Opinion: Now What? Christian Ethics and COVID-19
By Nathan Willowby
Editor’s note—Views expressed in the following op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of Church of God Ministries, Inc., or its affiliates. We publish op-ed features to provoke thought, stimulate healthy discussion, and inspire us to be with Jesus, become like Jesus, and do what Jesus did. We’ve asked to hear from a diverse range of voices across the Church of God movement. This op-ed features one of these voices.
COVID-19 raises questions of Christian ethics. My approach to Christian ethics begins from the foundation that God is living and continues to speak and act through God’s people who are tasked with the mission to live out the earliest Christian confession—Jesus is Lord. But how do we demonstrate that Jesus is Lord? We learn who Jesus is and what God means by the title Lord in Scripture. We trust the Holy Spirit to continue working in and through followers of Christ. I believe this is consistent with the Church of God movement’s understanding of the kingdom—God has acted, called a people to be the church, and expects that church to demonstrate what the kingdom is like to the world. When we pull it off, good news is shared, the oppressed are set free, and disciples grow in number and maturity.
Going forward, COVID-19 raises a few ethical issues: the concept of abiding significance, the long-term effects of “throwaway culture,” evaluating online church and its lessons, and Christian notions of justice. I want to offer some questions. While we seek answers, more importantly, the church needs to be thinking about these issues to faithfully live out the claim that Jesus is Lord.
A scientist wrote an article early in the pandemic describing that, in 2003 when SARS was a global concern, he had developed a vaccine for a coronavirus. By the time it was ready for trials, no one would fund it because SARS was under control. There wasn’t a market for it, despite evidence that there would be another global coronavirus outbreak. For many, the vaccine no longer had value. This current pandemic has demonstrated that public health preparedness was far more important than most countries realized.
Jeremiah 29:11 states, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the LORD. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’” This verse reminds that God desires human flourishing. Norman Wirzba describes a difference between abiding and instrumental significance. Does value relate to being created by God? Or only because something is useful for humans in this immediate moment? Christians need to reflect on what it means to recognize abiding significance for human flourishing as it relates to public health. Many things don’t have immediate value, but do matter in the long term of human flourishing (for example, public health). The importance of abiding significance asks us to reconsider what it means for our churches to serve our neighbors. Does our outreach have long-term public health and human flourishing in mind, or just the immediate?
Here’s an example of reconsidering “loving our neighbors”. An Indianapolis congregation hired a community listener to discern neighborhood needs. The pastor found the most common need in the neighborhood was managing type 2 diabetes. It dawned on him—our church is passing out canned peaches drenched in sugar. Are we really helping our neighbors? They shut down the food pantry and refocused efforts in line with listening and long-term flourishing. Jesus is human and divine. The body of Christ must meet needs both spiritual and physical; how might we better serve physical and spiritual flourishing in our neighborhoods?
This pandemic has disproportionately affected the elderly and people with underlying health problems. The way this has played out is that those places where public health has been neglected are hardest hit—under resourced minority communities and elder-care environments. We must reconsider the way our congregations participate in systems that perpetuate these public health disparities.
This raises a second key issue in what Christian ethicist Charlie Camosy calls the “throwaway culture around the elderly”. As of June 11, 2020, over 43,000 of the US deaths from COVID-19 were in nursing homes (greater than 33 percent of the total). Camosy states, “We knew that institutions caring for the elderly and disabled in close quarters would be particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. But we did not act.” He continues noting the tragedy of failing to demonstrate a commitment to elderly people in our society: “Even before the pandemic, these were places where what I call ‘throwaway culture’ was thriving. The staff aren’t paid a living wage, often have poor training, and are hopelessly overworked. The residents face elder abuse, and large percentages of them are desperately lonely. A good number get no visitors at all, which pushes rates of dementia among residents to unbelievable levels.” Jesus is very clear that the way we treat and respond to the least of these (Matthew 25:40) is a sign of whether we see him as Lord. What do we need to do in our congregations to address the prevalence of throwaway culture that denies the abiding significance of people who are too easily seen as a financial drain, past their prime, or unproductive? The same goes for impoverished communities and communities of color in the United States who have also been treated as throwaways by a majority of society.
Finally, online church must lead us to reflect on what it means to be the Church of God. As we move back to in-person worship, what have we learned? What was easiest to transfer online? What was hardest to replace? What should remain even as it isn’t mandatory or necessary? I think it matters a lot what we say and how we share in embodied ordinances like the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and footwashing. People, culture, and mission can’t as easily translate to a digital live stream. How do we make sure intangible aspects of healthy churches aren’t lost or overlooked as we focus on transitioning back to gathering together? How do we keep the long view at the center as we engage in the vital commitment to worship corporately?
As we rethink church, we should consider the role that churches play within the broader society in which we gather as disciples. We should be asking whether we as Christians promote practices and procedures that unduly put others at risk while protecting ourselves. Are we being faithful or selfish to gather when there are public health concerns? What about icy roads? Historically Christians have served to witness to God’s compassion and service during plagues and famines. As COVID-19 drags on and some cannot safely rejoin “normal” activities, how might younger and healthier congregants support the vulnerable? Might this foster intergenerational connectivity?
Justice is messy. Christian understanding of justice asks complicated, vague questions, like, What do I owe my neighbor? It involves things like people unnecessarily dying from COVID-19 because they lived in closer quarters and had pre-existing conditions. It relates to the web of complex issues involved leading up to that living arrangement, and there is no one clear rule or person responsible. As we move into the next phase of living with COVID-19, we must ask, What do I owe my neighbor?
I hope and pray history will look back on this season as a time the church learned to rethink its ethical norms. I hope it will be forced into new ways of relating to each other that continue to convey that really, Jesus is the subject; Jesus is Lord.
Questions or comments? Rev. Dr. Nathan Willowby can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nathan serves as assistant professor of theology and ethics at Anderson University. He is also the Church of God historian.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.