The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of unprecedented global uncertainty for all of humankind with government administrations, healthcare & other essential service providers and humanitarian agencies struggling to mitigate its adverse impact on lives and livelihoods. While there have been many lessons learnt over the last several decades in dealing with disasters like floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, communal & civil strife, droughts and refugee crises – many of which have resulted in huge losses to life and property, COVID-19, because of its geographical reach and speed of transmission has posed an entirely new challenge. Epidemics are not new for humanity – rat plagues, cholera, influenza and other endemic diseases have affected us innumerable times in the past; in our own recent memory we have faced HIV/ AIDS, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), swine flu and Ebola. The influence of these (and the other disasters named above) has been for a large part sub-national, national or regional – affecting relatively smaller populations in more limited geographical settings or has otherwise been relatively slower in its progress.
The most comparable pandemic for COVID-19 would be the Spanish flu which ravaged the world in 1918 & 1919 and considered the deadliest so far in history. It reportedly infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide (about a third of the world population); estimates of death from the H1N1 virus that caused the flu range from 20 to 50 million at a time when there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat the flu strain. Citizens were ordered to wear masks, schools, theatres and businesses were shuttered and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues. While there is no universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it was first observed in Europe from where it spread to the United States and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading around the world (Sources: Spanish Flu, Updated May 19,2020, History.com Editors; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), US Department for Health & Human Services, last reviewed March 20,2019; one publication estimated a total of 100 million deaths). In many ways the spread of the COVID-19-linked infection, while less fatal to those infected, has been similar in terms of its rapid progress across the world and its universal impact on people and economies.
It may be helpful to look at the current pandemic through the lens of the Bible and within the framework of Jesus’ teaching on God’s kingdom, both present and future, from chapters 24 and 25 of Mathew’s Gospel and the similar passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21. The inauguration of God’s kingdom with Jesus’ declaration after he had read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth (Isaiah 61:1-2, often referred to as the Nazareth Manifesto) ushered in a new understanding of God’s reign in human lives. As later events unfolded – Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection & ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit in power on the day of Pentecost accompanied & followed by powerful signs & wonders, and the growth of the church in a hostile environment, it is clear to us two millennia later that the kingdom of God is among us and that the church as God’s family (household) and community ought to fully reflect the principles of his kingdom.
These discourses of Jesus on the mount of Olives (a ridge located east of Jerusalem, rising to a maximum height of ~ 2700 feet, 200 feet higher than the city, also described as a set of 4 hills, two of them located a Sabbath journey from the city, an estimated distance of 2000 cubits/ 0.57 mile/ 0.91 km – an easily walkable distance (Acts 1:12); the location is specifically recorded in the gospels of Mathew and Mark.) were in answer to the questions asked by his disciples (Mark records this as being a question posed privately by Peter, Andrew, James and John.) when will this happen, what will be the signs of your coming and of the end of the age? These questions, in turn, were posed in response to Jesus’ assertion, made while leaving the temple and walking away (perhaps to the mount of Olives), that of the temple “not a single stone would be left on top of another” – it would be razed to the ground. Over the millennia, and especially in the second half of the last century, there have been several teachers and preachers who have made the “end-times” their particular area of speciality and who love to conduct series of seminars (even webinars) on the “end-times” and ‘imminent” return of the Lord. Some of them claim such a special understanding of Biblical passages that they would even predict a date or year when Jesus would return. Billy Graham, the most popular evangelist of his day, also preached several times on the last days and the imminent return of Jesus, citing several of the signs listed in Matthew 24 as being part of the events and prevalent situation then, both national and global.
Context for the kingdom
Given this background, it wouldn’t be surprising if many of us believe that only the second coming of Jesus would correct social wrongs and injustices and that there is little that individuals, communities and governments can achieve; perhaps, any attempt to stem the tide would actually delay Christ’s return and the ushering in of God’s kingdom. As we read Scripture it appears that the early church too expected the Lord’s imminent return. The second letter of the apostle Paul to the church at Thessalonica had Christ’s return as a theme, as also parts of his other letters (1Thessalonians 5:1-11, Titus 2:13), all of which seem to reflect this understanding. Peter (1Peter 4:7, 2Peter 3), James (James 5:7-8) and John (Revelation 22:12,20) also set out in their writings, the expectation that Jesus would return soon. Whether any of them thought that the church would still be waiting for his coming, after the elapse of almost two thousand years, is a moot question, the answer to which we will know only in eternity! Perhaps they did not fully realise that they were looking at future events telescopically. Nevertheless, both Paul and Peter clearly indicate the uncertainty of when Jesus would return – the day of the Lord would be like a thief in the night and how long it would take (a day for the Lord is like a thousand years). But all of them squarely address the question of how we should live, given the certainty of the Lord’s return, when he would judge the world.
