by Rev. Chris Dela Cruz
There’s an impulse among Christian circles to respond to the Coronavirus with platitudes like, “We’ll get through it, God is in control.” “Don’t fear or panic, trust in God.” “Have faith and hope that God will provide.” “We just have to pray.”
I do not necessarily disagree. In fact, I resonated with a timely and poignant tweet from @Becky_Zartman, who writes:
“I keep thinking about how Julian of Norwich was a child of the Black Death, being 8 when it swept through Norwich. She also survived the Peasants Revolt and the Lollard persecutions.
‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’”
But this tweet is grounded in real experience from a Christian saint that takes into account the gravity of the situation and a deep Blessed Assurance rooted in real suffering.
In contrast, in the face of a global pandemic that could infect thousands of vulnerable populations and overwhelm our nation’s hospitals to deadly proportions and has already caused mass uncertainty and upheaval to our lives, “Keep Calm and Jesus On” Christianity bears no witness to Christ. It rings as hollow as someone in a burning building screaming for help being met with a passersby retorting, “Well, don’t you believe in God? Shouldn’t you be more at peace?”
“It is Well with My Soul” – a hymn written amid unspeakable tragedy, turns into “Everything Will Turn Out Fine, Since It’s Been Fine So Far – For Me Anyway.”
In some senses, I don’t think this “Christian attitude” has much to do with Christian theology at all. A week before the mass sports and entertainment cancellations that have rattled Americans, a grocery store clerk looking at the massive lines of overstocked carts (and, admittedly, my own heap of canned beans and frozen goods) sneered at people he claimed were being driven “hysterical” and said he wasn’t going to “overreact” because even if it got to mass infection and massive lockdowns, things would work out fine and “they would never let it get that bad.” “They” being a vague conglomerate of government institutions or relief workers or somebody that was going to take care of things so it turned out ok.
He gave no indication of Christian belief or even any vague spirituality guiding him. But his sentiment was rooted in the same faith that things will just be okay because they just will, so help me God, or so help me “They.”
“Keep Calm and Jesus On” isn’t a “peace that passes all understanding.” It is a false faith born out of our idolatry of American exceptionalism that posits that nothing that bad, especially not massive death and hospitals running out of life-saving supplies, can happen in America. It is a false faith rooted in reckless positive thinking that, while at its best has some psychological coping merit, at its worst prevents people from actually being in touch with their emotions – including, yes, fear! – and accepting and therefore responding to the actual situation at hand.
And most tragically, it is a false faith that places the emphasis on self-survival and self-comfort and away from the mandate every Christian says they believe in, which is to “love your neighbor.”
What if “trusting in God” truly meant: let’s assess realistically what is happening around us and call it for what it is – probably really, really, really bad – and then say, okay, but what can we do to still love others? This seems much more in line with the Biblical prophetic naysayers like Jeremiah and Isaiah, anyway, doesn’t it?
What if Christians saw actions like social distancing and canceled large gatherings not as inconveniences for our individual personal survival but as collective loving of our neighbors together – even while apart? Part of the problem of modern American Christianity is that we have so bought into the myth of hyper-individualism that we don’t understand working as a collective or serving in solidarity as part of faith, ironic considering the literal collective-solidarity images like the body of Christ with many members or many branches rooted in the one vine of Christ. Rev. Esau McCaulley’s plea for Christians to “Stay home” (www.nytimes.com/2020/03/14/opinion/coronavirus-church-close.html) makes sense when faith isn’t just about our individual relationships with God but our believing that God truly is working through all things, including you, Christians, acting out of love for all other human beings made in the image of God.
What if it was okay to acknowledge our own fear – and then work off that acceptance to call and comfort those I know who must be feeling fear and lonely themselves?
In other words, Christians need to really, well, believe, but understand what faith really looks like. Yes I do have faith! That’s why I believe that if this virus could affect people quickly, and I have any power to make sure that our doctors and nurses don’t get overloaded and then have to make awful life or death decisions about which patients get to have the limited ventilator (like has already occurred in places like Italy), then my faith is that God can use me and can use others for this, if we work together.
Forget the false hope of our hallow certainty. There is true peace life a river – all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well! – when we decide that despite the despair around us, Jesus followers choose to live out our call to love, even in ways that look differently than we’ve ever done them, and let God’s call to love be our guide in responding to the time we find ourselves in.
Rev. Chris Dela Cruz is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica in New York City. He also serves on the NEXT Church Strategy Team.