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Making Sense of Covid-19 Coronavirus

(PDF version: "http://abxn.org/covid19.pdf".)
(This article contains some initial ideas, awaiting discussion and amendment. It is intended for a Christian readership. Others might find insights therein, but must bear in mind the cultural assumptions woven into the text, of which they might not be aware or sympathetic.)

How do we make sense of Covid-19? Is God involved? What should we learn? What should we do?

As I write this, we in the U.K. are in lockdown because of the Covid-19 coronavirus. There have been many responses, "I'm scared", "Just focus on prevention and cure or care", "Keep social distancing", "It brings out the best in people", "Let's plan to get the economy back to normal", "It was prophesied", "It's a punishment", "Is it the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse?", "God is mending the world", "Don't try to understand, just lament". Though I find most of them plausible, I don't find any of them satisfying, and all of them are problematic in one way or another [Note: Responses to Covid-19].

I want a bigger picture, so as to be able to see which response is appropriate when. It is only when I understand that I can live effectively. As a Christian [Note: 'Christian'], I want to see Covid-19 from God's perspective, as far as that is possible. I want to see the lay of the forest as well as the individual trees.

Listening to the debates going on, both in Christian and in secular circles, I have sought to understand insights from each with a Biblical perspective (theological, practical and even philosophical). It seems to me that there are six things to understand, each able to begin with 'R'.

This article understands Covid-19 as though God is involved, not just on the sidelines. The stance from which I interpreted these is that of 'A New View in Theology and Practice' (http://abxn.org/nv/), which treats the entire Bible (Jewish and Christian Scriptures) as valid and important as God's revelation (Word) to the world. It is merely an understanding, not a truth (truth is ever beyond full understanding and can often be misunderstood) yet, if it lets the reader find useful insights, it will have served its purpose.

The following is a 'long summary' of these topics in bullet form, distilled from a longer draft that would take too long to complete. Some notes at the end expand some things. I suggest you do not try to read it straight through as you would a novel, but rather ponder the bullets a few at a time, in any order that you fancy, and maybe read it all after doing that. The bullets below may be useful as reference material, to quicken our thinking.

Realities - That Covid-19 Opens Us Up To

Repentance: Covid-19 Calls for a Change in Direction

Rewiring: Covid-19 Demands Deeper Changes than We Might Think: the 'New Normal'

Responsibility: Covid-19 Makes us All Responsible, Some Specially So

All of us are responsible together for this rewiring.

Representation: Covid-19 Calls Us to Higher Things

Reassurance: Covid-19 and Christ

Conclusion

This has been my initial attempt to make sense of Covid-19 from a Biblical perspective that goes beyond many of the ideas that are circulating today. I might be wrong about much of this, but if any of it is right, it needs saying. I welcome comments.

I believe: through Covid-19, God has given us a chance to repent and to rewire towards a responsible New Normal. God gave humanity the dignity of responsibility and representation, and reassures those who respond. Especially responsible are God's people in affluent cultures. God now offers his people a special opportunity to lead the way in this facing realities, repenting, rewiring and responsibility. Will we take it?

The need for this has been becoming increasingly clear in the call for climate and environmental responsibility, but clarity has not been a strong enough incentive to bring this about among leaders of affluent nations, not even among God's people in affluent nations, so God has graciously allowed something that gives us more incentive. We need a New Normal characterized by responsibility, and God's people are in an excellent position to lead humanity and its leaders towards that.

Will we engage with Christ in doing this, or will we return to the our beloved harmful non-essentials? Let us go ahead in trust, humility and courageous obedience, working to take God's warnings seriously. Let God's people in academia, politics, media and management foster and lead society's debate and action about exit strategies and what the New Normal should look like. How should we pray? See some suggestions below [Note: Praying about the Covid-19 pandemic].


NOTES

These are notes that expand points referred to above. It is intended that sources for this material will be added later.

Note. Responses to Covid-19

"I'm scared!" - There is much in our lives that Covid-19 knocked away or knocked off balance. Jonathan Tame's article 'Coming to terms with Covid-19' ("http://evangelicalfocus.com/blogs/5194/Coming_to_terms_with_Covid_19") sets out many of these very well. "Let's focus on preventing, curing or caring" is the very understandable response of the health and care sectors, and of those affected directly by the illness.