It is interesting to note that Jesus’ reply does not seek to immediately answer the “when” question posed by the disciples; in fact, that gets answered in vs 36 as something no one would know – not even he (Possibly referring to Jesus in his humanity rather than the eternal second person of the Trinity, unless the not knowing is a deliberate eternal choice) or the angels. His description of the times, at least in part, could easily fit various regions of the world at different points in history. In fact, within a few years of these statements being made, the church (including several of the disciples) suffered severe persecution, with several being put to death in terrible ways – beheading, crucifixion, being thrown to wild animals or being speared. In less than four decades, after some years of resistance by the Jewish people, Jerusalem was besieged, sacked and the temple destroyed by the army of the Roman general Titus. The persecuted church has continued to exist over the centuries, with varying intensity of persecution, occurring in different places, right to this day. Wars, rumours of wars, earthquakes, famines and pestilences (possibly referring to Jesus in his humanity rather than the eternal second person of the Trinity, unless the not knowing is a deliberate eternal choice) (like COVID-19) have characterised the world all through history. People have fled their homes and cities during the outbreak of plagues and other epidemics; also to escape pitched missiles during sieges and in modern times to avoid falling bombs. We cannot easily forget the gruesome image of the nine-year old “Napalm girl” Kim Phuc running down a road with severe burns on her back following an air-raid. Equally for us in India, the images of migrant labourers, trudging along highways in the hot summer sun carrying their possessions on their heads and often with little children walking alongside them on journeys as long as over thousand kilometres, would stay with us all our lives.
How would one describe these uncertain times of COVID-19? We see even states with reasonably good health systems struggling to contain the pandemic. High population densities have exacerbated infection rates, as also the near-impossibility of self-isolation in overcrowded slums. Lack of running water, shortages of hygiene materials, testing kits, personal protective equipment & ventilators, inadequate medical staff, especially those trained to handle ICUs and life-saving equipment for testing or treating the sick, insufficient numbers of health care workers and limited government capacity to curb the crisis would continue to bother us. Hopefully, over a period of time, a certain degree of “herd resistance” in the population may reduce the direct incidence of the illness and mortality rates may not be as high as for many Western nations; nevertheless, several thousand lives would be lost.
The economic consequences arising from lockdowns are likely to be severe; sectors like tourism, hospitality, airlines, manufacturing, automobiles, metals, consumer durables, real estate, banking, finance and other services would take years to recover. The millions of economic migrants, the daily wage urban or rural labourers, artisans and tradespeople with no income generation, small and informal businesses (that were already in crisis), farmers impacted by reduced consumption and employees in the sectors most directly impacted by the crisis – in aggregate, a very high proportion of our population would face significant levels of distress. The impact on families, especially, children who constitute nearly 39% of our nation’s population could be disastrous, even if they are relatively safe from the risk of direct infection. A major global recession is clearly underway; the huge pressure on public finances across the world would make the process of recovery much harder.
Times of uncertainty throw up political leaders and religious messiahs claiming the ability to steer communities and nations out of a conundrum. Conquests, territorial expansion, economic, religious & social visions, and in the context of COVID-19, the promise of a vaccine or cleverly packaged measures of economic relief are what many self-styled messiahs would promise. “These must happen”, said Jesus, “but the end is still to come” (vs 6). Perhaps these are the enduring signs of the “pregnancy” all through the period of the Church; the birth pangs would be a period of severe intensity (vs 21) where such multiple disasters occur simultaneously. The challenges of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis along with the ravaging effects of cyclone Amphan would be multiplied several times over! Particularly when we consider Jesus’ assertion that the disciples’ generation would witness these things, it appears that in varying intensity, such events would always be the context for God’s kingdom on earth before his return; not just close to the event.
