail/faith-and-hope-and-love-in-a-time-of-coronavirus Reproduced with permission.
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