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Toward a Christian Response to Coronavirus

José María Tojeira

 
 

In perilous times, introspection is vital. When organized religion forgets to self-examine, and when uncontrolled feelings cloud its judgment, it can seriously misstep. In the Christian framework, reflection and feeling must align with our faith in God the Father, who is the essence of love and whose living word is Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord. In the face of disaster, fear, or threat, love must always point us to solidarity and service. In the Book of Tobit of the Bible, we read that Tobit, a devout Israelite, went about—at his own risk and against the orders of the king—burying his fellow Israelites, who had been killed by the king and condemned to rot in the fields. The truly devout always act in solidarity, at their own risk, and in spite of the challenges.

The Bible is replete with what we call miracles. Perhaps, then, we are tempted to invoke miraculous responses to our own problems, to lean on the divine without first seeking a change of heart. Those who doubt this can turn to the Gospels, where Jesus shrugs off temptation to jump off the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’s miracles always show that faith is an act of willful submission to God—not a tool to satisfy our personal whims. The will of God is to grow in love and charity, which transforms us from the inside and compels us to build God’s kingdom on earth by following Christ’s example.

In some cases, the religious have been quick to float notions of divine punishment as the causes of the covid-19 pandemic, and to misleadingly suggest that rituals and religious rule-keeping can protect individuals from contagion. None of these are truly Christian ideas; nor is the panicked, selfish hoarding we have seen in some supermarkets. The twin cults of individuality and consumerism too often stoke fear in moments of collective strife, quickly converting religion into yet another product for consumption—one that, supposedly, grants us immunity or promises survival.

We would do well to pause and reflect, then, on the Christian outlook on the coronavirus pandemic gripping El Salvador and the world. First, we must take in the magnitude of the situation; the pandemic is a collective problem. The term "pandemic," derived from Greek, refers to a disease affecting an entire population. Collective problems require collective solutions. Consumerism, which has already dug its roots into our culture, always urges us to look out for ourselves. We see this in people making bulk purchases far beyond their needs, those exiting the country through blind spots along the border, or simply those who ignore hygiene protocols based on the illusion that nothing will befall them. We fail to realize that these individualistic mentalities end up putting us all at risk, including the healthy who plan to make it alone.

As long as irresponsible, sink-or-swim attitudes prevail, the number of cases will continue to rise, leaving us all at heightened risk. As we raise awareness of our shared risks and vulnerabilities during challenges like this pandemic, we must devise shared solutions in line with our Christian belief that we are all sons and daughters of the same "Father in Heaven."

This collective social conscience helps us each to grow in responsibility and judgment. In light of the drastic preventative health measures taken, which are the responsibility of the state, each individual should think critically and contribute by paying particular attention to our chief responsibility: following individual health guidelines. Others’ failure to do so has overwhelmed even the health systems with the most resources in the world, putting at risk their entire populations. 

I might think that I can dodge the pandemic’s consequences while I ignore health guidelines, hoard resources, and lean on my personal connections. Even then, an overwhelmed health system would not be able to adequately help one of my children if they were to fall upon a bad case of appendicitis. At this point, my irresponsibility would have backfired. Tasking each person with dutifully following health guidelines blunts the impact of the pandemic, which could befall any of us despite our invincibility complexes.

This blend of awareness and responsibility, at once Christian and secular, is not just the sole rational individual response to an epidemic; it’s also the best way to dispel fear. Historically, epidemics have unleashed panic and fear, generating irrational thoughts and actions that make things worse for both society and individuals.

The best way to overcome fear is to confront its authors. Awareness and responsibility, together with Christian hope and love, are the best protections against fear and its underlying causes, which otherwise would compel us to look out for ourselves and spread destructive chaos during mass threats. The apostle John reminds us in his first epistle that “perfect love drives out fear.” Christian love is not merely a feeling, but rather a deep-seated attitude that carefully mediates life’s fundamental choices with an eye toward action. Fear, on the other hand, either paralyzes or hastens destruction. Through love, we seek the sensitivity to better understand reality, weighing our own experience with that of others, and in turn transforming the collective reality.

As our Christian and other faiths call us to be the salt and light of the earth and to collectively respond to challenges, they also offer dynamic, creative models for overcoming any disaster, be it physical, biological, social, or behavioral in nature. Suppressing collective gatherings—an area where churches wield significant influence—is essential in times of contagion, but inadequate on its own if we fail to show solidarity with the poor and dispossessed. This solidarity is a rebuke of personal and political attitudes not at the height of emergency response and offers essential moral and spiritual support to those carrying the brunt of preventing the spread of the virus and caring for the sick and affected.

Neither the state nor the church should stoke feelings of fear or guilt. State officials responding to the emergency, as well as doctors, nurses, journalists, essential workers, businesspeople, and solidarity organizations deserve words of encouragement and support from religious organizations. As the ultimate judge of our lives, Jesus, commands us in the Gospel of Matthew to serve our neighbor by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and caring for—today's—sick.

Reducing the loss of life and other health impacts of a pandemic threatening all is a core Christian responsibility. Overcoming fear, keeping our sights and consciences fixed on reality, and working together to carry out preventive measures and meet emerging needs are shared tasks. And for Christians, introspective, consecrated prayer is likewise a vehicle for solidarity.

*Translated by Roman Gressier 

Spaniard by birth and a naturalized Salvadoran, José María Tojeira is a Jesuit priest belonging to the Society of Jesus. He presided over the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA), a private Jesuit university, from 1997 to 2010 and is currently the director of the Human Rights Institute of the UCA.

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