Monday, March 15, 2021

Walter Klaiber: Faith in the Time of Coronavirus

Today's post is by Retired Bishop Walter Klaiber. This article originally appeared in German in unterwegs, the magazine of The United Methodist Church in Germany (called, in German, die Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche (EmK)). It appears here by permission.

These days, the title of a novel by Gabriel García Márquez often comes to my mind. It is called: Love in the Time of Cholera. In reading it, I have of course discovered: There is a lot of talk in the book about love and relatively little about cholera. When it comes to faith, today it is more likely the other way around: The subject of coronavirus dominates everything; faith is seldom spoken of. Out of fifteen people who were asked in the Tübinger Zeitung what gives them support in difficult situations, only one woman mentioned her belief in God! What about faith in the time of coronavirus, and what does it have to say about what we are experiencing?

Many will feel like me: The intensity, the duration, and the appearance of new mutations have made the new wave much scarier than the first. We are thereby confronted with a double problem: There is the disease and its effects, and there are the measures to combat it, with their sometimes-dramatic effects. It is also irritating how little scientists seem to agree on what is the right way to go. Many of us are also concerned with the question: How will our congregations survive the long period of absence from personal encounters in church services and church fellowship groups?

Thinking about one’s own life
This all calls for a spiritual processing of the event. Some see the pandemic as a punishment from God or a sign of the end times, and often the question is asked: Why does God allow this? However, it is often asked by people who otherwise are not very much concerned about God. This is a bit reminiscent of the attitude of teenagers who expect their parents to grant them every freedom and yet to be there to help when things get dangerous.

A word from Jesus helps me here. He said it with regard to a disaster that happened in Jerusalem. A tower near the pool of Siloam had collapsed and buried eighteen people underneath it. And there were people who thought that their sudden death must be a punishment from God. But Jesus asks: “Do you really think that they were more guilty than all other inhabitants of Jerusalem? Definitely not!” And he also did not ask what the real cause was - maybe botched construction - and advocate stricter building regulations. He saw it as a signal to reflect on one's own life: "I tell you: you will all perish the same way if you do not repent" (Luke 13: 4f).

Jesus also did not say why God allowed the misfortune, and certainly not that God caused the tower to collapse in order to admonish people to repent. But the fact that it happened became an impulse to ask: Where is my life going? and to resolve to repent if it is not centered on God and God’s will. "To perish in the same way" certainly does not mean being slain by a toppling tower as well, but rather points to the danger of being torn from life unprepared and without being borne and held by God.

Living with danger
The Gospel of Luke describes a local accident, but Jesus' words also shed light on a global pandemic. Living in this world never means absolute security. Wherever absolute security is sought - for example with accordingly restrictive regulations - life threatens to suffocate. We have to live with dangers. Usually they are managable, but sometimes they seem almost overwhelmingly threatening. It is also part of life that we recognize dangers and can do something about them. But at the same time there is a call therein to examine what we build our lives on and what is important to us. This does not mean that God creates such threats to move us to repentance. But the fact that they are part of God’s creation becomes an impulse to rethink life and - if necessary - to change it. But today many see this is as an unacceptable challenge.

The Viennese philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann speaks in this context of an "offended society" - "offended" because our arrogance-prone self-esteem is considerably hurt by the threat of a danger that cannot be immediately controlled. But it would fit Jesus’ meaning precisely to accept this challenge and to realize: We are not the rulers of the universe and do not stand above all dangers. Not the feasibility of all things, but rather rooting in God is the foundation of our life. That insight could then also help us to be less impatient in the fight against the pandemic and less aggressive in disputes about the right measures to take and also to recognize in relation to one another what really matters. The fact that many new, dangerous viral diseases arise from crossing the animal-human barrier should also be an impetus to rethink our relationship with nature.

Faith in the time of coronavirus is not without questions, fears, and doubts. But it turns to God with all these and shelters itself in God and God's love. A strength of trust grows out of this, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described in prison in 1943: “I believe that God can and will create good out of everything, including the worst. For this God needs people who let all things be of service to the best. I believe that God wants to give us as much resilience as we need in any emergency. But he does not give it in advance so that we do not rely on ourselves but on him alone."

Hope in the times of coronavirus lives by this trust. It trusts that danger does not render us helpless. It sees the rapid development of effective vaccinations as a gift from God and not as proof that we can overcome anything with the help of science. And in times when we must speak of "excess mortality," the hope that death is not the final limit for God and for our fellowship with God becomes particularly important.

Love in the time of coronavirus proves itself through staying power. Instead of short-lived actions, there is a reliable caring for one another: not giving up contacts, but reliably maintaining them, allowing us to see what we really need and living for others. It is also important to remember that there are also people who must cope with completely different difficulties than COVID-19 and especially not to forget them! If we learn this in our churches, good things can come out of this difficult time too!

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