In the present global health crisis there are some whose fears and needs could easily become a footnote to a larger narrative of reassurance and confidence. While coronavirus will one day be a memory, and while most who experience it will find it mild and minor, there is a margin of people for whom news of a pandemic arouses genuine and legitimate human fears. In almost every public announcement, in the literature and press releases, the public are assured that only the elderly and those with underlying conditions will face complications from infection. Such fear-reducing tactics are perfectly valid, and urgently needed in a society which is being whipped by the edges of the media whirlwind. The danger, however, is that a significant group of people could quickly believe that they more than anyone else represent mere statistics, and in the Christian community their well-grounded measures to protect themselves could be viewed as a weakness in their faith.
In this post I want to explore some of the assumptions which can make the elderly and medically vulnerable a disposable part of our news, and to suggest some biblical means by which we might subtly recalibrate what we say, for the good of our neighbours and for the glory of God.
The desire for smaller news
The news that only those with underlying conditions, or in advanced age, will face serious consequences from coronavirus, can be a coping mechanism for a world faced with an irreducible health issue. With the rolling thunder of 24 hour news, the over-mined coal face of social media speculation, and the constant murmur of a pandemic on the lips of friends and colleagues, we can easily feel overwhelmed. One of our instincts is to reduce the news, not in scale, but in personal significance, to find solace that we are among that part of the herd which will survive, that we are neither outliers nor isolated from the statistical majority. That kind of air pocket allows us to probe a condition which we don’t believe will kill us, to feel the thrill of the drama, without enduring the chill of its true potential. In these circumstances the smaller percentage becomes a foil for our fears, a pool of people whose exception proves the rule we ourselves are relying on.
A similar mechanism comes into play when people lose elderly loved ones. Asking the age of the deceased, assessing how far they are from three score and ten, means that our maths manages the scale of loss. The ‘good innings’ idea means that we palliate our own sense of how grieved families might be, and how much care they might need. This kind of thinking might be hugely reassuring, but it is a failure of neighbour love, a failure to weep with those who weep, an expression of the heavy individualism which now so permeates our culture.
The dignity of every individual
All around us are people who, with daily courage and resolve, manage to live apparently normal lives in spite of limiting conditions and health complaints. Many of their burdens are unseen, their concerns unheard, their struggles unnoticed. Their lives are invested in work and family, in church and ministry, in neighbour and friend. Their underlying conditions are precisely that, they underlie their ‘normal’ lives, they impede their functioning, they might reduce their mobility or even their employability, but their lives are not defined by the illness or disability they bear. Their potential succumbing to an illness will leave as much of an aching void in the lives of those around them as the other percentage of society for whom these things are not the case.
Similarly, the elderly members of our society are not generally sitting at the end of life’s platform waiting for their departure. My visitation as a pastor brings me into contact with the vivacity of older people, the wonderful complexity of their thinking and relating, the deep ties they enjoy with family and neighbour, the seasoned reality of their faith, the easiness of their sense of humour, their distinctive perspective on life and death. The elderly are not a subcategory of society, an ebbing tide or a setting sun, they are of the same worth and wealth as everyone else.
These facts make our sigh of relief at statistical outliers deeply offensive. As believers we should make much of every single person, and their inbuilt worthiness of our love and nurture as our neighbours. There are few who would affirm anything less than this, but some of our assumed attitudes can hint at a sense of disposability which we must keep in check.
As believers we have a unique view of humanity, of the inherent and objective worth of every single individual. The fact that we are made in the image of God, that we are the pinnacle of God’s created work, lends gracious weight to all of us, regardless of any of our other identifiers. Herman Bavinck handles this theme with power and theological precision,
In our treatment of the doctrine of the image of God…we must highlight, in accordance with Scripture and the Reformed confession, the idea that a human being does not bear or have the image of God, but that he or she is the image of God.
Our Christianity should be marked by an understanding of the dignity of people which is so deep and theologically rooted that we can never reduce the ocean of significance contained in each and every person by a single drop. It should also prohibit us from dismissing outliers as the kind of collateral loss which might be expected when serious illness strikes.
Feeling the fear of others
Coronavirus is presenting us with a challenge which can bring out polarising traits in believers, according to temperament and circumstance. The spectrum accommodates bravado as well as anxiety, with fatalism lying somewhere along that same line. This means that the fearful can resent the outspoken assurance of those who feel little anxiety about the condition, while the confident can express derision at the timidity of fellow Christians who claim to trust their God. The capacity of Christians to divide over almost anything is as predictable as it is lamentable.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this are those whose fears are well founded. There are members of every church, across every age group, for whom contracting coronavirus guarantees a stay in ICU as a best possible outcome. There are brothers and sisters in Christ to whom you might have spoken last Lord’s Day whose faith in the Lord’s providence is strong, but whose apprehension at what a wildfire virus might mean for them is valid. There are those in active service in their jobs and in their church who know that their everyday knife-edge is sharpened with every diagnosis in their district, for whom mortality statistics toll a bell rather than sounding a fanfare. There are elderly people in our midst who will soon need to decide between running the gauntlet of failing physical health through exposure to visitors, and failing mental health through isolation from society. To fire a salvo of Psalms at such people is pastorally naive, and quite possibly self-centred, as we will not invest our interaction with them with the empathy needed to see that sometimes the tightrope of daily discipleship is strung between faith and fear.
This means that we should seek to bear one another’s burdens in a way which does not dismiss legitimate concerns, which does not seek to deride or reduce them, but which owns the fact that coronavirus may mean very big things to a very small group. If we perceive ourselves to be ‘stronger’ brothers or sisters in this regard, our strength should not be invested in lifting other people up to the ridicule of the crowd, but in bearing people up through their worries in a crisis.
A viral opportunity
Coronavirus affords us the opportunity to follow some of the contour lines in our church fellowships which all too often go unnoticed. It should call out to us to show concern, kindness and care to those who are often reduced to a statistic, it should teach us to weigh the burdens we don’t wear for ourselves, and to credit the fears which we ourselves don’t naturally feel. Those responses alone might just be enough to show our world what the church can really be like, what the gospel can really do, and what living for Jesus Christ really can mean.