By: Michael R. Wagenman
On Friday, March 13, 2020, my wife and I started to experience the initial symptoms of what would eventually be diagnosed by our doctor (over the phone) as COVID-19. The irony of the date on which our symptoms began hasn’t been lost on me. Though, at first, we weren’t sure what was happening to us. Like others, we are living through these strange and confusing days.
Thankfully, our battle with this illness was part of the majority who have “mild” cases. But we still spent over two weeks feeling terrible. The daily headaches, lethargy, loss of appetite, body aches, and feverish shivers were enough to cause a lot of complaining. But, on the flip side, we didn’t feel so completely incapacitated that we could avoid our ongoing school and work requirements with excuses. It wasn’t until we had fully recovered that, looking back, we realized how miserable we had been.
The global media attention to the coronavirus certainly contributed an anxious element to our illness. In the early days of March, we had been discussing the growing emergency on a daily basis. We strategized what we would do if our parents (in their 70s) living in the USA became infected and needed care when the borders were closed. We worried about visiting our young adult children spread across two provinces. And we anxiously brainstormed what we would do if we got too sick to care for each other. Would we call an ambulance, and risk further spread, if one of us couldn’t drive the other to the emergency department at the local hospital?
But, in addition to the anxiety, we also felt the stigma associated with this illness. It wasn’t just how others out walking their dogs gave each other wide berth. We noticed that our closest neighbours made sure to keep their young children from interacting with us. A friend warned us about letting people know we were sick in case divulging that information publicly might make us legally liable if a neighbour got sick. We had friends who got nervous even talking with us on the phone.
It was during those sixteen days that we felt very alone. We were isolated with our anxiety, our stigmatized illness, and our reliance on our own immune systems. We realized how grateful we were for the gift of our friends. The single woman from church who brought us a few groceries. Coworkers who texted to check up on us. Members of our Alpha group who sent social media messages of encouragement.
I haven’t been able to stop myself from reflecting theologically on this illness. First, this experience has reminded me of the social and “neighbourly” nature of what it means to be human. Out of the overflow of God’s own internal communion, humankind is knit together through our social and relational connectedness in families, friends, and neighbours. With the coronavirus hitting during the Christian seasons of Lent and Eastertide, I am reminded that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus includes this social dimension as well. In fact, in God’s renewing grace we are not only restored to fellowship with God but this also translates into renewed fellowship with our neighbours so that human life might flourish. Those texts and social media messages are important at a fundamental human level, too. The physical distancing, masks, and gloves are part of how we love our neighbours right now.
I have also been thinking theologically about the future and what it might mean to “return to normal” at some point. I have come to see this global pandemic as an opportunity for us to reconsider what “normal” is – or should be. I believe that we are currently experiencing what could be viewed as a unique chance to think critically about how we want to live in this world. Do we really want to go back to our isolated and fragmented lives? Or, are these basic human connections with others, time playing with our children, evenings spent making music (or love) also important? What, in the coming months, will we take with us into our “new normal”? Maybe our old way of life wasn’t sustainable. Maybe one of the good things God will bring out of this pandemic is a more balanced life that includes tangible acts of looking after and serving each other even once we are allowed to return to work and school.
Finally, my reflections have also included a more prophetic edge to them. In particular, it seems to me that this pandemic has revealed where we have allowed idolatry to take root in our society and in our lives. Most of the public discussions I’m hearing seem to pit public health against economic concerns. Just as there was initially great concern about the spread of the virus, there are now shrill voices worried about economic collapse, even at a global level. I’ve been quite appalled to hear so many Christian voices prioritizing a robust economy than the safeguarding of human life. While I understand that there are complex ramifications to businesses being closed long-term, it seems as though our worship of the almighty dollar has been revealed. Is our most foundational faith really in a constantly growing stock portfolio?
In these ways, this illness has caused me to wonder what following Jesus through COVID-19 can look like. I’m praying that we, as Christians today, might be known as our sisters and brothers throughout history have been known: as those who have looked after and served their neighbours in times of crisis. I’m hoping that, as followers of Jesus, we will display a faith that is fully committed to the other and not just ourselves. Why couldn’t this not be what it might look like to pick up our cross and follow Jesus into this pandemic, armed with hope in the face of suffering and death?
Michael R. Wagenman represents the Christian Reformed Church on the governing board of the Canadian Council of Churches and the Commission for Faith and Witness. He is professor of theology and religious studies at Western University, London, Canada. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (UK), and is the author of Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper (2019) and Together for the World: The Book of Acts (2016).