Psalm 91 in a Time of Pandemic
The following video is derived from Dr. Derek Olsen’s presentation for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, May 27, 2020. PLEASE NOTE: You may need to pause the video on some slides to allow time for reading the text. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]
St. Mary’s Seminary & University has long embraced Pope St. John Paul’s commitment to ecumenism and celebrates the 25th anniversary of his encyclical – Ut Unum Sint. For over a half century, St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute has been a center of theological education, dialogue, deeper understanding and reconciliation among all Christians, in dedication to Jesus’ hope and prayer, “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” (Jn 17:21)
USCCB Chairman for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs on 25th Anniversary of Encyclical on Catholic Church’s Commitment to Ecumenism
WASHINGTON – On the anniversary of the encyclical. . . on the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism, Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton and chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, has issued the following statement:
“May 25, 2020, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint. . . .This anniversary should serve as a reminder that the way of ecumenism is the way of the Church (7), and that all Catholics are called to espouse a strong commitment to building Christian unity.
“Pope St. John Paul II, who worked tirelessly to build ecumenical relationships, described the impulse of working for unity between Christians as ‘a duty of Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love’ (8). We rejoice that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have continued to advance this singular mission between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities. We celebrate numerous theological convergences that have been discovered in ecumenical dialogues over the course of the past twenty-five years as we seek to grow closer together.
“Pope St. John Paul II concluded this encyclical with a profound insight from St. Cyprian’s Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer: ‘God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace. For God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord, and a people made one by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ (102). In a time of pandemic, people seek refuge and unity in their faith community. May this anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s call for Christian unity serve as a unique pastoral opportunity to build bridges by continuing to reach out with love to all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. May He heal our wounds of division and help us grow closer in unity, especially in this moment, by witnessing together to the peace of Christ that our world needs so very much.”
Keywords: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB, Bishop Joseph C. Bambera, Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Pope John Paul II, Saint John Paul II, ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, encyclical, Christian unity, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis.
Very Rev. John C. Kemper, P.S.S.
Retired Provincial Superior
United States Province of the Society of St. Sulpice
St. Mary’s Seminary & University community joins with the Sulpcian community in mourning the death of Fr. John Kemper. Fr. Kemper struggled valiantly against esophageal cancer, diagnosed eighteen months ago and which unfortunately quickly metastasized. Through his strong spirit, determination and love for the work he was doing and the excellent medical care he received, Fr. Kemper lived much longer than originally expected, a testament to his strong will and positive attitude. Let us all pray for the peaceful repose of Fr. Kemper’s soul and for his family.
Requiescat in pace. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.
The following is the full text and accompanying resources from EI historian Dr. Stephen Lloyd’s #TheologyTownHall on May 20. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led by different members of the EI community.]
Healing has a central place in our Christian faith. The pages of the Bible are filled with healing. God heals, prophets heal, Jesus heals, and Jesus’ followers heal. Healing is a form of divine service, as Jesus tells his followers that when they care for the sick, they are indeed caring for him. Christians look forward to God’s coming kingdom in which all will be healed. God’s mission in the world is inconceivable without healing and caring concern.
We are now faced with a major pandemic, in which healing and care is absolutely vital. Yet as a Church, we find ourselves in uncharted territory. Most of us have never face “stay-at-home” orders or “safer-at-home” recommendations before. We struggle to think about mission in the context of social and physical distancing. Jesus said, “Go,” but now we are being told to “stay.”
Looking back at the history of healing and Christian mission might give us some insight into how we can move forward. Certainly, the way Christians care for people has changed, but two things have been constant:
- Christians, when at their best, have met sickness with prayerful concern; and
- Christians have used the best contemporary medical knowledge available to promote physical healing.
Prayerful healing has marked Christian history from the very beginning. Before Christianity enjoyed legal status in the Roman Empire (i.e., before 313 CE), Christian mission was largely successful because of Christian healing efforts. When there were epidemics, pagan doctors, like Galenus, often fled to avoid illness. Christians, however, cared for the sick, and their pagan neighbors took note of this tendency.
Lucian was evidently impressed; he said, “It is marvelous how these men rush to one another in misfortune.” But not all pagan observers were so positive. Julian the Apostate was perturbed that Christian communities provided care not just for their own, but people who were not members. He rightly worried that by caring for non-members, Christian numbers would increase.
Statistician-turned-historian Rodney Stark argued that even without modern medicine, simply caring for somebody (feeding, hydrating, keeping cool/warm/comfortable) increased his or her chance of survival. Those cared for by the Christians, argued Stark, would have survived at a higher rate.[i] This certainly gave a miraculous mystique to the early Christians, yet it would have also made them a very attractive community. The healed person would find a natural fellowship with a healing community, and, perhaps, even want to pay that forward.
