I recently read an article that described COVID-19 as a grace for the world.
At first I baulked at the thought. However as I kept reading I felt that it connected with what I had already been intuitively thinking.
To imagine the Coronavirus as a grace to the world is indeed a very ‘dangerous’ idea. How could we possibly see it this way? So far we have seen thousands of deaths, governments seemingly unable to respond in time, the economy slowing down and probably heading towards recession, people panic buying, an increase in anxiety and loneliness, the command to stay home and socially isolate and finally a growing sense that things will never again return to what we considered normal.
There is grief in this. My husband and I have aging parents as so many people do, and of course our concern is for them as they are in the most vulnerable group for infection. And what about those who are weak, homeless or living with chronic health issues? What will happen to those marginalised in our community? When we frame it this way it’s hard to see the Coronavirus as a grace to the world.
However at times like this we are called to see the future in the present’ - a definition of the word ‘pioneer’ that I came across recently. When I look at the current season that humanity is going through, I can certainly see the chaos and devastation but I can also see hope, light and God reaching out to a broken world.
All over the world we have seen examples of people connecting locally with their place and with their neighbours in this difficult season. We have seen people engage in small acts of kindness such as giving each other much sought-after goods like toilet paper, hand sanitiser and other necessary items. There have also been more organised attempts at caring for those who are shut in or isolated by offering to do shopping for them. People are coming up with creative solutions to brighten up the day such as posting encouraging notes in people’s letter boxes, connecting neighbours through organised walks, writing on pavements with chalk to encourage people, and organising local Facebook groups to support local businesses and neighbours.
The list is endless and everyday I seem to be reading about more and more neighbourhoods that are doing acts of kindness and care that bring a smile to my face.
While the dark side of humanity has reared its ugly head during this pandemic, overall the goodness of humanity is shining through. Moreover, people are discovering their neighbourhoods and local spaces. They are practicing the ‘spiritual discipline’ of neighbouring. Perhaps this will even help more churches to think outside of themselves and get involved in their local communities. Local acts of hospitality can forge ties across race, gender and social status in order to make a local community even stronger. Christine Pohl in her book Making Room: Rediscovering hospitality as a Christian tradition writes:
A community which embodies hospitality to strangers is a sign of contradiction, a place where joy and pain, crises and peace are closely interwoven. Friendships forged in hospitality contradict contemporary messages about who is valuable and good to be with, who can give life to others. Such communities are also signs of hope that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to a struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable.
Getting to know the ‘other’ in our community can bring healing.
Limiting our excessive consumption
In their book The Abundant Community: Awakening the power of Families and Neighbourhoods, John McKnight and Peter Block write that local communities and having a strong neighbourhood are not just a ‘nice idea’, but rather are essential to awakening the power of the citizen who has been turned into a consumer. As we realise the limitations of institutions, we see that power for change and the building of a flourishing community lies in the engaged citizen rather than the complacent consumer. These times are making us realise that we have all become wedded to the narrative of consumerism. As our incessant global travel plans are cancelled, non-essential retail shops are shut down, trendy food outlets close and our drive for bigger and better is curbed, perhaps this will lead to a more humble yet productive economy. Maybe slowing down our economy will help us care for the environment and take climate change more seriously. Perhaps it will lead to stronger local economies less reliant on the global market. This season could actually usher in a new kind of society that is less materialistic, more measured and more focused on the things that really do matter in life.
A refocus on what really matters in life
I have heard many of my friends lament that, as their plans and jobs are put on hold, they have been overwhelmed by a sense of purposelessness and existential angst. This is completely understandable. We all need purpose in life and many of us find that purpose in our jobs, health, travel plans and study. However as our plans are altered and many of the things we took pleasure in are cancelled, this forces us to ask: ‘Where do I find my identity?’ ‘What is my purpose in life?’
It is confronting to be faced with life’s ultimate questions. However, those important questions can be masked by the daily hum of life that can shield us from thinking more deeply about who we are and who we are becoming. Often we don’t think about the props we have created in life that we lean on for support until those things come crashing down. Times of crisis like the one we are facing now can help us think about what kind of human we want to be, what we want to lean on for our existence and also where God is in relation to the things we see as crucial in our lives.
For the Christian, this season can offer us a new way of being the church. As we face lockdowns we must ask about our dependency on the Sunday church service and pastoral leadership. We must think about the scattered church as primary rather than putting in so much production effort into church services, for instance. Could the Coronavirus be an opportunity to free up people’s time so that they are able to engage in their neighbourhoods and embody God’s love?
This does not mean that we cast off the church service. Many churches are now livestreaming their Sunday services, though we can ask if this too is creating consumers rather than disciples. It is an interesting liminal time for the church and it will take wisdom from Christian leaders to navigate the way. However, now is an opportunity for the church to truly be the salt and light of the world that God wants it to be. Stanley Hauerwas, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, says: ‘To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes the change visible’. How do we live faithfully as a preview of the embodiment of the kingdom of God in these times?
Opportunities to ask ‘Where is God in all of this?’
Some of my friends in the neighbourhood have asked me in words more or less to the effect of: ‘Why is this happening?’ The general consensus is that our world – ‘nature’ or ‘the earth’ - is damaged and it is telling us that something is wrong. It is a time to listen. I agree with this. Of course what we believe as Christians is that there is a personal Creator who is grieved at the devastation of this world. The Creator sees greed, injustice and lack of mercy and groans. This epidemic is a sign that God wants us to pay attention to how we are living.
Will we change? Will we care for a broken planet? Will we focus on the things that matter? My hope is that we will. Walter Brueggemann tells us in The Prophetic Imagination that:
Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.
We must ‘call into question’ the present and see the potential of a new normal that will eventuate after this awful season is over. And we must hope for and act to make this new society a place that is for the flourishing of humanity.
Karina Kreminski is an ordained minister and has a doctorate in missional formation. She teaches at Morling College and lives in Sydney’s inner city. She is co-founder of Neighbourhood Matters and is the author of Urban Spirituality: Embodying God's Mission in the Neighborhood (2018).