"It brings out the best in people" is conveyed by the many snippets I have heard on the radio or through Youtube of what people have done, some self-sacrifcing and some creative or fun. Many are helping each other. Every Thursday, people stand in their doorways and applaud the health workers. I have noticed that many more people are walking around our locality than ever before. Wonderful! And yet - how long will that last, and how can we ensure it does last? Even though the media like to portray heart-warming examples of the best, what about the worst? This article briefly suggests how this might occur.

Those are 'local' responses, of people within, and coping with, each situation. The remaining responses are ones that abstract away from the details, seeing the proverbial forest rather than individual trees. Such are the responses with which this article is mainly concerned.

"Get the economy back to normal" is Donald Trump's attitude, and that of some other politicians - but should we do so? What is normal and why should the old normal be preserved? Are there not parts of the economy that do not deserve to be rebuilt? This article suggests one basis on which the New Normal might be debated.

"It was prophesied" - but the prophets do not usually say what to do about it. One kept on saying "We must pray. We must pray\! ..." and got a round of applause for doing so - but gave no indication of what to pray. This article tries to think about God's Plan in more detail.

"It's the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse." - But surely there have been even worse plagues in the past.

"It's a punishment" - but for what? Some Christians too easily say it is for evils they see in secular society. This article shows that if there is punishment, it is for something much deeper, and it might especially fall on affluent Christians - on 'us' not 'them'.

"Don't try to understand, just lament" (N.T. Wright "https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/"). - But this makes God distant and inscrutable, it makes hope too vague, and it robs us of incentive to repent and change. This article tries to put lamenting in context.

"God is mending the world" (Justin Brierley) - But how, and in what way, and what is our part in that? This article tries to show how.

Note. 'Christian'

My background is Evangelical, Anglican, Scottish Presbyterian, Baptist, Missionary, Holiness, Charismatic, Calvinistic, Arminian, and perhaps a bit of Celtic. See "http://abxn.org/spiritual.journey.html".

Note. GDP

GDP, Gross Domestic Product, is seen as the ultimate measure of 'the economy', and all governments and businesses want it to keep growing. But GDP is a bad, false measure of real prosperity or, a popular phrase these days, "human flourishing". It increases when we break or throw away things and buy new rather than repair or recycle. It increases with crime, because we employ more police, prisons and pay and receive more insurance. Yet Government policy is strongly influenced by what will increase GDP ("benefit the economy").

Yet GDP was not mandated by God, but by narrow human rationality. Do Jesus' words "You cannot serve God and Mammon" apply here? According to Bob Goudzwaard ('Idols of Our Time', IVP) economic growth is an idol. Should not those who follow Christ turn society away from this idol? Economic growth is not necessary for human flourishing.

To read up on this try, e.g. T. Jackson (2009), 'Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet', London: Earthscan.

Note. Covid-19 Saves Lives ?

News has just emerged that it may be that Covid-19 might in fact be saving lives. By vastly reducing traffic, air pollution has plummeted, and many people are likely to live that would otherwise have died. The numbers are interesting. "Two months of pollution reduction "likely has saved the lives of 4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China," he said." March 17, 2020 - while deaths from Covid-19 in China of people of all ages were only 3231 on that date.

See "https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/17/coronavirus-could-be-saving-lives-pollution-carbon-emissions/5066718002/"

Note. Covid-19 Figures

At the time of writing, it seems that by far most of the cases of Covid-19, and most of the deaths, have occurred in China, Europe and North America, with relatively few in Africa. For example, the WHO Situation Report for 16 April 2020 shows figures confirmed cases/deaths in China, Spain, UK and USA as 83797/3352, 177633/18579, 98480/12868 and 604070/25871, but only 2506/34 for South Africa and only 373/11 for the vast nation of Nigeria. The figures have been of this kind throughout the pandemic so far. Of course the basis for reporting differs by nation, but to me these figures show that Covid-19 has hit the affluent world far more than the Two-thirds world. What will happen if Covid-19 hits Africa as it has Europe and the USA, with much weaker health systems? I just pray God's protection on Africa. For the latest figures, see "https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports".

Note. Animals

Most of the following material comes from Dr. Philip Sampson, to whom many thanks. See Philip's book, Animal Ethics and the Nonconformist Conscience, for more.

It might be no accident that, in Genesis 1, mammals and humans were created on the same 'day', strongly suggesting kinship rather than superiority. Thomas Ken's ancient doxology "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below" expresses a Biblical theme that all animals, and indeed all Creation, form a choir of cosmic praise to the Creator, with humans as leading that song (e.g. Psalms 104, 148). Do we usually leave this insight with the hymn sheet in the pew? Not only do we go home and eat the choir, but we pay an industry to provide animal flesh, knowing that it routinely entails the physical and sexual abuse animals, to serve what Paul calls the 'belly god'.