Medical historian Gary Ferngren has argued that these early Christians were not simply relying on miracles for healing. Instead, they engaged in a variety of techniques, which included contemporary expert medical advice, folk medicine (remember Paul’s advice to Timothy that he “take a little wine for the stomach”), prayers, and the use of sacred objects. When it came to the healing mission of the church, Christians would try what might work from a variety of sources, both Christian and non-Christian.[ii]
Care for the poor, sick, and otherwise vulnerable became part of the institutional landscape of the Christianized Roman Empire beginning in the fourth and fifth centuries. While arguing that trust in medicine should not supplant trust in God, early Church fathers actively promoted the formation of hospitals (for the sick and poor) and monastic infirmaries. Gregory of Nazianzus famously sought to reduce the stigma against diseases such as leprosy. The ill were not outcasts being singled out by God, but victims of misfortune who required both spiritual and physical healing.[iii]
Institutionalized Christian care continued into the early Middle Ages. Christianity spread throughout much of northern Europe through the establishment of monastic communities. These communities frequently established hospitals and infirmaries that tended to the sick and the poor and served as places of refuge for travelers.
Monastic hospitals were run by highly educated monks who relied on a variety of techniques and medicines that were thought to be effective at the time. We now know that promoting cleanliness was probably good, herbal remedies may have had some efficacy, and bloodletting was probably a mistake.[iv] Nevertheless, much like their earlier counterparts, these monastic medics understood illness to have both physical and spiritual components. They used medicine within a religious context.
But when we think medieval, we don’t think medicine. We think dirt, grime, cloudy skies, and plague. During the massive Bubonic Plague outbreak, commonly called the Black Death, 75 to 200 million people died worldwide. Between 1331 and 1353, Europe lost a third of its population. Some major towns lost half of their population in just six years. It was an unsettling pandemic that turned Europe on its head.
Both religious and medical authorities were completely unable to respond to the situation. Half of Europe’s priests died, probably becoming contaminated while administering last rites. People desperately grasped at anything: they asked for the intercession of saints, they engaged in group self-flagellation (later banned by the church), used pagan spells, and some even tried to summon fairies. Charlatans pushed fake cures. Some people went into hiding, others engaged in a myriad of licentious behavior with whatever time they had left.
Christian mobs scapegoated Jewish communities throughout Europe, leading to lethal anti-Jewish pogroms.[v] In many ways, the Black Death demonstrated just how unmooring pandemics can be. I also think its important to recognize that the history of Christianity and healing is not unambiguously positive: poorly considered Christian responses made the situation worse.
To be sure, there were some milder and more pragmatic responses to plagues. In 1527, the reformer Martin Luther wrote a letter to Johann Hess on “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” While Luther did not condemn people who stayed as a testament to their faith, he ultimately endorsed a more pragmatic response to illness. If you were needed either to attend to the spiritual or physical needs of the community, then you should stay. If people’s needs were cared for, then fleeing a plague (or using any other available means to stay healthy) would not be un-Christian.
Luther lampooned the idea that we ought not to save ourselves from sickness because sickness is a punishment from God. It’s like saying if there’s a fire, don’t put it out, or if you fall into water, don’t try to swim, but rather let divine judgment overtake you. Luther thought this silly line of reasoning might as well deny the desire for salvation, because, after all, the fires of hell are a just punishment. Luther took a pragmatic stand. He wrote,
Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.’[vi]
While we would disagree with many of his formulations and assumptions, it seems that Luther might have understood the need for physical distancing.
During the 16th and 17th century Enlightenment, medicine and theology became increasingly distinct and specialized. Medicine was interested in those things natural and physical, while theology studied the supernatural and the spiritual. Doctors complained about “the lawless intrusion of PARSONS and VICARS upon the profession of the Phisicke.”[vii] Those same parsons and vicars would accuse doctors of atheism because they healed without considering the spiritual dimension of health.[viii]
It would, however, be a mistake to see Christianity and medicine parting ways in the modern era. On the contrary, many Christians embraced modern, scientific medicine in missionary work. It would be fair to say that missionaries took both Jesus Christ and Western medicine around the world. Hospitals, clinics, and/or dispensaries were a vital part of many mission stations (along with the church and the school, of course). Throughout much of the world, missionaries helped to lay the foundation for modern health care services.
Medical missionaries were able to work in places where there were severe legal and social barriers against Christian preaching. Likewise, caring for people’s physical needs is a practical demonstration of Christian love. Caring for people, again, creates a bond between the church and the world. Medicine and mission went hand-in-hand in the modern era.[ix] The massive growth of Christianity in the two-thirds world is, in part, due to the efforts of doctors and nurses who were invested improving people’s quality of life.
