“Will a surplus Russian gas mask protect me from coronavirus, or should I buy an actual respirator?”
These are the questions we ponder on social media in the year of our Lord 2020. Three weeks into the United States’ experience of the coronavirus pandemic, our lives are radically altered. Terms once the domain of specialists (“R0,” “CFR,” “the curve,”) have entered our common lexicon. Schools are closed, business shuttered, employees laid off or sent home. Events which occupied our national consciousness a month ago are subsumed by the coronavirus—the furor of Super Tuesday seems frivolous compared to our current reality. We have crossed the threshold from “normal life” into “history.” “What did you do during quarantine?” is the new “where were you on 9/11?”
Our interconnected world helps and hinders our response to these events. Despite our physical isolation, the blessing of technology means we can still connect with others. Yet, the same technology floods us with information which politicizes the crisis and fans flames of panic. For every Zoom birthday party, we find posts like the above. It seems as if our only options in this season are stoic indifference or constant anxiety.
The Church is not exempt from the turmoil. Our rhythms of ministry and fellowship have been disrupted. We face questions about how and when to use technology to gather. Yet, this crisis is not simply a disruption of our services to be endured. The Church has a long history of offering something more in crisis. When the state sees catastrophe, the Church sees opportunity. Since the Antonine plague of the second century, responding to crises with love and hope rather than panic and fear has been a rich component of the Christian heritage. So, how do we offer more to our culture than a stiff upper lip or doomsday predictions?
Prudence versus Paranoia
The book of Proverbs is devoted to the practical pursuit of wisdom. For Solomon, righteously following the commands of the Torah results in material blessing for not only the individual, but their community as well. Yet, Solomon’s exhortations are not merely spiritual. Solomon encourages his readers to work hard, store up crops, and consider their actions. While the foolish are reactive—guided only by their desires and whims—the righteous make wise decisions which lead to individual and corporate thriving.
This ability to make wise decisions is classically termed “prudence.” Aquinas, quoting Augustine described prudence as “the knowledge of what to seek, and what to avoid.” As the body of Christ, the Church is called to seek the common good and avoid fleshly impulses. Thus, in moments of crisis, Christians must exercise prudence in what outcomes, ends, and opportunities they seek, and what emotions, actions, and attitudes they avoid.
Yet too often crisis causes us to reject prudence in favor of paranoia. Rather than seeking individual and communal good, we give in to fear. We become foolish and reactive. We begin to look inward, seeking selfish ends rather than the common good.
A contemporary example of this movement to paranoia over prudence in the face of crisis is the “prepping” subculture. While prudence dictates a measure of preparedness for common emergencies—owning a fire extinguisher, maintaining a supply of food for power outages and severe storms, creating financial margin in our household budget, etc.—if unchecked by prudence we can let fear drive us to anticipate wildly improbable scenarios and pursue near comical levels of stockpiling.
For, if we’re honest, most “prepping” is simply doomsday consumerism. We spend money to gather supplies we’re unlikely to ever use and will only peripherally benefit us—the only group that truly benefits from the purchase of a surplus Russian gas mask are purveyors of surplus Russian gas masks. Doomsday consumerism attempts to combat the uncertainty of the world through self-medication. We spend to anesthetize ourselves to the unpredictable nature of crisis.
While most of us are probably not stockpiling thousands of N95 masks or fleeing to a bunker in the hills, our culture’s race to horde toilet paper, food, and alcohol demonstrate our penchant for paranoia. In crisis, the temptation is to seek our wellbeing—to ensure we have access to items we deem critical, we remain healthy, and we minimize the disruptions to our routine. Yet, the Church has the opportunity to call its members to more than consumer-driven panic or selfish apathy. Prudence acknowledges the scope and severity of the crisis we face but insists we avoid selfishness, for selfishness exacerbates disruption and strangles our public witness.
Fear versus Faith
The rejection of selfishness and paranoia in favor of prudence is the outworking of a deeper conviction. The coronavirus crisis is ultimately driven by fear of economic, political, and personal upheaval. Worse, coronavirus is a communal threat—effective response requires us to lay down individual preferences and desires for the common good. Pandemic strips us of our autonomy and individuality.
Social distancing alters our rhythms, quarantine restricts our freedom of movement, and infection raises the specter of our basest fear—death. At its core, the coronavirus brings us face-to-face with the ultimate human fear, the fear of death. In a society that lives for the moment, rejects transcendence, and embraces pleasure as the highest good, coronavirus is a shocking reminder of our fragile mortality.
