As we begin another period of lockdown with the number of cases of COVID-19 and the number of deaths rising relentlessly, people are losing hope. There is concern about the effects on employment, the economy and our individual freedoms.
There have been positive community responses: local care groups; support for elderly neighbours; people generally being obedient to the requests and advice of Government; Christians lighting candles to affirm the light of Christ in a dark situation; and scientists across the world collaborating in the search for a vaccine against the virus.
Yet care must be taken of giving way to the ‘blame game’ whether of politicians’ action or those of reckless members of our own communities. As Christians we should also take care not to fall into the trap of blaming Satan or even God. Some people will use apocalyptic terms in any crisis, but the words of Jesus provide an answer: When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come (Mark 13:7); And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:20)
So how do we as disciples of Christ respond to COVID-19?
We can wonder where God is in these events, some feel that God is near and others that God is rather distant or absent. We can challenge each other by asking what is God expecting of his people? How do we witness to the hope in which we live as Christians?
In a way the answer is the same whatever the situation. Where is God? – God is working through us; and God’s concern is for everyone; God is as he is revealed in Jesus, so we can trust and hope.
One significant question we can pose is: what will the Church be preaching when the crisis is over and people return to Church?
As a warning, it was said that the First World War was a challenge to which the Church had no answer when the troops returned, with the result that people turned away from churches. The first World War had brought to a head a number of realities, many of which were already gathering pace in the years before it.
It was clear not only that the social and economic structures that prevailed in the years before war would not emerge unscathed, but also the Church was recognised as being part of those discredited structures. Yet before them also was a vision of what could be achieved if that spirit of common endeavour, that had been deployed to such deadly effect in a period of conflict, could be harnessed for good in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.
In the aftermath of the war, Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (1883–1929) ‘Woodbine Willie’ the well-known first World War chaplain, spoke to those who were ‘fed-up’ with what they saw as superficial religion, with the horrors of war and with the false optimism of the period after the First World War. He saw the historic creeds of the Church as providing a framework in which life was given a purpose, and offering an end to disillusionment. However, the Church was not ‘the Ark of Salvation’ for those within, but ‘the Agent of Salvation’ for the whole world.
The Second World War seemed to spell an end to the hopes that had been raised in the 1930s for British society. The promises of a great new order were unrealised, and the generation who grew up in the shadow of this ever-diminishing hope found themselves again enlisted in military conflict.
As we look back from the early twenty-first century, so many of the same issues still remain: justice in our society, the gap between rich and poor, economic decisions driven by the global market, gender and ethnic equality, concerns in the developing world and lack of care for creation. Although Archbishop William Temple, together with R. H. Tawney and William Beveridge, had laid down the principles of the ‘welfare state’ in the early 1940s and especially through the Malvern Conference (1941), only George Bell stood out against the Allied saturation bombing of German cities, and Tawney neglected the place of women and what would then have been termed third world issues.
William Temple wanted to state as strongly as possible his belief in a Britain where every child should live in a decent family unit, with sufficient food and proper housing; every child should have education until the years of maturity; every citizen should have a decent income; all workers should have a voice in the business or the industry in which they were involved and more widely the opportunity to contribute to the well-being of the community; every citizen should have sufficient leisure; and every person should have freedom of worship.
Yet since the 1940s the attendance at places of Christian worship has continued to decline.
Today, all the issues discussed above have remained a focus for Christians and for society. There is the continued need to avoid the self-centred, individualistic ideas of happiness and consumption, where growth is seen as a virtue expressed in consumerism and personal satisfaction.
In a post-COVID world we can seek to plant seeds of transformation – political, economic, ecological and societal seeds. We can build on the many aspects of the caring community that we have seen during the pandemic. But, from a Christian point of view, hope will require a strength and wisdom that is beyond that of human rationality. We need to be in tune with the wisdom of the creator of the universe and of human life, and draw on the power of the Holy Spirit.
This may seem to be beyond us but our ultimate hope is always in God. This is hope beyond the chaos and catastrophe of poor decisions of governments or corporations. It is a hope that includes accountability and judgement. This is hope in God, who is creator and redeemer, and who in love will ultimately make all things new.
‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’ (1 Peter 3:15)
John Weaver is from Cardiff, and after university in Swansea he taught at the University of Derby. He trained for Baptist ministry in Oxford before becoming pastor of Highfield Baptist Church in 1981. Subsequently he taught theology at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and from 2001- 2012 served as Principal of South Wales Baptist College and Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Cardiff University. In 1998 he received a Templeton Award for his work on the dialogue between science and faith. John is a former President of the Baptist Union.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.