Last week in our discussion, the novel coronavirus and the disease it triggers, COVID-19, was a background issue framing a larger conversation around how we think about our own mortality. This week, though, we’re going to put the virus front and center in our conversation.
This is thanks to an article by Cape Cod pastor Bruce Epperly on what makes for healthy and unhealthy theological responses to coronavirus. Epperly’s article can be found at the website Patheos, and I’m going to excerpt parts of it here to help set the dimensions of our topic. A key point to keep in mind is that despite announcements from the White House, the virus is far from contained, whether here in the US or abroad, and its human and economic costs are mounting dramatically with each passing day. Epperly writes:
We see the volatility of the stock market and the uncertainty of our pensions and congregational stock portfolios. We hear of panic in grocery stores as hand sanitizer flies off the shelves and families stockpile canned soup and other non-perishables. We ponder the novelty of this virus and wonder if we are at risk as we move from handshakes and hugs during the Passing of the Peace to fist bumps, peace signs, and elbow nudges.
In thinking about what a theological take on coronavirus might entail, Epperly starts with two key points. First, our theology must be able to speak to immediate concerns, or, as he says, “address the headlines” while at the same time encouraging quiet prayer, meditation, and worship. He cites the example of Isaiah going to the Temple during a time of national crisis and encountering God, who gives him the vocation to challenge the injustice and idolatry of his nation.
The second point Epperly makes is that theology must follow the Hippocratic ideal of “first do no harm.” That means challenging “harmful theological speculation” that claims COVID-19 is God’s punishment for the immorality and sinfulness of ours or any nation, that prayer alone is sufficient to keep the disease at bay, that as God’s chosen we will (either as individuals or as a nation) be spared the worst of the crisis, or that we alone are responsible for our physical health or illness.
So what would a healthy theology of coronavirus look like? Here’s what Epperly suggests:
[G]ood theology involves both trust and action. God is at work in the world, seeking healing and wholeness, inspiring physicians, researchers, nurses and other health care givers, first responders, and compassionate friends. God’s work involves us. God needs us to be companions in responding to this crisis. As St. Teresa of Avila affirms: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” We are God’s agents in healing the world.
So this is the starting point for our conversation this week. We’ll start with a simple question: What changes in practice has your workplace made in response to the coronavirus? How about your place of worship? More importantly, how do you feel about those changes? Do you think they are reasonable and appropriate or overblown and unnecessary? Then we’ll move on to the deeper questions. How does your understanding of theology, in other words how we understand the nature of God and our religious beliefs, shape the way you think about what has now become a global pandemic? Is God calling us to some kind of response to this crisis, and if so, what might it be?
Join us for the discussion tomorrow evening, Tuesday March 10, at Homegrown Brewing Company in downtown Oxford. The conversation begins at 7 pm.