C.H. Spurgeon was very outspoken about those who claim to be Christians but who are cruel to animals. Does not Proverbs 12:10 tell us that animal cruelty is wickedness? Leviticus 18 tells us the bestiality is wrong. Around two-thirds of novel viruses originated in animal populations and were transmitted to humans as a result of the cruel way we exploit God's creatures. If it turns out, as is likely, that Covid-19 originated in this way, then it poses serious questions about how we treat animals. This is in addition to the fact that animal farming, with its travel and other processes, is the largest source of greenhouse gases.

Humans have responsibility to be good shepherds of the animal kingdom. It was, as one nonconformist put it, "sin which taught the master to eat the servant", and heinous evil has extended this to widespread, non-essential gluttony. This responsibility extends form individual choices about eating to national decisions about animal welfare.

Scripture refers to the restoration of animal-human relationships. The gospel is good news for animals. Historically, when christians have turned to the bible, animals have benefited, both individually and legislatively. Jesus shows us what this looks like. From the outset of His ministry to His entry into Jerusalem, Jesus sets us an example of how we should treat animals. Should not Christians represent Jesus properly in this matter? If we changed our treatment of animals to facilitate their disclosure and worship of God, many environmental issues would be alleviated.

Note. Non-essentials

How much of our lifestyles is the non-essentials? It is difficult to find any figures for how much of our transport or goods are really necessary and which are non-essential. However, Covid-19 has forced one figure to emerge. On 8 April 2020, the UK Road Haulage Association reported that 46% of the UK truck fleet was parked up because nobody was purchasing "non-essentials" (the word they used). So nearly half the goods transported are "non-essential"! If so, could the transport sector halve its carbon footprint if we no longer demanged non-essentials? Of course, it is not as simple at that - but it does oblige us to find better figures and take action.

However, some Christians (and others) dislike such a message. A couple of people reacted to a draft with: But does not God want us to enjoy ourselves? What about music? What about enjoyable food from developing nations - does it not provide an income for those who grow it? We were really blessed when we flew abroad. Is not God extravagent in providing for us and blessing us?

These questions have challenged me all my life alongside the notion of responsibility, and a full answer cannot be found here. Yes, God supports "non essential" delight - indeed, God wants the entire Creation, human and non-human, to "sing" and "clap". Yes, even plants like trees or vegetables; CS Lewis expressed it as "the kind of joy a vegetable can have".

Yet, is there not something deeply evil when we the affluent demand, expect and justify increasing amounts of pleasure, comfort or convenience for ourselves when the provision of them harms others? Exotic foods grown in Kenya for example rob local people of land to grow their own food. Is it right to import (demand, expect) tropical fruits (oranges are 90% water) from lands without enough water for their own people? Does not this transfer water in the wrong direction? Is it right to fly to developing nations and stay there when (a) flying disproportionately serves the wealthy (only 20% of the world' population have ever flown) and contributes disproportionately to climate change emissions, (b) our expectation of certain levels of comfort, water-availability, food, etc. puts unseen pressures on local resources? Christian development agencies like TearFund have recognised these realities for years; are our donations to them doing much more than merely undoing the damage that we ourselves do?

There is no easy answer to those those questions. I don't want to ban pleasures. But do the questions above not disguise a self-centredness that is not of Christ? Whatever level of affluence we enjoy, do we not think it is 'ok' and only those richer than us are extravagent? Should we not "take heed to ourselves", questioning our assumptions, expectations, aspirations and 'demands'? Maybe we can get just as much joy out of life by simple, local things, especially the natural world? They say "Travel broadens the mind" - but does it not also narrow the mind, like a telescope offers a narrow view of distant things so we don't see what's near?

Link: "thegenerosityproject.com".

Note. The New Normal

There needs to be debate in society about what the New Normal should be like. Nor just debate about what the New Normal can be or might be, but about what it should be. What future should we, as people, politicians and pundits, aim for and aspire to?

Do we not need to avoid going back to the full panoply of harmful extravagence that characterized the affluent lifestyle? At least to some extent? Covid-19 has revealed that people, including Christians, have shown (a) some awareness that things before were "non-essential" and even harmful, (b) some willingness to find good in the simple things of life including the natural world. Is that not fertile soil for debate about what the New Normal should look like?

