Christians and COVID—what are the issues and possible responses?
Earlier this summer, D. Gareth Jones, Emeritus Professor of Anatomy in the University of Otago (NZ) and renowned bioethicist, wrote an important essay outlining how the political leadership in his home country focused on the importance of community, the interests of one’s neighbors, and the need to treat each other with kindness. Jones would be the first to acknowledge New Zealand’s unique situation in the context of a global pandemic. Its population is comparatively small, inviting jokes about New Zealand as the home of more sheep than people. And, although it’s a richly diverse country with a global reach, its geography provides it with an extraordinary ability to limit travel into and out of the country. Even so, Jones highlights important insights worthy of emulation in a wide range of settings—including governments at various levels, of course, but also communities, schools, and churches.
Reflecting on the position and actions taken by the country’s leadership, Jones underscores the political will to close the country’s borders early and to have quick and firm lockdowns when required, the extensive use of contact tracing, the practice of bubbles, and the clarity of official messages. Undergirding these actions was the ongoing refrain “to be kind” and to remember that “we are a team of five million”—a message that proved to have real traction with people.
Jones enumerates the range of commitments that shaped decision-making and responses:
What Christian commitments does Jones identify? Unsurprisingly, he points, first, to the question put to Jesus concerning the greatest commandment. Jesus yokes together as one the Shema—love God completely—and neighbor love: “No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12:28–31; see Deut 6:4–5; Lev 19:9–18). We may recall the Rule of Love by which Augustine judged faithful reading of the entire Christian Bible: “So any who think they have understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by their understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, have not yet succeeded in understanding them” (On Christian Teaching 1.86).
Second, Jones recalls Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), emphasizing “the importance of looking after others, our neighbors, whoever they may be, those who may be affected by our actions and our attitudes in our communities and farther afield. Above all, we are to look beyond ourselves and our own individualistic interests” (75).
Though he doesn’t draw attention to the absence from Scripture of the modern category of “human rights” (cf. David P. Gushee, “Human Rights,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, ed. Joel B. Green et al. [Baker Academic, 2011], 387–89), Jones does observe that “serving one another and laying down one’s life (rights) for others” is central to the Christian ethos. He draws the inescapable corollaries regarding caring for one’s neighbor, serving “the other,” for example, through donning face masks, practicing social distancing, and participating in efforts to vaccinate everyone, including oneself, who is eligible. “[T]his is Christian social responsibility in practice” (75).
Countries like New Zealand do not fall under the category of “Christian nation,” yet their responses parallel a number of Christian qualities, commitments, and values. Jones lists seven of these.
Like others before him, Jones recalls Martin Luther’s famous letter, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” in which the famous reformer prioritized caring for one’s neighbor and community. “For Luther, people are bound to each other and are not to forsake others in their distress, and this led to an obligation to assist and help others. As a result, Luther urged people to take medicine, to disinfect their homes, and if at all possible, to avoid people and places in an effort to confine the disease. … His biblically based actions aligned remarkably well with the scientifically based measures underlying contemporary public health policies. In his own way, he was demonstrating the close alliance of science and faith” (67–68).
[D. Gareth Jones, “A Christian Perspective on New Zealand’s Response to COVID-19,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 72, no. 2 (June 2021): 67–78.]