The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in many ways, but for historians, it doesn’t seem completely new. Just over 100 years ago, there was a devastating pandemic caused by the H1N1 flu virus, commonly (though misleadingly) called the Spanish influenza. It infected one-third of the world’s population, and killed as many as 50 million people.
Young adults who seemed healthy in the morning could be dead by the evening. The global medical system was completely overwhelmed. Churches, schools, and theaters shut their doors or became hospitals. People stayed inside, and they tried different folk medicines. Priests and ministers who were used to preaching to congregations now published their sermons in newspapers, along with suggestions for alternative worship at home until such a time as they could gather again.[x]
The history of Christian healing is not the story of untold triumph. At their worst, Christians have added to the problems of sickness, or compounded them. At their very best, however, Christians have prayed for a broken world, and used whatever means were at their disposal to help bind its wounds. Given this history, I now want to ask: What is the healing mission of the church now? I thought of five words that will help organize our thoughts: wait, pray, watch, cooperate, and proclaim.
Mission is not a rush to normalcy. Nothing would be better than being in Church, praising God, enjoying fellowship, singing together, and participating in the sacraments. If it’s not safe, however, we are not returning to normal, we are getting people sick. A poorly considered return to church will only compound the problem. Like Christians throughout the ages, we need to keep in touch with the best medical advice there is, which can, and should, change. We should not re-open to prove our faith or any other ideological/political point. Reopening requires patience, conversation with leaders, experts, and laypeople. Where it is not safe, it is always better to wait.
We need to keep praying for the world and providing spaces for people to pray. Just because we’ve had to shut our doors, does not mean we’ve withdrawn from the world. We can’t stop preaching God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ, and we can’t stop extending the compassion of God to a hurting world. First and foremost, we must pray for the sick. The Church also needs to vociferously pray for those on the frontlines: sanitations workers, those delivering food, mail, and packages, people working at grocery stores, people working in nursing homes, nurses, doctors, civil servants, and all essential workers. Prayers for these folks need to recognize the dangers they face. Our first responders need to know how grateful we are for their work and that we care about their interests.
The modern world affords us many opportunities for physically distant prayer. As a layperson, I’ve been inspired by online Sunday Services with time for fellowship. Evening prayer on Facebook live has developed a devoted following. Some church musicians are offering organ recitals and on-line “sing-alongs.” There are now agape meals and Bible studies on Zoom. I offer an Adult Ed series on YouTube. Churches have created prayer message boards for their communities. People who have never been to church are now attending online services, and atheists are making prayer requests. Where people do not have internet, the telephone continues to be a powerful tool. Visiting is also possible, provided that people follow the guidelines for physical distancing. Outdoor worship may prove to be a helpful option. Clergy need to know that these alternatives do not have to be perfect. Lay people should realize they are not going to be the same as “normal church.” These creative forms of worship are not immune from abuse (zoom bombs) or technical difficulties (power outages, hardware failures, etc.). They do not replace the real deal, but they provide a space for continued prayer and bearing one another’s burdens.
We cannot lose sight of the vulnerable. The virus has laid bare the brokenness of the world, and vulnerability is growing. There are evident disparities in healthcare around the world, which fall along lines of race, class, and gender.[xi] The world’s poorest communities have no ability to work from home and lack many safety nets available to citizens of wealthy nations. The world’s most desperate now face even less access to food, medicines, and other basic needs.[xii] There is the possibility of famine in parts of Africa and the Middle East, which will be compounded by the virus.[xiii] Unemployment is out of control; people are unsure how to pay rent and buy food.[xiv] Indigenous peoples without healthcare are particularly vulnerable to the virus, both within the United States and around the world.[xv] Various governments are using the virus as an excuse for oppression.[xvi] Mental illness is increasing.[xvii] Severe domestic abuse is increasing.[xviii] Poor students in struggling school systems are increasingly alienated from educational opportunities.[xix] Within the church, clergy people are overwhelmed.[xx] Clergy live for community, and now they are alienated from their churches, and they’re being asked to become multi-media technical experts, sanitation experts, and do all kinds of things they do not teach in seminary. The pain they feel is very real. Obviously, no single individual or congregation can address all of these problems, so we have to cooperate.
We need to work together, empowering every Christian to participate in God’s healing mission in the world. Leaders cannot do the work alone. All Christians need to get on board. Churches should coordinate their efforts. We will be able to have a greater and more effective response to this crisis if we work at the ecumenical level. Individuals can make many different contributions. Some have medical vocations: nurses, doctors, and chaplains. Some are essential workers. Those staying at home can make masks, give to research, lead bible studies, or conduct family prayer services. No contribution is too small. During this emergency situation, it all matters.
