by Rev’d Craig Broman & Rev’d Dr Simon Hill

This article was originally published by City Bible Forum on 11 March 2020

Over this weekend’s shop, among the usual things, I sheepishly took a jumbo pack of toilet roll to the checkout – it was the only packet left in the shop. I asked about sanitizer to which the Woolies staff member looked incredulous…. “of course there is no sanitizer” they replied. How had I become caught up in this panic buy? Over the weekend we have watched the stock market plummet worldwide, and some people in NSW were asked to stay home from school or work. The Reserve Bank dropped official interest rates last week, now called the virus-rate-cut. Some companies are taking the drastic step of banning interstate staff travel for work. Will the Olympics go ahead in Tokyo? Will we need to put aside a cash fund not just cans of beans for the future? What else will be affected by this dreaded coronavirus (COVID-19)? This virus is bringing great unrest and pushing our fear buttons as a society. We are grappling with uncertain economics, human vulnerability, uncertainty for our travel plans, and our own limited control over our lives and destiny. How do we deal with our fears? It’s the question at the bedrock of this potential pandemic. It’s the subject ironically planned over six months ago for the City Bible Forum event, Fear of the Future, happening Wednesday 18 March. Think carefully about the opportunity to talk about something on everyone’s mind, if not everyone’s conversation.

How have Christians tackled pandemics before?
This kind of disruption is not new, plagues have devastated nations and continents many times before. How have Christian’s responded before? The historian Eric Mataxas writes about how between 250 and 270 AD a terrible plague was devastating the Roman Empire and at the height of the plague, 5,000 people died every day in Rome alone. Christians were dying from the plague just like everybody else, yet unlike many, they also cared for the victims of the plague, including their pagan neighbours.[1] This approach is not new for Christians, who during the Antonine plague (165 to 180 AD) stayed in affected cities while pagan leaders and physicians left.[2] This behaviour, at the height of community crisis and break down, present an alternative story to the world dominated by fear. The courageous actions of these Christians in the face of panic showed their neighbours that “Christianity is worth dying for.”[3] The point is that in these desperate circumstances, when the plague is in its full blown state, Christians have a long term view of life and destiny which gives them courage and peace in times of panic. Freeing them to be compassionate even at the cost of personal safety.

How can the bible shape our behaviour?
At this moment in Australia, we are at the containment stage, and so as we cooperate with the relevant authorities out of love for our neighbour to stop the spread. It’s our fears and how they drive our behaviour that is critical to understand at this time. The Bible encourages Christians to not act out of fears alone as it will deplete our capacity for compassion. Decisions made out of fear or anxiety tend to be driven by selfishness, not love. They end up being bad decisions. Psalm 46:1-3 speaks to our fears when the world convulses around us:

1God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3Though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

Psalm 46:1-3

Jesus is our great refuge and strength because in his crucifixion, he stood in our place, suffering all that we fear… betrayal, shame, insecurity and ultimately death. Jesus’ purpose at the cross: to redeem us and the world. Through Jesus’ resurrection he ushers in a new understanding of the future—one without sickness and death. The great drama in this is that where we are so often controlled by our fears (of missing out, of personal harm, of losing control etc), Jesus was controlled by perfect love: taking on insecurity, and the hopelessness of the cross, so that our fears can be replaced by a sure hope.

The cross is to frame our hopes and our fears. Practical actions for the days ahead
As we live a renewed life and destiny, how can we practically approach the virus and be helpful to those around us?
1. Respect and cooperate with community attempts to contain the virus.
2. Be other person centred about not spreading the virus, particularly to vulnerable groups.
3. Be honest and authentic about your own fears and prayerfully submit them to the death and resurrection of Jesus—finding your true hope in him alone.
4. Listen deeply and graciously to people’s fears about the future as a pandemic is likely to bring economic loss and place pressure on relationships.
5. Be ready to share the material (and spiritual) resources we have.

[1] Eric Metaxas, “Running Toward the Plague: Christians and Ebola”, in The Christian Post, October 16, 2014. Retrieved online March 11, 2020;[2] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (HarperCollins: New York), 1997.[3] Quotes attributed to Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame (Indiana), in Metaxas’ article, “Running Toward the Plague: Christians and Ebola”.