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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 2

How the Church can respond to the coronavirus pandemic

If you had asked someone on New Year’s Day 2020 what they envisioned the year ahead might look like, few would have imagined that the first few months would be spent canceling trips, events, and academic semesters. Families and college students hadn’t planned to spend their spring break in quarantine. Most businesses didn’t enter the year in fear of stomach-turning Dow Jones plummets and sobering market uncertainty. Regardless of projections, governments across the world are taking extensive measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

History is no stranger to epidemics and pandemics. But it’s times like this, when looming uncertainty becomes the global lingua franca, that Christians have the opportunity to showcase the best of humanity. Yuval Levin, writing for the New York Times, urges Americans—particularly those of us who have strong institutional allegiances—to take an honest assessment of ourselves and ask, “Given my role here, how should I behave?” This is the question that those who take their institutional roles seriously are now asking themselves. For Christians, the answer is given very clearly in Matthew 22: We must love God and love our neighbors.

In the second century, the Antonine Plague wreaked havoc and death across the Roman world. Paganism, the ruling religion of the time, did not possess a theology of care and compassion for the sick, which led many of the diseased to be abandoned to their fate. However, Christians who are compelled by the compassion central to Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” took a different approach. Professor John Horgan notes that during the plague, “Christians often stayed to provide assistance while pagans fled.”

These early believers regularly risked their lives by taking in the sick and providing the dead with proper burials. Instead of allowing fear to drive them to turn their backs on suffering men, women, and children, they courageously went into the most perilous areas to bring comfort, care, and the Gospel. Over the centuries, the moral courage and institutional strength of the Church has been one of its greatest assets.

Is the Church of the twenty-first century prepared to handle tragedy and disaster with similar grace? Are our moral muscles conditioned to show compassion and care during times of crisis, or have we allowed them to atrophy, content to allow others to be our brother’s keeper? Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law, recently wrote that during this outbreak, “The government will need to provide food, medicine and support for the lonely, fearful or depressed.” Without a doubt, the government has a crucial role to play during such a crisis, and we should pray for wisdom on behalf of our elected officials. But the question remains: How much of the burden to provide food and support for the lonely, fearful, and depressed should the Church help shoulder?

As advocates of limited government, one of the best ways we can promote confidence in civil society’s ability to respond to tragedy is by responding to this pandemic ourselves. The Christian example of charity evident in the weeks and months following Hurricane Harvey is a modern-day example of how the Church is at her best when she is carrying the burdens of others.

As this virus spreads, those with weak immune systems are most vulnerable and need to take commonsense measures to avoid infection. However, there are untold numbers who have weakened emotional immune systems and are working overtime to cope with the stress tied to uncertainty and fear. Here are several ways that we can respond to this crisis, showing love and compassion to those who are loaded down with anxiety and fear.

Get creative about fostering community

Few things are more isolating than dealing with physical or mental illness by yourself. The sick often feel discouraged to engage with the outside world, sometimes out of fear of rejection. Longstanding relationships are often forced to come to terms with the new dynamics that the limitations of the sickness demand. 

As governments and private entities look for ways to slow down the spread of this virus, events are canceled, travel is restricted, employees are asked to work from home, and many people are undergoing mandatory or voluntary quarantines.

Regardless of the cause, when social interaction is discouraged, or forbidden, it can foster feelings of loneliness and isolation. Without question, these measures are taken to protect individuals, especially those with weaker immune systems, but that doesn’t make the feelings of alienation any less painful. Now is the time to think creatively about how we can foster a sense of community, utilizing the digital platforms available to nearly all Americans.

Encourage the fearful

Scripture tells us that we have not been given a spirit of fear. Unfortunately, we see panic set in for the masses quickly, with near non-stop coverage of disasters and outbreaks stoking the tinder of fear that many are already battling.

Because fear of the unknown can have a paralyzing effect, we have to be intentional about combating it. Uncertainty of what might be lurking around the corner has crippled many. Yet even when tragedy and suffering rear their ugly heads, I Thessalonians 4 reminds us that we don’t grieve as those who have no hope. Instead we can take comfort in the truth that no matter what struggles we face in this life, God’s sovereignty is a sure anchor. Look for ways to encourage those struggling with debilitating fear. Invite them to view today’s concerns through the lens of eternity.

Stand alongside the suffering

In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus suggests that one indication of a person’s salvation is how he or she takes care of the sick. History has shown that the early Christians took their mandate to minister to the ill seriously. If Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (which He is), then this directive is no less relevant in our present time.

Instead of succumbing to feelings of frustration over the multitude of people whom we can’t help, we can turn our attention to comforting and standing alongside those within our sphere of influence. It’s true that we can’t help everyone. But those of us who are able-bodied can begin by reaching out to those closest to us.

There are many basic, tangible ways we can meet the needs of the sick that stand to make a considerable difference in their lives and can also serve as a character-forming experience for us.

The integrity of our institutions is tested during times of tragedy. It’s usually in such crucibles that our character is revealed. We have an opportunity to exercise our institutional muscles by putting them to good use during this period of uncertainty and fear. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

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Doug McCullough is a director of the Lone Star Policy Institute and a corporate attorney at the Texas law firm, McCullough Sudan.