We cannot stop telling the world who gets the final say over human history. The God who created the world has not abandoned the world to Covid-19; its rage we can endure for, lo, its doom is sure! The God who delivered Israel through the Red Sea, and the God who overcame death on the cross will deliver us again. That is a powerful message of hope for a sick world. If we meet the world with prayerful concern and actions governed by the best medical advice, we will have an active healing mission. If we wait for the sake of safety, pray for the needs of the world, watch out for the vulnerable, cooperate in our work, and proclaim a message of hope, then we will create new relationships, and open new possibilities, even as our doors are closed.
Relevant Historical Materials
Backman, Clifford R. The Worlds of Medieval Europe, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Cohn, Jr., Samuel K. Epidemics. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Ferngren, Gary B. Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Hammond, E. A. “Physicians in Medieval Religious Houses.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1958).
Healing Bodies and Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa. Ed. David Hardiman. Rodopi, 2006
Luther, Martin “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II. Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. Fortress Press, 1999. Available online at: https://blogs.lcms.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf.
The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Roger French. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Robert, Dana. Christian Mission. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Silverman, Benjamin C. “Monastic Medicine: A Unique Dualism Between Natural Science and Ritual Healing.” The Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal 1 (Spring, 2002).
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. Harper San Francisco, 1997.
“Coronavirus Lockdown May Spur Surge in Mental Illness, U.N. Warns.” The New York Times May 21, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/world/live-coronavirus-tracker.html.
“COVID-19 and Indigenous People.” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/covid-19.html.
DeParle, Jason. “The Coronavirus Class Divide: Space and Privacy.” New York Times. May 14, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/us/politics/coronavirus-poverty-privacy.html.
Garrison, Greg. “What clergy said when influenza closed churches in 1918.” AL.com, April 17, 2020. https://www.al.com/coronavirus/2020/04/what-clergy-said-when-influenza-closed-churches-in-1918.html.
Gerson, Michael. “The coronavirus pandemic is developing in the shadow of famine. The combination would be deadly.” The Washington Post. May 18, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-developing-in-the-shadow-of-famine-the-combination-would-be-deadly/2020/05/18/9f250d5a-9935-11ea-89fd-28fb313d1886_story.html.
Haynie, Devon. “Global Leaders Are Using Coronavirus to Trample on Human Rights, Group Warns.” US News and World Report April 30, 2020. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-04-30/amnesty-international-warns-of-human-rights-abuses-tied-to-covid-19.
Lashitew, Addisu. “Social distancing unlikely to hold up in Africa without a safety net for microentrepreneurs.” The Brookings Institute. April 9, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2020/04/09/social-distancing-unlikely-to-hold-up-in-africa-without-a-safety-net-for-microentrepreneurs/.
Ray, Rashawn. “Why are Blacks dying at higher rates from COVID-19?” The Brookings Institute. April 9, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/04/09/why-are-blacks-dying-at-higher-rates-from-covid-19/.
Romm, Tony. “Nearly every state had historic levels of unemployment last month, new data shows.” The Washington Post. May 22, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/22/state-unemployment-rate-april/.
Thomas, Christopher J. “Coronavirus and challenging times for education in developing countries.” The Brookings Institute April 13, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/04/13/coronavirus-and-challenging-times-for-education-in-developing-countries/.
Village, Andrew Leslie Francis, and Paul Handley. “Survey: Coronavirus, church – and YOU.” Church Times May 7, 2020. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/8-may/news/uk/survey-coronavirus-church-and-you.
Woodall, Candy. “As hospitals see more severe child abuse injuries during coronavirus, ‘the worst is yet to come.’” USA Today May 13, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/05/13/hospitals-seeing-more-severe-child-abuse-injuries-during-coronavirus/3116395001/.
[i] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Harper San Francisco, 1997), 73-94.
[ii] Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christainity (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
[iii] Ibid., 143.
[iv] E. A. Hammond, “Physicians in Medieval Religious Houses,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1958). Benjamin C. Silverman, “Monastic Medicine: A Unique Dualism Between Natural Science and Ritual Healing,” The Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal 1 (Spring, 2002).
[v] Clifford R. Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe, 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press, 2009), 466-478.
[vi] Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Fortress Press, 1999). Available online at: https://blogs.lcms.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf.
[vii] Peter Elmer, “Medicine, Religion, and the Puritan Revolution” The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Roger French (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 15.
[viii] John Henry, “The matter of souls: medical theory and theology,” The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Roger French (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
[ix] Dana Robert, Christian Mission (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 50 and 132-135. Healing Bodies and Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa, ed. David Hardiman (Rodopi, 2006).
[x] Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., Epidemics (Oxford University Press, 2018), 512. Greg Garrison, “What clergy said when influenza closed churches in 1918,” AL.com, April 17, 2020. https://www.al.com/coronavirus/2020/04/what-clergy-said-when-influenza-closed-churches-in-1918.html.
