by Caleb Hutcherson
A mu’azzin calls people to pray at home, rather than coming together to pray. A church cancels its Sunday services, moving to online broadcasts. A seminary pivots to online instruction, temporarily closing in-person classes. In ordinary times, any of these local changes would barely make the news. But these are not ordinary times. The entire world, it seems, is experiencing this coronavirus pandemic together. And we all are struggling to make sense of it.
In my historical theology classes at ABTS, much of what students and I do together involves examining theological impulses we assume are “biblical.” Dusting off ancient beliefs and practices sheds critical light on our inherited assumptions. But in the midst of crises like the one we are all walking through together now, these assumptions are often the first things we reach for to make sense of, and to know what to do about, the “situation.”
For many evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the Reformed tradition, God’s sovereignty is one of the main ideas with which we make sense of crisis and suffering. We reassure each other that whatever happens, God is sovereign. We need not fear, for God is in control. He orchestrates all the details. And I agree, to a degree.
But these expressions leave out a critical part of the story. In the midst of sickness, suffering, and death, a singular emphasis on the sovereignty of God contributes to what I call “doormat” theology [lahut lsijjade in Arabic]. At best, this theology offers an abstracted assurance. But at its worst, I think doormat theology can muzzle the voices of victims, silence the sharing of real pain and fear, and facilitate various forms of abuse. God is sovereign. End of discussion.
But Christian tradition includes other vitally important ideas in addition to God’s sovereignty. Like the hope of resurrection. All too often, we forget this hope in our response to suffering. This core idea is fundamental to the fullness of the story of God’s sovereignty. Theology of the resurrection [lahut lqiyame in Arabic…rhymes with lahut lsijjade] emphasizes Christ’s physical resurrection from death as the completion of the story of God’s sovereignty. Love defies fear. Hope overcomes despair. Life defeats death.
Sovereignty without resurrection is just opium.
Because of this, Christian praxis through history has not glossed over the hope of resurrection. Examples abound of how people willingly confronted sickness and suffering because of this belief in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Resurrection hope helped people make sense of diseases and plagues by transforming crises into occasions calling for the very ministry of Jesus, giving their own lives for the sake of others. Come with me for a quick overview of a few examples.
We can start in the period of the early church. Christians in the Roman Empire were known for ministering to those affected by the plague instead of abandoning them like pagan priests would do in the Greco-Roman society. They did so even at the risk of themselves becoming sick. Actually, not just facing personal, bodily risk, but expecting to enter into suffering and death along with those ravaged by the plague. They did so because of genuine belief in the power of Christ’s physical resurrection, which gave people like Justin Martyr genuine hope in life beyond death. Faithfulness to this belief for them meant following Christ’s example and willingly giving their own lives for the sake of others.
Jumping forward a handful of centuries and to Europe in the Middle Ages, we find churches playing a major role in the care of sick people by organizing what came to be called “hospitals.” Interestingly, the practice of hospital care was introduced to Europeans in the Middle Ages by Islamic societies in the East that were far more advanced in the application of science and medicine. Of course, patient care looked completely different from the medical treatment offered in modern hospitals. In these medieval hospitals, Christians housed and helped those rejected by society for fear they would infect others. This practice of hospital-ing often meant hosting unwell people in monasteries or buildings attached to cathedrals. The Cluny Abbey is a medieval Benedictine example of hospitality care being brought within the literal walls of the church. They made sense of sickness and death through a theology of resurrection, which led to (and was shaped by) hosting vulnerable and suffering people in “holy” spaces.
In the past weeks, I have seen numerous social media posts pointing to Martin Luther’s pastoral letter, entitled “Whether One May Flee from the Plague,” as an example of how Christians ought to deal with COVID-19. Luther’s detailed instructions took shape in the midst of a local outbreak of the “Black Death” in 1527. People were afraid because of the horrifying collective memory of the bubonic plague that had devastated the world for nearly 200 years. In a now widely read section of this letter, Luther avers that he will pray for God’s mercy, and then do everything possible to clean the spaces around himself and “to avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed.” But this isn’t all that Luther says in this letter.
In the whole of the letter, Luther argues that Christians have a duty to serve and care for others, even to the point of death. To refuse to help those suffering from the plague is to be guilty of their murder. This help included, but was in no way limited to, preventing others from being contaminated. For Luther, this meant not abandoning the sacraments, nor the meeting of the church to partake together.
This likely sounds reckless and even unlawful to our present-day sensibilities. But the trick to deciphering Luther’s seemingly contradictory language is to grasp the significance of the cross in Luther’s thinking. For Luther, the cross is the primary source for knowledge of who God is and how He saves. Christ’s death on a cross demonstrates the fullness of God entering into our suffering and death. Those who would follow Christ, do so even at the risk of death, because of the hope of resurrection after death. Luther’s personal life fills in the details of what he understood that tension to look like in real life.
Luther and his wife, Katherine, took so many sick people into their house to care for them during the plague that their entire household had to be quarantined. For them, fear of the plague was no reason to abandon caring for those in need. And fear of the disease called for doing whatever possible to limit its spreading to others, both quarantining when needed, and caring for those who were affected. But their extreme care for others was not without cost. Their own daughter, Elisabeth, died from the plague. As daddy to two girls and one boy, I cannot imagine a more gut-wrenching toll.
For Luther, God’s sovereignty in that “day of trouble” meant more than an abstract sense of assurance. It was not an opium meant to dull the fear of the masses. Instead, Luther understood God’s sovereignty as emboldening His people to confront the “poison in the fangs” of the devil. Serving God in the midst of a pandemic meant shaping ministry to serve others, rather than seeking to preserve oneself or “the church.” Luther acted in this way because God’s sovereignty was known and made known primarily through Christ’s death and resurrection.
I offer these brief glimpses of Christians’ practices of caring for the sick as examples of ministry shaped by the hope of resurrection. For churches in the Middle East and North African region where perseverance in the public gathering of the faithful has been an existential duty, ministry in the time of COVID-19 is a confusing time. Should we meet or stay home? Stop sharing in communion/eucharist, or persist? Cease meeting with and helping the most vulnerable and poor in our communities, or continue in the midst of real risks for everyone?
A theology of resurrection in the time of COVID-19 does not advocate for foolishness, recklessly ignoring the risks of this virus. Nor does it seek to preserve ourselves by abandoning people who are vulnerable and isolated. Rather, resurrection hope should shape creative and innovative ministries of self-sacrifice. It requires that we diligently protect others by limiting our own freedom or traditions. This may look like self-isolating to protect the vulnerable. Or, it may mean putting ourselves at risk for the sake of the vulnerable. Either way, it absolutely means giving selflessly of ourselves to help those most in need. Even when it costs us everything.
Caleb Hutcherson and his family have lived in Beirut since 2008. He teaches in the area of historical theology at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.