Christians and COVID—what are the issues and possible responses?
Earlier this summer, D. Gareth Jones, Emeritus Professor of Anatomy in the University of Otago (NZ) and renowned bioethicist, wrote an important essay outlining how the political leadership in his home country focused on the importance of community, the interests of one’s neighbors, and the need to treat each other with kindness. Jones would be the first to acknowledge New Zealand’s unique situation in the context of a global pandemic. Its population is comparatively small, inviting jokes about New Zealand as the home of more sheep than people. And, although it’s a richly diverse country with a global reach, its geography provides it with an extraordinary ability to limit travel into and out of the country. Even so, Jones highlights important insights worthy of emulation in a wide range of settings—including governments at various levels, of course, but also communities, schools, and churches.
Reflecting on the position and actions taken by the country’s leadership, Jones underscores the political will to close the country’s borders early and to have quick and firm lockdowns when required, the extensive use of contact tracing, the practice of bubbles, and the clarity of official messages. Undergirding these actions was the ongoing refrain “to be kind” and to remember that “we are a team of five million”—a message that proved to have real traction with people.
Jones enumerates the range of commitments that shaped decision-making and responses:
- Trustworthy leadership (and widespread trust in that leadership).
- The priority of science over political maneuvering: “This requires astute scientific advice and a readiness of the authorities to respond with alacrity and decisiveness as well as humility …, and a willingness to learn and adapt as infections spread and as detailed scientific and genomic sequencing evidence becomes available” (72).
- Equity in expectations and responses that refused to privilege one social or economic or ethnic group over another.
- Cultivating a general ethos that correlated well with basic Christian commitments toward others—even though “New Zealand is a liberal and largely secular society characterized by considerable skepticism toward Christian/religious things” (72).
What Christian commitments does Jones identify? Unsurprisingly, he points, first, to the question put to Jesus concerning the greatest commandment. Jesus yokes together as one the Shema—love God completely—and neighbor love: “No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12:28–31; see Deut 6:4–5; Lev 19:9–18). We may recall the Rule of Love by which Augustine judged faithful reading of the entire Christian Bible: “So any who think they have understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by their understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, have not yet succeeded in understanding them” (On Christian Teaching 1.86).
Second, Jones recalls Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), emphasizing “the importance of looking after others, our neighbors, whoever they may be, those who may be affected by our actions and our attitudes in our communities and farther afield. Above all, we are to look beyond ourselves and our own individualistic interests” (75).
Though he doesn’t draw attention to the absence from Scripture of the modern category of “human rights” (cf. David P. Gushee, “Human Rights,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, ed. Joel B. Green et al. [Baker Academic, 2011], 387–89), Jones does observe that “serving one another and laying down one’s life (rights) for others” is central to the Christian ethos. He draws the inescapable corollaries regarding caring for one’s neighbor, serving “the other,” for example, through donning face masks, practicing social distancing, and participating in efforts to vaccinate everyone, including oneself, who is eligible. “[T]his is Christian social responsibility in practice” (75).
Countries like New Zealand do not fall under the category of “Christian nation,” yet their responses parallel a number of Christian qualities, commitments, and values. Jones lists seven of these.
- Taking science seriously: “public health and allied measures contribute to a partial restoration of creation, including the partial redemption of the bodies of human beings” (73).
- The supremacy of truth: “Christians should be the first to oppose falsehoods … and conspiracy theories, as they are grateful for the scientific abilities made possible by God as a reflection of his providence” (73).
- Good leadership: “Leaders who act in ways that protect and provide for God’s creation are a sign of God’s blessing” (73).
- Valuing human life: protecting the health of others “depicts a willingness to put to good use means provided by God to overcome a destructive and debilitating force. For Christians, this is an apt illustration of the integration of science and faith” (74).
- Living for others: “Alongside kindness can be placed other fruits of the Spirit, including forbearance, goodness, gentleness, and self-control” (74).
- The enduring relevance of vaccination: “Most Christians accept that, historically, vaccination has been transformative for whole societies. They rejoice as they recognize God working through the creativity of scientists and the expertise of the medical profession. … In this regard, the pandemic fits into a long tradition of illnesses that Christians have had to face over the centuries, and have developed tools to combat them. Any society that appears to readily accept the death of large numbers of its citizens demonstrates that it has lost touch with the possibilities opened up by God, who never wants any to perish needlessly. There is no virtue in suffering if remedies are available, vaccination included. Refusal to accept the principles of public health and virology, and now vaccination, amounts to rejection of means made available by God; it is the antithesis of a mark of spiritual maturity” (74–75).
- Lockdown and consequences for mental health: “[I]t has become apparent that lockdown as a protective measure has debilitating effects on educational, psychological, and developmental attainment, especially for children with preexisting mental health conditions, and also on the economically underprivileged. Christians should welcome the message that the less lockdown the better, even as they strive to protect children and their parents from the ravages of a pandemic” (75).
Like others before him, Jones recalls Martin Luther’s famous letter, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” in which the famous reformer prioritized caring for one’s neighbor and community. “For Luther, people are bound to each other and are not to forsake others in their distress, and this led to an obligation to assist and help others. As a result, Luther urged people to take medicine, to disinfect their homes, and if at all possible, to avoid people and places in an effort to confine the disease. … His biblically based actions aligned remarkably well with the scientifically based measures underlying contemporary public health policies. In his own way, he was demonstrating the close alliance of science and faith” (67–68).
[D. Gareth Jones, “A Christian Perspective on New Zealand’s Response to COVID-19,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 72, no. 2 (June 2021): 67–78.]