[xi] Rashawn Ray, “Why are Blacks dying at higher rates from COVID-19?” The Brookings Institute, April 9, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/04/09/why-are-blacks-dying-at-higher-rates-from-covid-19/.
Jason DeParle, “The Coronavirus Class Divide: Space and Privacy,” New York Times May 14, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/us/politics/coronavirus-poverty-privacy.html.
[xii] Addisu Lashitew, “Social distancing unlikely to hold up in Africa without a safety net for microentrepreneurs,” The Brookings Institute, April 9, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2020/04/09/social-distancing-unlikely-to-hold-up-in-africa-without-a-safety-net-for-microentrepreneurs/.
[xiii] Michael Gerson, “The coronavirus pandemic is developing in the shadow of famine. The combination would be deadly,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-developing-in-the-shadow-of-famine-the-combination-would-be-deadly/2020/05/18/9f250d5a-9935-11ea-89fd-28fb313d1886_story.html.
[xiv] Tony Romm, “Nearly every state had historic levels of unemployment last month, new data shows,” The Washington Post, May 22, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/22/state-unemployment-rate-april/.
[xv] “COVID-19 and Indigenous People,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/covid-19.html.
[xvi] Devon Haynie, “Global Leaders Are Using Coronavirus to Trample on Human Rights, Group Warns,” US News and World Report April 30, 2020. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-04-30/amnesty-international-warns-of-human-rights-abuses-tied-to-covid-19.
[xvii] “Coronavirus Lockdown May Spur Surge in Mental Illness, U.N. Warns,” The New York Times May 21, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/world/live-coronavirus-tracker.html.
[xviii] Candy Woodall, “As hospitals see more severe child abuse injuries during coronavirus, ‘the worst is yet to come.’” USA Today May 13, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/05/13/hospitals-seeing-more-severe-child-abuse-injuries-during-coronavirus/3116395001/.
[xix] Christopher J. Thomas, “Coronavirus and challenging times for education in developing countries,” The Brookings Institute April 13, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/04/13/coronavirus-and-challenging-times-for-education-in-developing-countries/.
[xx] Andrew Village, Leslie Francis, and Paul Handley, “Survey: Coronavirus, church – and YOU,” Church Times May 7, 2020. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/8-may/news/uk/survey-coronavirus-church-and-you.
EI Faculty member in Biblical Studies, Dr. Jennifer McNeel was featured during our Theology Town Hall Meeting on May 13. Dr. McNeel is known to current students and recent grads as one who orients to biblical studies, and teaching the New Testament survey. Last fall, she co-taught with Rabbi Nina Cardin our “Mothers in Jewish and Christian Scripture and Tradition” class. The full text of Dr. McNeel’s town hall follows, or you can view the recording.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis took over our lives, many people felt like the world was changing, and changing too fast. In my experience, many people already had a lot of anxiety about what was going on in the world and where things were headed. There were already worries about social change, political change, climate change, and more. And now of course, it feels like almost everything about our lives has changed under stay at home orders, as we deal with meaningful events being canceled, worries about those who are sick, concerns about job loss, and the struggle to maintain our own physical and mental health during social distancing.
All this new change, piled on top of the anxiety many of us already felt about a changing world, can be overwhelming. When I think about people in the Bible who had a sense that the world they lived in was changing, Paul comes right to my mind. Paul lived and moved through the world with the sense that Christ’s death and resurrection had inaugurated a new age, and that the final culmination of that massive changing of the world was coming soon. In other words, a great change had already taken place, and more change was still coming.
What did all that change mean for the way Paul lived his life and wanted other believers to live? I’d like to take a look at a few different passages that show us something about that, starting with 1 Corinthians 7. In this chapter Paul is giving a lot of advice in answer to questions that the Corinthians asked him in a letter – questions about how to live “in Christ” while also “in this world.” We see here Paul’s advice that the Corinthian believers should not seek to change their status with regard to a variety of things, such as circumcision, slavery, and marriage. Here’s the example of circumcision from verses 17-20:
17 However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. 20 Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.
In the matter of circumcision as well as marriage and slavery, Paul says they should be guided by this principle in verse 20: “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”
If you were already married, don’t seek to separate from your spouse. If you are a slave, don’t be concerned about seeking freedom. Stay in the condition you were in when you became a Christian.
I think we might find this a little surprising. I would imagine that those early Christians were probably eager for some kind of outward change in their lives to mark their new faith, their membership in a new community, and Paul seems to be saying: in the face of this great change, you are not called to change anything. As modern readers, I think perhaps his words on slavery in this chapter can be the most challenging – when he tells slaves not to be concerned about seeking freedom. Fully getting into that is beyond the scope of this 15 minute talk, but if we go a little further we can understand better why his philosophy is “let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”
In verses 29-31, Paul writes:
29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Two related ideas bracket this passage: that the appointed time has grown short, and that the present form of this world is passing away. We’ll look at these in turn.