Debate must involve everyone and will take some time, so we need to begin it very soon. Yet our politicians and opinion formers are not seriously leading on this. Is this an opportunity for God's people to take a godly, loving, humble and bold and challenging lead?

It seems to me the following things need to be debated:

I believe that Christians who are fully dedicated to Christ have an opportunity and responsibility, with reassurance, to help society think this through. We are called to work towards the harmony of Creation is God's Plan in Christ, which includes what happens here on this earth as well as in the New Earth. It includes especially climate and environmental responsibility.

Note. The Full Gospel of Christ

The full Gospel of Christ has three dimensions, not just one (See "http://abxn.org/nv/3ds.html"):

That is what enables rewiring of society -

people who know peace with God, who have let the Holy Spirit dwell with in every part of their lives, growing love, joy, peace, patience ... (Galatians 5:22-23), who then have their Heavenly Father's attitude of proactive love towards all Creation.

It is Dimension 3 that leads to rewiring, but rewiring will be unsustainable without Dimensions 1 and 2.

Human attempts to rewire, without the three dimensions, e.g. by Extinction Rebellion, might not be sustainable over the longer term. Yet they are not to be condemned nor wasted; It is the Spirit of God who implants desires for this, and we need to work with them as God leads.

Rewiring must involve action at individual and societal levels:

Of these:

Note. Tom Holland

Historian Tom Holland has argued that Christianity, far from being a curse to the world, has been a great blessing, and things like care for the poor and self-giving love come from the Gospel of Christ rather than from ancient Greece. See "https://youtu.be/AIJ9gK47Ogw" for a short piece of an interview with N.T. Wright, "https://youtu.be/nlf_ULB26cU" for the full interview, and his 2019 book, Dominion, for a full account.

Note. 'Radah'

God gave human beings the responsibility to "rule over" (Hebrew radah, Genesis 1:26-28). As argued in "http://abxn.org/radah.html", this is not the arrogant lordship of consumption but imaging God's love towards all Creation, as its shepherds ("http://abxn.org/nv/shepherds.html"). It is not a pleasure-seeking privilege but a joyful, loving responsibility.

Note. Climate and Environmental Responsibility

Why do I focus on climate and environmental responsibility and not, for example, poverty? Because of the times we are in. We are in unique times, when humanity, through its technology and economy, multiplied by 7 billion, is changing the planet and damaging the ecosystem as never before. Whilst asteroids might have done this before (according to some theories), humans have a responsibility that asteroids do not - a responsibility to image God to the rest of Creation. See Page on Radah, "http://abxn.org/radah.html".

I wonder whether "affluence, arrogance and unconcern", the reasons for which Judah was taken away (Ezekiel 16:49), are the main causes of the current climate and environmental crisis. Rather than imaging God to the rest of Creation, have we not destroyed it or at least acquiesced in that destruction because of our aspirations for comforts and conveniences of affluent life?

To be frank, I believe that those Christians who deny or seek to downplay our climate and environmental responsibility are dishonouring Christ and working against what God is doing today. It saddens me. See "http://abxn.org/ccge/".

Note. Israel

I'm not here going to get into the status and role of the Jews and the modern nation of Israel today in God's Plan. I happen to greatly respect the Jews and take Romans 9-11 seriously; see "http://abxn.org/nv/romans9-11.html".

Note. Sacred-secular Divide

I wonder if the idea of representing God might help us overcome the sacred-secular divide - the mindset in both Christians and secular people to tend to see each other as rather irrelevant or worse). The idea of representation God allows us to see a positive rather than negative place in God's Plan for the whole of humanity as well as for Christians (and for Jees) - the same kind of place. None is excluded, but how each is included in God's Plan is different.

(This is not universal salvation; the Bible clearly shows that some go to perdition - but it is the proud, arrogant, unconcerned who do so. See the difference in attitude between those on the king's right and left (sheep, goats) in Jesus' parable. Salvation is probably much wider than most evangelicals presume.)

Note. Amos and the Difference in Responsibility

See the opening of Amos, to find this difference. It contains seven "woes" in judgement on various nations. The first five are the surrounding nations, and God criticises them for what we might today call war crimes. The last two are Judah and Israel, and God criticises them differently, for ignoring God's law and for worshipping idols. But surely the surrounding nations worshipped idols, so why did not God criticise them for that too? Why only Israel and Judah? Because Israel and Judah were meant to be God's people, God's representatives, showing what the Living God is like and what life subject to the Living God should be like - but they refused to do so.