Life in the kingdom
While Jesus talked of the signs of the times and the prevalent conditions on earth before his return, he scorched the need for unhealthy and unnecessarily elaborate speculation regarding its timing. There would be both normal and strange, inexplicable events occurring simultaneously (vv 37-41). The gospel of the Kingdom would be preached and authentically demonstrated, globally, and to the extent God considers adequate (vs 14). In the light of Jesus’ words describing this as a continuing context without any element of moral judgement, discussions and webinars that are held to answer the question “Is COVID-19 a judgement from God” appear superfluous and rather silly. Instead he turns our focus to how we ought to live as citizens of God’s kingdom during these times. Since his coming is unexpected and unannounced, like that of a thief breaking into a house in the night, the only way to receive him on arrival is by being in perpetual readiness, even while we do not know if we will be still alive when he comes. In essence, Jesus is telling us to live with a sense of urgency, demonstrating the values of his kingdom an as if he will come tonight. There is no room for complacency, only for “constant vigilance” as the imposter playing Professor “Mad-Eye” Moody (in the fourth book of the Harry Potter series titled “The Goblet of Fire”) kept emphasising.
To emphasise this, Jesus gave the example of a wise & faithful servant who continued to serve diligently even in the absence of the master, while contrasting this attitude to that of a wicked servant who used the master’s absence to abuse his position and exploit his colleagues, and would, therefore, be severely judged. What a poignant message for church leaders who abuse and exploit their positions! To that he added the two familiar parables (Chapter 25) – the first one about the ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive for the wedding banquet; the second, about the bags of gold distributed to the servants before the master’s long journey (vs19). What are the principles of kingdom life that Jesus enunciated? A sense of urgency, watchfulness & preparedness as we await his coming which may be imminent; and yet during this period rendering diligent & faithful service, reflecting careful stewardship and actively using one’s gifts and talents to further the master’s interests and concerns. A combination of the tactical and the strategic! At the end of the period of waiting, the people of God’s kingdom would face judgement, there is a day of reckoning for our actions or lack thereof.
It is significant that these parables are placed just after the description of the eschatological events. There should be no excuse for not strategically engaging in God’s concerns for the world on the grounds that his coming would render these tasks redundant! In a critical assessment of Billy Graham, Mathew Avery Sutton stated that “the world’s most famous evangelist let his apocalyptic anticipation of the coming kingdom of God blind him to the realities of living in this world. He could not overcome the speculative end-times schemes of his cohort of evangelicals, with their anti-government hostilities. Graham had good intentions, as his work desegregating his crusades demonstrated. But when his influence really would have counted, when he could have effected real change, real social transformation, he was too locked into last-days fearmongering to recognize the potential of the state to do good. We are all paying the price” (The Guardian, 21 February 2018, International Edition. Sutton, the author of American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism was then Edward R Meyer Professor of History at Washington State University). While this may seem an extreme & rather uncharitable assessment, it may still be helpful for us, as evangelicals, to humbly receive such feedback and seriously evaluate our teaching and action in the light of Scripture to see where we fall short, and make suitable corrections.
What would be the role of the state in this crisis? And how can we help? It is clear at this point that we need a two-fold policy response. First, we need an emergency response to avert a humanitarian disaster and which is well underway. At the same time, as we consider life after Covid-19, with our already vulnerable economy having suffered a severe body blow we would need a long-term economic response as well. The government would clearly need to inject large doses of liquidity into the system with a series of initiatives that would revive agriculture, trade, commerce and industry and promote consumption & growth, even with their attendant fiscal challenges. Funding for a certain degree of social protection – a combination of livelihood support and access to essential services relating to health, free/ highly subsidised rations, medicines and other necessities for the most vulnerable children and poorest families would need to be found for several months. Ramping up food & social security schemes through alternatives such as cash transfers & food vouchers, food distribution & care packs for people in isolation, wage compensation & paid leave are some of the measures that would help in the short term.
As individuals and as a Christian community we could support and complement these efforts by supporting government agencies, civil society organisations and individuals in distress in a variety of ways. In the early days of the crisis it was about reaching out directly to people in need. Several churches and Christian groups organised cooked food and dry ration packs for migrant labour, people unable to work due to the restrictions (including commercial sex workers) or due to loss of employment and the destitute in communities. Some helped with local transport for those stranded or needing to go to hospitals. Others helped migrant workers with travel arrangements to their hometowns. In some cases, temporary accommodation and shelters were organised. Many of these efforts required active coordination with the police and government agencies; in many instances partnerships were forged with other faith groups and organisations. Those who were unable to participate physically contributed financially to those doing the work – this would need to be sustained for some time to come, possibly, over the next year or two.