First, “the appointed time has grown short.” This NRSV translation uses 2 English words to translate 1 word in the Greek. “Appointed time” is translating the Greek word kairos. This word means time, but has a richer meaning than just time as we think of time ticking by (the word for that is chronos). Kairos can be mean: “time, period, season, type of time, appropriate time.” If I say to you, “these are the times we are living in,” I don’t just mean it’s Wednesday afternoon at 12:10. I mean something richer—there is some particular quality or characteristic of this time period I am trying to express. Kairos has that sense–a particular kind of season, or a time that is especially appropriate for something. So, if we wanted to be a capture the meaning of this phrase, “the appointed time has grown short,” we could also translate it, “the times we live in are ending soon.” Most people would agree that what Paul really meant by that was that the “end times” were coming soon—Jesus would return and the God’s new age would be fully inaugurated.
The sentence that ends the above passage is: “the present form of this world is passing away.” Once again the NRSV is using two words to translate one word in the Greek. In this case, “present form” is translating the word schema. We could translate this word, “outward appearance, form, shape,” or in a more figurative sense, the shape of life or the “way of life” in our world. So if we want to get a clearer sense of what Paul means by this phrase, we might translate it more loosely as, “the way this world operates is disappearing.”
There are two things I think are particularly interesting to think about related to this word schema. First, if you think about its meaning—form, shape, outward appearance—it’s that aspect of the world that’s changing—the shape. That would also seem to imply that there is something deeper and more essential about the world that is not changing (something that’s not its outward appearance). This may be a helpful notion for those living in times of crisis—even when it seems everything is changing, there are still some things that always remain the same.
The second interesting thing about schema is that we’ve taken this word into English—our word “schema.” What does “schema” mean? One meaning is a model or outline that represents a theory or other type of information. It is something that gives structure to an abstract concept, helping us grasp it or understand it. This concept of schema is used in psychological circles to refer to the organized mental representation we each have of what we know and understand about the world. Our schema is our way of thinking about the world. Now, I’m defining here the English word “schema” here not the Greek word schema, but of course the words are related to each other, and our understanding of schema can help us understand a little bit better what is going on in chapter seven as a whole.
Taking in all Paul is saying in chapter 7, it seems like we could sum it up by saying, “the way this world operates is disappearing, therefore your mental framework for understanding the world is no longer valid.” Paul, of course, would not use the term “mental framework”—this is my interpretation of the text, not my translation of it. But this idea does seem to fit well with what he is saying. Think about the words in this paragraph we are discussing:
“from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.”
Paul is trying to get them to question every assumption they have about how people live in the world because the way the world works is changing.
I said earlier that it seemed like Paul was saying to the Corinthians that they should not change anything. But that’s not actually true, is it? In reality he’s asking them to make a huge change: a change in the very nature of their thinking about the world. So what happens when we take this idea back to those earlier verses where it seemed like Paul was telling them not to change anything? We’ll use the verses about slavery as our test case. Picking up where we left off earlier:
20 Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. 21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. 22 For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. 24 In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.
This passage, especially verse 22, shows us that this isn’t just a simple case of Paul supporting the status quo. Paul viewed the status quo, whether related to circumcision, slavery, or marriage, as related that outer form of the world, the schema that was passing away. So he wanted them to go deeper, past the things that are disappearing and on to those deeper realities that don’t change. Who you really are as a person in Christ is not dependent on your outward status in the fading world, but on the inward reality of your life in Christ. Christian slaves, to Paul, are in reality free persons in Christ. Christian free people are in reality slaves of Christ. Paul is asking them to change their mental framework–change the very nature of their thinking about the world.
Now, the things Paul is talking about in Corinthians 7 relate to some pretty big picture concepts: how society is built, how people fit into that, institutions like marriage and slavery. But Paul’s idea of Christians needing to change their mental framework was also relevant at the more intimate level of interpersonal relationships. To see that, we’re going to go to 2 Corinthians 5. This part of the Corinthian correspondence comes after Paul and the Corinthians have come through one of their periods of disagreement and conflict. They have renewed their affection for each other and are in a period of reconciliation. In verses 14-15 Paul writes: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” Paul is here reflecting on his relationship with the Corinthians in light of the fact that Christ has died for all, and therefore all have died because they participate in that death. And if they have died, they no longer live for themselves, but for Christ. Therefore, their behavior towards each other should be reflective of the fact that they no longer live for themselves.
