Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the world, one notices two contrasting reactions, reminiscent of the story of the calming of the storm at sea in the Gospel of Matthew (8:23-27): “Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’ He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.”
Confronted with real danger to their lives, the reaction of the disciples is pessimistic and hopeless. For them, the storm is spelling the end of everything: “We’re going to drown!” On the contrary, Jesus’s response is composed, summoning the disciples to bring out the best of themselves. Jesus is in effect saying to them, “Why do you let fear overcome your hope? Is there nothing within you that you can rely on to face this menace? Am I not right here with you?”
In many ways, the apostles’ situation resembles our own during this global coronavirus epidemic. There are also two dissimilar responses to it. One is representative of the attitude of the disciples, typified by the media, especially the social media. Amidst the storm of this ongoing universal threat of the COVID against human life, most of the media is reacting with panic and hopelessness. There is no shortage of “information” there, galore with doomsday scenarios as well as detailed conspiracy theories. Much of this is, however, misinformation or, indeed, disinformation, to do with the epidemic being a deliberate plot by some people, groups or nations to reduce or eliminate certain human populations – especially the poor and the darker races of humanity – for political and economic reasons. Reading them, and considering where they originate from, some, unfortunately, sound quite convincing.
Upon reflection, most such posts are designed to induce fear and despair at best, and at worst suspicion and hate. It is not that we should be naïve about the goings-on of some individuals and nations against others, or that we should underestimate the gravity of the situation. As is quite evident, humanity is suffering. At the same time, we must recognize that as human beings we are sinful and capable of deeply sinister motives in our actions. The problem of the media, however, is the often sad exaggerated portraits it paints, as if the undeniable malevolence of a portion of humanity is now the controlling mindset and agenda of the whole world. On account of the persuasive and convincing power of the media, it easy to see how these sinister portrayals unconsciously breed disruption in the lives of millions of people in communities, and even nations, and poison encounters between and among human populations on a large scale.
But there is another, quite different, reaction vis-à-vis the COVID epidemic, one similar to that of Jesus in the boat. This contrasting response is now also very obvious to the world. Contrary to a feeling of despair and hopelessness, it is one that brings out the best of what is human (ubuntu, in African philosophy) in the hearts of numerous individuals and groups. Ubuntu is characterized by faith, hope and charity. Rather than pessimism, it is dominated by optimism, leading people to face the COVID pandemic in a positive, hope-filled attitude. Its overriding perspective is to save lives or ease suffering. We are referring, obviously, to the courage of numerous doctors, nurses and other health care workers and care-givers throughout the world who, putting their own lives at risk, bravely attend to the sick daily in every way they can.
Tragically, in the process some of them succumb to the disease and die. However, this does not deter others to heed the call to be at the service of the vulnerable. Like Jesus’s own death on the cross, theirs is a sacrificial demise that is ultimately on the side of life. For every decent human being (umuntu), and for people familiar with the deepest meaning of the Christian faith, the consequence of this sacrifice is unfathomable. It builds confidence (in God and humanity), that encourages a hopeful outlook toward God’s gift of life and the strength to face any adversity with courage rather than despondency.
To a section of the human population, such a response indicates nothing less than “foolishness.” To the doctors and nurses and others volunteering to treat and take care of the victims of COVID some say, “Why expose yourself? Why put yourself so directly in danger?” But one thinks here, for example, of Paul’s response in 1 Corinthians 1:18-32. He was in the midst of a similar situation of conflict, where people were tempted to go into depression, ignoring faith in the power of God residing in people of good will to heal each and one another. They viewed hope and optimism during moments of adversity as foolishness. But Paul warns: “… the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” He elaborates that for those who believe “it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’… For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” It is the same lesson we can draw from those who sheltered Jewish people in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust (1938-45) and, more recently, those who did the same the to the Tutsi and moderate Hutu people during the Rwanda Genocide (1994).
In our current context, Paul is pointing out that it is in these doctors, nurses and other humanitarians – whom some would consider “foolish” – that the invisible hand of God is made visible. These people manifest in their work the glory of God. The story of healing of the blind man by Jesus in the Gospel of John (9:1-7) can be cited as an apt illustration of this theological claim: “As he went along … [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” As long as they are able to assist in this way, or, in Scriptural language, “as long as it is day,” they must do the work of God. The time is coming [“night”] “when no one can work.” Without trying to fish out proof texts from the Bible, we could read Hebrews (4:15) as a favorable comparison between the work of the COVID doctors and the salvific work of Jesus: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are.” The COVID combatants are putting into practice the commission of Jesus to the disciples as a practical expression of their faith in him as the universal healer of humanity.
Observing their attitude and work, regardless of their faith orientation or none, it is hard not to notice how the COVID ministers from all over the world, including China and Cuba, are responding in a literal way to Jesus’ commission to the disciples (Mt. 10:8-10) to selflessly “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons [because] Freely you have received; freely give.” That the glory of God may be displayed, COVID is acting as a leveling agent. It has brought humanity together as never before in recent memory to realize that as human beings we are all connected. Racial, national, religious-faith and class differences are really secondary. What is needed for the survival of humanity is transformation of the human heart toward reconciliation and unity. In the final analysis, humanity is the same boat. Every one of us must play their part to keep it from sinking. As the saying goes, “We’re all in this together,” and together, but together, with the best that God has freely granted us, we can and will succeed. Acting collectively and mutually in favor of life is the ethical thing to do.
During this effort, a few practical challenges ahead must be faced. One is the imperative for all people to avoid apportion blame too quickly and superficially whenever something goes wrong in the struggle against the COVID pandemic. The other is the need to cultivate a spirit of proportionality when governments or other social organizations take practical steps to arrest the spread of the disease, such as instituting protocols of social containment or distancing, because this can easily lead to mindless extremism or fanaticism. In society in general as in the church, the guiding principle should always be what best serves life now, but no step taken should be at the expense of human rights and dignity of anyone. Here is the true meaning of mutuality.