A Christian response to Coronavirus

The Christian Response to the Coronavirus: Stay Home

When loving your neighbour means keeping your distance.

By Esau McCaulley

Dr. McCaulley is an assistant professor at Wheaton College.

· March 14, 2020

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The pandemic forces the church as an institution to consider its role during a time of crisis. Many religious communities are suspending their typical operations. What should we think about this? Are Christians abandoning their responsibility to the sick and suffering?

Some Christians may be tempted to look back on their history of remaining physically present during times of distress. Starting around 250 A.D., a plague that at its height was said to kill 5,000 people a day ravaged the Roman empire. The Christians stood out in their service to the infirm. Because they believed that God was sovereign over death, they were willing to minister to the sick even at the cost of their lives. This witness won many to the Christian cause. Should we follow their example and gather to celebrate in word and ritual, in the sermon as well as the bread and the wine?

Doctors and nurses of faith can indeed draw upon this story today to inspire them to tend to those sickened by the pandemic. What about the rest of us? This remains certain in the ever-shifting narrative of Covid-19: the most effective ways of stopping the spread of the virus is by social distancing (avoiding large gatherings) and good personal hygiene (washing our hands). The data suggests that what the world needs now is not our physical presence, but our absence.

This does not seem like the stuff of legend. What did the church do in the year of our Lord 2020 when sickness swept our land? We looked to our phones, washed our hands and prayed. Unglamorous as this is, it may be the shape of faithfulness in our time.

There is a lesson here for a diminished church. It is not that the church should go away forever, but that heroic virtue comes in small actions as much as in large ones. We live in an age of self-assertion, where everyone is yelling, “Pay attention to me because I am the only one who can help.” But part of the Christian message is that God comes to us in ways that defy our expectations. The all-powerful empties himself of power to become a child. Jesus as king does not conquer his enemies through violence, he converts them to his cause by meeting violence with sacrificial love.

The church’s absence, its literal emptying, can function as a symbol of its trust in God’s ability to meet us regardless of the location. The church remains the church whether gathered or scattered. It might also indirectly remind us of the gift of gathering that we too often take for granted.