Judgement in the Kingdom
And finally, we come to the end of Jesus’ discourse (Matthew 25) where he describes the coming judgement. There is a sorting out of people into sheep and goats – reminiscent of his words from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:21-23) where the distinction is made between people doing his will and otherwise. What does God want from us? The prophet Micah states this very clearly “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8, Today’s New International Version (TNIV)). The passage that Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth went on to declare this statement from God in the context of the restoration of the nation of Israel and His rewards – “For I, the Lord, love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing”(Isaiah 61:8, TNIV). The acts of devotion and fasting He requires from us are to loosen the chains of injustice, untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free, share the food with the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter and generously give to these causes (From Isaiah 58:6-10, paraphrased). The Matthew passage thus reinforces the premise that God’s judgement of people would also consider how well they have served God’s justice.
Some rather convenient interpretations of this passage hold that the judgement described by Jesus only cover people outside the church (God’s kingdom) in relation to their attitudes towards disciples of Jesus or the Jewish people. This is as if to absolve the church from its responsibilities as agents of God’s justice and the need to be particularly solicitous to the poor, needy, weak, excluded and vulnerable. The inconvenient truth, however, is that God certainly cannot hold his disciples to a standard lower than what is expected of others and that as agents of the Kingdom our primary aim should be to address his concerns. We obviously cannot formulate a doctrine of judgement solely from our interpretation of this passage and would equally need to examine it in the light of God’s great plan of salvation for humankind through Jesus and the doctrine of grace. Nevertheless, the fact remains that God’s assessment and evaluation of his disciples would also consider how well we have sought to uphold His concerns and standards of justice & compassion in terms of caring for the poor, the hungry and the excluded. I don’t think I really understood how significant giving a glass of water – just a drink would be, till I saw the images of the migrant labourers and especially the women and children walking wearily in the hot summer weather on my screen.
And so, it would be helpful if each of us could ponder over how we have spent the lockdown period forced on us by COVID-19. Some have used it to read, study, improve various skills or pursue interests like sketching, music, dancing and other activities they did not have enough time for earlier. For others it has been a time of rest, relaxation and recuperation for their tired bodies and minds. Several people, and Christians too, have signed up for series of webinars on a bewildering array of “spiritual” topics to “improve” the state of their souls. And equally for many it has been a continuous orgy of cooking exotic dishes, movie watching and active engagement over social media. While one could argue that much of this is justifiable – the message of the Lord to Israel conveyed through the prophet Amos is a sobering reminder of how God views selfish, unfettered self-indulgence. “You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end (Amos 6:4-7).” (Section in italics quotes a passage on Page 49, Chapter 3 of the book “Should I Care?”, ISPCK,2009, titled “Where is my Treasure – Materialism and Consumerism”, written by Cherian Thomas.)
In the context where COVID-19 would continue to play havoc with the poorest and most vulnerable in our land, how would the Indian church and each of us, continuously and systematically respond to the urgent pressing needs in its wake, over the next few months? That may well be a question that the Lord would ask each one of us on the day of judgement. History tells us that it was at such times that groups of Christians stayed behind to take care of victims of epidemics after their own families had abandoned them and fled from their homes. Many such caregivers, themselves fell prey to the disease. But it was such selfless and loving actions of Christians that touched the hearts and minds of those watching these events, resulting in rapid growth of the church as a consequence.
COVID-19 thus poses a unique, once-in-a-lifetime challenge to us. Will it pass by, with us merely spectating and commenting, or would we actively engage in providing succour and relief to those who need it the most?
Cherian Thomas is Regional Leader, World Vision International, South Asia Pacific Region. With academic degrees in mechanical engineering and finance, Cherian Thomas has worked for over three decades in the areas of sustainability, community development, infrastructure, banking, project finance and public private partnerships. He earlier served World Vision India and IDFC Foundation as the CEO. He is also a TRACI member.
The “Christian Mind Series” (CMS) is the TRACI venture to promote Christian thinking and understanding. Our Christian vocation today calls for a critical dialogue between the Word and the world. Only then can we be a people of understanding. ln our media-dominated age, the world is too much with us. We derive most, if not all, of our insights from such sources. We are thus totally immersed in the surrounding or emerging culture and are conditioned by it. There is a great need hence, to develop a Christian counterculture. The CMS aims just at this timely task, no matter how dispersed this fellowship may be.