by Wissam Nasrallah
One thing spreading faster than the coronavirus is fear: the fear of the unknown, fear of not being in control, fear of losing our livelihoods, and fear of becoming a social pariah for contracting the virus or simply sneezing. But most of all, we fear death.
Fear in specific circumstances can be a positive thing and keep us away from harm. It triggers a high-arousal physical state that enables us to have a “fight or flight” response in the face of a perceived threat or danger. In the case of the coronavirus, it should in principle compel us to stay at home and take necessary social and hygienic precautions because the threat is real, progressing and life-threatening.
However, fear can also have negative effects. It can keep us from doing what we want to do or even what we need to do. On a societal level, fear can cause widespread panic that may threaten a system’s ability to respond adequately to an emergency. Panic-buying of toilet paper or tuna cans is one thing, overwhelming the healthcare system by going to the emergency room every time someone catches a cold is another thing.
But let us not dismiss fighting over toilet paper at supermarkets as trivial. It reveals something deep within us, especially when our fear is feeding off gloomy information and sensational videos on social media. It is fear on twitteroids!
For example, in Lebanon a recent video circulated on WhatsApp showing a man collapse in the parking lot of a local supermarket. As he was struggling to get up, no one dared approach to help fearing that he might have coronavirus. Suddenly it was everyone for him or herself. Fear of the virus got the best of our humanity in that moment. I am not sure what I would have done (not sure I would have modeled the good Samaritan), but the mere idea that I might have turned my back frightens me.
This self-protective response, what psychologist Mark Schaller calls the “behavioral immune system”, was in this case passive. People stayed away. Imagine what our response could be when the threat is directed towards us when we need to fight for our lives. How civilized will we remain? How thick will the veneer of civilization turn out to be? How long before we return to a Hobbesian state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish and short”?
Without wanting to venture in the realm of apocalyptic science fiction, the coronavirus will most probably not lead to Armageddon and humans have not become apes yet. However, in light of these circumstances, where our civilization has been humbled and our certainties shaken, it is important to ask ourselves as Christians, “how thick is the veneer of our Christianity?” Can our faith withstand the test of fear, chaos and even the threat of death? Or are we faithful Christians as long as the situation is favorable to us?
Think back to a few short months ago, were we concerned and moved with compassion when the coronavirus was mainly a Chinese problem killing hundreds in China? Even when the virus arrived on our shores, many did not feel too concerned since the virus was “only” affecting people of a certain age or those with underlying health risks.
As we now barricade ourselves in our homes and cancel church meetings and gatherings (which I believe is the right thing to do), I ask myself, “how can the church be a pioneering community in such times?” As ABTS President Elie Haddad described it in his blog post on March 12, ‘”pioneering is the willingness to be faithful to God even when no one else is, while exploring new ways to impact the world for God.” In a time like now, asking such a question might seem like madness. This shouldn’t be the case to those who have been freed from the fear of death. Now is the time to care and share the hope we have in Christ with the vulnerable and isolated.
I am humbled by the story of a few believers in Wuhan who went on the streets to distribute facemasks and hand out leaflets about Christ. In the same spirit, during the Broad Street Cholera outbreak in London in 1854, Charles Spurgeon visited the sick, prayed with them and told them about Christ. In a sermon delivered in 1866 amidst another cholera outbreak he challenged Christians:
“(…) and now is the time for all of you who love souls. You may see men more alarmed than they are already; and if they should be, mind that you avail yourselves of the opportunity of doing them good (…) You know of Him who died to save; tell them of Him. Lift high the cross before their eyes. Tell them that God became man that man might be lifted to God. Tell them of Calvary, and its groans, and cries, and sweat of blood. Tell them of Jesus hanging on the cross to save sinners. Tell them that —“There is life for a look at the Crucified One.”
Such a mission is not without risks and challenges. Christ did not promise us immunity but he did promise us that He is in control, as reminded by the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Is 41:10 NKJV). I salute the churches and Christian organizations in Lebanon that are distributing hygiene kits and reaching out to vulnerable communities during this time.
As Christians, this is the time when love and care for our neighbors and community should increase. However, we should also remember that the “plague of the heart” (1 Kings 8:38 NKJV) is a much more serious disease. One of the best ways to fight the Coronavirus is the simple and basic act of washing our hands, which seems surprising given the scale of impact the virus is having on humanity. In the same way, the plague of our heart has a simple and effective solution: washing ourselves with the redemptive blood of Christ.
“Physician of my sin-sick soul,
To thee I bring my case;
My raging malady control,
And heal me by thy grace.
Pity the anguish I endure,
See how I mourn and pine;
For never can I hope a cure
From any hand but thine.
Lord, I am sick, regard my cry,
And set my spirit free:
Say, canst thou let a sinner die,
Who longs to live to thee?”