Thinking theologically about pandemic

As the world tracks the spread of swine flu, churches are taking precautions for the health of their communities. This document provides some theological principles for the church’s response. General Synod’s former coordinator for dialogue, Linda Nicholls (now an area bishop of Toronto), wrote these reflections as an appendix to General Synod’s Pandemic Preparedness Plan.

The looming threat of a pandemic immediately sparks both memories and fears. For some it opens up memories of the influenza pandemics of 1918, 1957, or 1968 and the SARS crisis in 2004. Memories of quarantines, illness, deaths and social disruption vie with the fears for personal safety and family care. Governments and health care providers are currently preparing plans to deal with a potential pandemic giving serious consideration to how best to manage the pragmatic and ethical challenges that will be faced. The whole of society will be affected, including the Church, and it behooves us to reflect both pragmatically and theologically on how we will respond. Although the pragmatic response is often the easiest and quickest to deal with, it is especially important to reflect on the theological roots for our response.

“I am sure that neither death nor life…can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38) In the face of life, death, illness and health we root ourselves in the conviction of God’s love for us, a love willing to offer life itself for us. Yet, we do live in a broken world in which illness is a common feature. Though gifted with intelligence and wisdom to seek both cure and care in the midst of illness, human beings are subject to diseases that remain outside our control. We uphold the love of God-stronger than death (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)-using the wisdom we have acquired to cure and care, while acknowledging our limits. We bring God’s love and comfort to alleviate suffering and restore health wherever possible while acknowledging our mortality. Jesus proclaimed God’s reign in his teaching, preaching and healing ministry and sent the disciples to carry on the same. We follow that example by offering healing through prayer, sacramental ministry, pastoral care and practical support. (Matthew 25:34-40)

‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12) Important in our considerations is our collective responsibility and response. God’s relationship with us is not only with individuals, it is with the church and the world. We are called, like the early disciples, to work together for the good of the Christian community (1 Corinthians 12:7). We are given gifts for the common good and invited to use them to build up, strengthen and encourage. The early disciples balanced concern for the community with their mission in the world (Acts 6:1-7).

“You are the light of the world….” (Matthew 5:14) The church does not exist to serve itself only. We are called to be the light of Christ in the world (Matt 5:14-16). How can the Church witness to God’s care and love in the midst of the anxieties, fears and needs of a world in crisis? What resources do we have to offer? For example, we have pragmatic resources such as our buildings as public spaces; our parishioners as volunteers; our communication networks for education and information sharing; our clergy and laity as pastoral support. We are also the symbolic presence of God in the midst of a community. Our proactive involvement witnesses to the love of God for all.

“Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) Anxiety and fear will be the greatest enemies in this situation-fear for our own personal safety; fear for the safety of our family and anxiety for the future in a society disrupted by illness and possible deaths. Some anxiety is normal in the face of uncertainty however unchecked fears can cause anger, isolation, and withdrawal from others. It will be important to remain rooted in the knowledge of the love of God that is stronger than any thing we may fear, even death itself. The Christian community will need to demonstrate the love of God that reaches out beyond self to others and does not allow fear to rule all decisions. Common sense and care in following guidelines for health and safety will need to be partnered with a willingness to risk that is founded in the self-giving example of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5-11).

Throughout history the church has been a focal point for healing and hope. The possibility of a pandemic in our midst is an opportunity to proclaim our message of healing and hope anew. Will we be ready?

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