So what Paul is saying here is that that massive change in the world that occurred with Jesus’ death and resurrection has implications for how we relate to one another on a personal level. We now look at our fellow human beings with a new point of view. He goes on to say that more explicitly in the next few verses (16-17): “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” According to Paul, everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross and the resurrection. We have to reevaluate what we thought we knew about money, family, vocation, relationships, culture, and everything else. Our call is to look at everything with the new divine point of view that we recognize through the Spirit and because of the death and resurrection of Christ. We see new creation around us and indeed we become a new creation ourselves when we are “in Christ” and looking at the world and each other with this new point of view.
So the question that I wanted us to reflect on today is, how do we view our current situation when looking at it with a divine point view – when seeing it with the new mental framework given to us by the gospel? It should change how we see both the big picture of society and our smaller scale interpersonal relationships, just like it did for Paul. If participating in the death and resurrection of Christ causes us to no longer live for ourselves, how do we live in the time of COVID-19? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I want to propose three possible answers, and then I’d like to hear from you about how you would answer the question.
My first answer is that the gospel’s mental framework will cause us to build connection rather than sowing division. I have sometimes been disheartened over the last few weeks to see that the national conversation about the virus has become very partisan in nature. While in some cases this experience is definitely bringing people together, in other cases it seems to be making our divisions even worse than they were before. The divine point of view would call us to use the crisis as an opportunity to bring people together, not drive them apart, so we ought to be mindful of how our words and actions can contribute to either healing or division, and we ought to choose healing.
My second possible answer to the question is, if we no longer live for ourselves, then every situation, even a COVID-19 lockdown, becomes an opportunity for us to look for ways to serve others. How we do that depends on our situation. It could be donating to a food bank if we have the means to do so. It could be running errands for someone who can’t safely go out. It could be extending grace to our kids when stress causes them to act out. It can be a lot of different things, but one thing we always see when we look at the world from God’s point of view is people who are in need of our help.
Finally, my third answer is to remember what I said earlier about the fact that the outer form of the world changing implies that something more essential about the world is staying the same. So with God’s point of view, I believe we can see and hold on to the things that always stay the same, even when it seems like everything is changing. We might think of the beauty of creation, our need for connection, and most importantly, the love of God. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8, nothing can separate us from that. No microorganism, no downturn in the economy, no amount of social change or social distance can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What difference do you think it makes to view the world from God’s perspective during this time of COVID-19? What are you seeing differently with the mental framework that the gospel gives you?
The May 6 Theology Town Hall featured Dr. Brian Volck and Dr. Matthew Loftus, who have practiced medicine in a variety of settings (including Baltimore city, the Navajo Reservation, South Sudan, and Kenya, among others). They reflected on practicing medicine in the time of a pandemic. Dr. Volck’s remarks are included below, or you can view the full town hall. Prior writings by Drs. Loftus and Volck on the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
- “Reading in the Time of Coronavirus,” Dr. Brian Volck
- “Remembering After Coronavirus,” Dr. Brian Volck
- “The Ethics of Healthcare Rationing,” Dr. Matthew Loftus
One evening not long before the statewide order to shelter in place took effect, I and my wife, Jill, were climbing into bed when she asked, “Is someone knocking at our front door?” I thought I’d heard a soft voice from the sidewalk below a few minutes earlier, but now I, too, could hear a faint tapping. Upon opening the door, we found a boy about two years old dressed in pajamas and shivering in the cold night air. A slump-shouldered woman sat on the front steps. She looked up at us with heavy-lidded eyes and said, in the muffled undertone of someone who’s had far too much to drink, “We need help.” There was no one else nearby – no car, no clue why she had chosen our house. I was wary, uncertain what to do. To be honest, I was a little scared this was a setup, a ploy to get into our house for who knows what mischief. Jill, however, took one look at the child and said, “Come on in and get warm.”
We helped the mother to her feet, picked up the boy, and brought them both inside. She was clearly intoxicated. Her clothes were neither torn nor dirty, just disheveled. She was missing a shoe. There were no signs of physical trauma. The boy looked scared, staring silently at his mother, his eyes wide, his nose runny – whether from tears or a cold it was hard to tell – and the diaper under his pajamas was twisted to the side as if he’d been dressed in a hurry. In time, he stopped shaking as we talked to his mother. She said she was trying to get to the baby daddy’s house but had lost her way. She lived with her mother in another neighborhood where she said she felt safe. For some reason, though, she didn’t want to return there tonight. She had no cell phone or ID and couldn’t remember anyone’s number.
It was clear they needed what’s traditionally been called a corporal work of mercy. What wasn’t clear was how to help them. Jill and I are both physicians, but we hadn’t trained for this. We brought them something to drink, some cookies for the boy to eat, then Jill quietly stepped away to call our pastor in search of advice. He encouraged her to call the police, which she did. By the time the officer arrived, the boy was in my lap, talking to me while rubbing his snotty nose in my shirt. We were not a good example of social distancing. The police officer was annoyed at us for letting strangers in the house. Didn’t we know how dangerous Baltimore gets at night? In the end, however, he managed to trace down the mother’s mother, who quickly drove to our house to take her daughter and grandson home, thanking us profusely. The officer called Jill fifteen minutes later to say that the boy’s grandmother was grateful to have the two of them back rather than with the baby daddy, whom she described as an abusive alcoholic. “Mercy,” I said. Mercy, indeed.