Note. Jeremiah 45

The short chapter, Jeremiah 45, contains the striking statements, that God is pulling down what God built up, uprooting what God had planted, and bringing destruction on the entire world. At first I was shocked. If God uproots what God planted, then is it not God's admission of failure? There must be something more beyond this. I tackled the difficulty and reached a summit, from which I could perhaps see farther. It was part of God's response to the people of Judah refusing their role of representing God as a nation among nations; they would be removed - though later they would be restored - and God would represent Himself in Jesus Christ, opening up a new era in which all peoples would benefit from knowing the Living God.

I wondered: Might something similar happen to God's second people, Christians as a whole? Then I realised that God had built up Western Christianity to be a beacon in the world, but we had refused to represent God aright, especially in the major issue of climate and environmental responsibility. So might God be pulling down Western Christianity? Recent events, like 9/11, economic crises and now Covid-19, could perhaps indicate this. See "http://abxn.org/discussion/jeremiah45.html".

Note. Psalm 91 and God's Promise of Protection

Psalm 91 says "he will save you from the ... deadly pestilence". This has been taken as a promise to individuals of God's protection - to him/her "who dwells in the shelter of the Most High". So some members of the more extreme Christian groups have flouted Covid-19 lockdown. For example, Patient 31 in South Korea, who attended close-packed worship services of a quasi-Christian sect while in a fever (though according to Bloomberg's detailed analysis she was first told by a hospital that she did not have Covid-19). Nevertheless, does not dishonour come to the Name of Christ by those who do do?

I believe that God does protect individuals. Such protection is not automatic, not a mechanical law, and God does sometimes allow the 'elect' to 'suffer' (often in ways that even the sufferer recognises are a blessing). That is a complex issue, which includes our mis-perceptions of what is 'suffering', and is not discussed here. What is more important here is protecting others - from infection by me and from my setting a bad example. We are called to "look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4). 'Food offered to idols' comes to mind. In that attitude, I should lockdown etc. for the sake of others. And rejoice humbly in the bigger picture, such as this article has tried to paint.

Note. Praying about the Covid-19 Pandemic

CARE sent round "Ten Ways to Pray About Coronavirus", which are summarised as:

Most of them respond to the problems we face in the situation, as sufferers of Covid-19. On reading those, I felt something was missing, and was challenged to ask myself, what else would I pray? So I began to put down some notes of what else I might pray, and the following ten points flowed out quickly, without much struggle (which, in my life is often a sign of something being 'right'). The list below is different, being about the bigger, longer-term picture, and how to move forward to the 'New Normal'.

Maybe we can pray from the two lists together. (See "http://abxn.org/covid19.praying.html".)


This page, "http://abxn.org/covid19.html" is part of Andrew Basden's abxn.org pages - pages that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext, in the style of classic HTML.

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Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain easy conditions.

Created: 9 April - 24 May 2020 by Andrew Basden with help from Maurice Manktelow, Paulo Ribeiro, Andy Sawyer, Sue Halliday, Judith Basden, Phil Sampson, all of whom provided valuable comments, some of which forced me to think hard.

Last updated: 13 April 2020 responded to some of AS's comments, and MM's. Began splitting responsibility. 15 April 2020 responded to more comments, especially about non-essentials. 16 April 2020 finalising I hope. 18 April 2020 Typos; New Normal, Covid-19 Figures, extra bits. That version. Removed email address from website version. 19 April 2020 added thanks, new .end, a bit more on responses, CSL. 20 April 2020 a few minor rewordings. That version. 21 April 2020 what to pray; responsibility shown. Rid about marketing. That version. 26 April 2020 hand of God. 28 April 2020 revamp some collections of bullets to make them less confusing, and moved the bit about 3 Dimensions of Salvation to Notes. Added about Tom Holland, added link to Non-essentials not. That version. 28 April 2020b wrote missing not on Jeremiah 45, and inserted internal links. That version. 1 May 2020 Air pollution. 5 May 2020 Most harm lands on those who did not cause it; persuasion, generosityproject, praying repentance away from affluence idol. 6 May 2020 Psalm 91. Added http links and pdf version. 7 May 2020 a few minor changes. 9 May 2020 saves lives. 16 May 2020 on repentance; finished piece on saving lives. 17 May 2020 a few changes to Repentance, and small error; what God says. Better on non-essentials. 19 May 2020 small rewording of conclusion. . 24 May 2020 returned first section to 'Realities' instead of 'Rethinking'; 'where is the love of God'? Animals.