Thus, our responses are filtered through our desire to fight for autonomy and survival. We choose what we seek and avoid out of our desire to avoid death. Whether we seek the numbing of consumerism, the comfort of isolation, or the ignorance of apathy, ultimately we seek our individual security. Yet, crisis strips away the idols and insufficiencies of our culture. Good times allow us to numb ourselves with distraction, addiction, and hustle, but crisis forces us to confront our brokenness. We are incapable of ensuring our security.
In contrast, the cross and the historic witness of the Church stand in opposition to the fear that wracks our culture. The call of the gospel is to come and die. The mission of the Messiah was to suffer and die for the good of others, yet through His obedience “by his death he has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again he has won for us everlasting life.” Crisis thus creates opportunities for renewal. In crisis, the Church proclaims hope—and when confronted with the dark despair of a global pandemic, the hope of the gospel shines even brighter.
Furthermore, crisis grows us as individual followers of Jesus. The Christian faith is built on a willingness to lay down one’s desires and wellbeing in favor of the common good—to let the gospel determine what we seek and avoid. Rather than fighting for our survival and autonomy, we submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. We look out not just for our interests, but also the interests of others.
This willingness to seek the Kingdom over the individual good is what catalyzed the historic Christian willingness to embrace martyrdom. Crisis asks us to refuse to allow fear to determine what we seek and what we avoid, and instead choose our response to coronavirus from faith.
Hence the resurgence of Luther’s “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” which has become (justifiably) en vogue among Christians discerning an appropriate response to the coronavirus. Luther’s emphasis in his letter to Breslau is on how Christians can take individual action in support of communal good. Instead of exclusively seeking their own welfare, followers of Jesus are called to seek the welfare of all through their actions. In essence, the Church’s response to the coronavirus is to love our neighbor.
Love of Neighbor
Love of neighbor is a radical policy when faced with disease spread by our neighbors. Loving our neighbors is costly. It exposes us to inconvenience and potential danger. Yet, our mandate remains the same. So, how do we love our neighbor amid a “deadly plague?”
First, prudence suggests preparation, but from different motives. Rather than hoarding from selfishness, we prepare with the intent to give our abundance away. Paranoia drives us to stockpile for our own preservation, but prudence, wisdom, and love for our community compels us to generosity that results in not just individual, but corporate blessing. In a time of economic turmoil and quarantine, the gift of a roll of toilet paper or a bag of groceries is a potent expression of neighborly love.
Next, crisis gives us the opportunity to grow in the discipline of seeking the common good. The coronavirus illustrates our mutual interdependence—contra the myth of the rugged individualist, we are not self-sufficient or autonomous. Vocations once scorned (grocers, truck drivers, gig workers, stay-at-home-parents) are revealed as integral to our communities. Thus, this pandemic provides an opportunity for the Church to celebrate the dignity and communal value of all work, regardless of economic output.
Furthermore, a pandemic requires us to consciously evaluate how our actions impact others. Rarely do we consider the consequences of our actions beyond their effect on our immediate relationships. However, the coronavirus illustrates how consequential our seemingly mundane choices are to those we cannot see. For healthy individuals, travel restrictions, social distancing, and shelter-in-place orders can appear to be inconsequential policies ignored at our convenience (“At the end of the day, I’m not going to let coronavirus stop me from partying.”) yet for the elderly, immunocompromised, or otherwise ill, they are matters of life and death.
Thus, our decisions to voluntarily isolate, cancel events, and wash our hands are another way we give ourselves up for the good of others in the pattern of our Messiah, and they provide opportunity for us to develop the habit of examining the impact of all our actions on our community.
Finally, the coronavirus calls us to be future-minded. The temptation in crisis is to devote our time and effort to the immediate. However, wisdom calls us to focus on what is now, but also what will be next. Whether our communities are directly impacted by the coronavirus or not, the secondary effects will influence those in our circles. Canceled events and shuttered business will lead to reduced wages for employees. Isolation will increase anxiety. Coronavirus will eventually fade, and we will find ourselves in a post-pandemic world. The illness itself will eventually pass, yet the upheaval will linger.
The Church must be prepared to step into the post-coronavirus world with faithful prayer and radical generosity. In this season of isolation, we must spiritually and physically ready ourselves to emerge and publicly gather in communities that have lost jobs, businesses, and loved ones. Throughout history, the Church has risen in crisis as salt and light. In fire, famine, war, and plague, we have faithfully proclaimed that the God of Israel is our fortress. The way we choose to love our neighbors in the pandemic of 2020 is our contribution to that legacy.