I share this story because it can help us think theologically about health care during the COVID-19 pandemic without getting lost in a thicket of biomedical details. When Jill welcomed two strangers in our living room that evening, we were making it up as we went along. Few of us like to think of our personal physician doing that with us, but many cases don’t fit the textbook descriptions. This was one such outlier. Yet we’d been practicing for these moments since our medical school days, when we formed habits essential to our profession, habits like as prudence, courage, and truthfulness. No one in our rigorously secular medical school or residencies called them virtues. No one quoted Aquinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, or Stanley Hauerwas. Some of our mentors admonished us to leave questions of God to the hospital chaplain and refer any moral dilemmas to the ethics committee. But, in retrospect, I see all that training now through theological eyes, further refracted by my more recent formation as a lay oblate in the Benedictine monastic tradition.
I have time to name just two such habits. The first is hospitality, something that seems conspicuously absent in hospitals today. Yet, “hospitality” and “hospital” derive from the single Latin word, hospes, which can mean both “guest” and “host.” What’s more, these words share a root with the English word “hostile.” Linguists trace these surprising connections back to a Proto-Indoeuropean root *ghos-ti- , which can mean “guest,” “host,” “stranger,” and “foreigner.” This jumble of contradictory meanings also appears in the ancient Greek word xenos, from which the fourth century Byzantine xenodochia – the first true hospitals – took their name. Etymologically, then, xenophobia may be less about fearing the stranger than fearing what we, as the host, might be asked to do for her.
In most traditional cultures, hospitality is understood as a duty and a danger at the same time. Host and guest enter a relationship of mutual obligation: the host offers protection and inquires after the guest’s needs, doing her best to meet them. The guest does not abuse the host’s generosity, and sincerely pledges to reciprocate. But a guest’s inability to repay the favor should make no difference to the host. Chapter 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” That sets a pretty high bar – especially now, when it might literally make you sick – but the practice of hospitality requires the virtue of courage, which doesn’t mean you’re not afraid, but that you are afraid and you do it anyway.
A hospitable hospital will welcome all patients, not at unnecessary risk to its healthcare workers, but through a series of calculated risks inherent to the profession, addressing present need before taking into account ability to pay, documentation status, cognitive ability, or productive potential. That’s well worth remembering in a time of contagion and social distancing, whether we’re staffing hospitals, debating public policy, thinking about shut-in neighbors, or opening the door to strangers. Hospitality is risky business, but from Abraham’s day to ours, when has it been otherwise?
The second habit is stewardship, a word whose long, strange history I wish we had time to discuss. Faithful stewardship requires an awareness of place, need, and limits. Chapter thirty-one of St. Benedict’s Rule lists duties of the monastery cellarer, the monk who manages the material goods of the community:
He must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will be held accountable for all of them on the day of judgment. He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected. He should not be prone to greed, nor be wasteful and extravagant with the goods of the monastery but should do everything with moderation and according to the abbot’s orders. Above all, let him be humble. If goods are not available to meet a request, he will offer a kind word in reply, for it is written: “A kind word is better than the best gift.”
What would it be like to conduct our debates about COVID-19 testing, medical resource allocation, and regional or local mitigation practices with this understanding of good stewardship? How would our lives be forced to change if we looked seriously at our city or neighborhood, “aware that nothing is to be neglected?” What might happen if we accepted the limits of our technological fixes for individual problems and used what’s at hand for the community’s good – especially our presence, our embodied witness in this time of grief and isolation?
I seriously doubt thick accounts of practices like hospitality and stewardship will dominate the fractious COVID-19 response chatter anytime soon. The U.S. medical-industrial complex is too technology-driven, too commodified, and too individualistic to consider them in any but the most superficial fashion. But people of faith must, I believe, ground themselves in such habits before engaging the disembodied abstractions of secular bioethics or the acrimonious partisan harangues that now pass for public debate. In a world of suffering, habits of mercy make strong medicine. The eighteenth century Hasidic master, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, once said, “All God does is mercy. Only that the world cannot bear the naked fill of his mercy, and so he has sheathed it in garments.” I’m pretty sure that we are some of those garments – not just healthcare workers, but all of us. And even in this strange time when we’re overtaxed, anxious, and more than a little afraid of who might infect us or what nonsense our supposed leaders are fomenting, God still calls us to be garments of mercy.