Gospel and Pandemic: Science, State, & Stranger

by Dwight A. Moody, PhD

 

“We will get through this…together” is one of the persistent themes of the crisis that is gripping the United States and, indeed, the entire world. Everywhere, in ways large and small,  we are making adjustments to meet the challenges of the times.

 

But I am already thinking—What lies ahead? How shall things be when it is all over? Are there ways we can prepare for the coming days?

 

And most importantly, What do we see when looking through the lens of the gospel, the Good News of life, love, and resurrection community.

 

I see three enormous challenges that await us: science, state, and stranger.

 

The rise of the scientific world view—that almost everything has a natural cause that we can discover and explain—has been the most serious challenge to Christian faith and practice. Naturally, we have a checkered history—at times repudiating scientific understandings, at other times leading the process of discovery.

 

In recent years, many Christians have doubted what science asserts about earth and human history, about climate change, gender identity, and addiction. And now about infectious disease. Much of the push-back against public health directives is associated with a certain section of the Christian community.

 

In the end, scientists—epidemiologists, in particular, and other public health professionals—will be proven right, and those who undermined their expertise, their warning will be marginalized.

 

As I wrote several weeks ago, global public health is the new mission field, and pastors and teachers need to turn their discipleship appeals toward these needs. Who will go for us…into medicine and health management, here and around the world? This is the new calling to follow Jesus and save the world.

 

A second confrontation is not so easily addressed.

 

Like the outcome of all major crises, the state (governments at all levels) will come out stronger and more certain of their power and their prerogatives. In this case, the specific state power is that of surveillance—their ability to use our smart phones to track our travels, trace our connections, and monitor such things as preferences, relationships, and health. Already this is happening at an alarming rate, and the demands of this global pandemic will push the state to insert itself more deeply into our lives.

 

In biblical terms, the state is the empire, and much of the prophetic and apostolic critique of ancient culture is focused on this immoral and largely immovable beast. Read again The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John the apostle, the last book of our Bible. Or just read the red-letter words of Jesus in the context of the empire of his day, the Romans.

 

Christians have a long history of loving empire when it supports our own power and position, a dilemma is rooted in this reality—the Bible can be quoted on both sides of this issue: render unto Caesar, on the one hand, and run from Caesar, on the other.

 

Our constitutional defense against state power is best stated in the Bill of Rights and the unenumerated rights (which includes, ironically, the right to privacy, the constitutional basis used to grant women the right to an abortion—as I said, issues related to the state cut both ways!!)

 

Finally, the stranger.

 

It is hard to overstate the biblical concern for the stranger, for the person outside the clan, the tribe, the nation, even the church. The community of Jesus Christ is gloriously described as composed of every tribe and tongue, every race and region (and some of us would add, every religion).

 

Pandemics also emphasize the oneness of the human race—we are all in this together, and we shall all survive together or all die together.

 

But pushing against this global unity is a religious and national tribalism that emphasizes borders, citizens, and papers. There is enormous tension here at the boundary between American identity and Christian community.

 

Jesus Christ lived and died for all, and the banquet feast of the kingdom is distinctive for its open invitation: whosoever will, come eat and drink and dance.

 

OK, I added that dancing part, but you get my point—rising above and beyond our earthly citizenship to live according to our heavenly citizenship, to see in the face and eyes of everyone the image of God and the likeness of Christ, to affirm in all people everywhere the spirit of life, the spirit of love, the spirit of God—this is the challenge of the pandemic, the challenge of the post-pandemic world, and more important, the challenge of the Gospel.

 

God help us all to follow Jesus our Lord, without fear, into the world that awaits us, one served by science, threatened by empire, but gathered by God.

 

 

(April 2020)