As the swine flu pandemic worsens in the UK, what spiritual and practical help can churches offer to their communities?
As the traffic swarmed out of a soon-to-be-buffeted New Orleans, solitary cars drove towards Hurricane Katrina. In one was Willie Walker, senior pastor of Noah’s Ark Missionary Baptist Church. Alerted by the local governor, many churches had set aside their Sunday worship and were instead urging their congregations to pray, pack and evacuate before Katrina hit.
It was now Sunday evening for the young preacher. He was on a mission to rescue those who had no transport and care for those who couldn’t leave. He and many others would emerge as the quiet heroes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. One of those was James Cardiff. Perturbed and alarmed by government inaction, he flew to Houston, rented a van, got spare petrol, filled the van with water and set about rescuing people, with the words of Jesus echoing in his mind: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren you did it to me.”
He performed funerals, rushed people to medical aid and, shrugging off law-enforcement offi cers who tried to stop him (referring to them as ‘agents of the Devil’!), rescued hundreds of people, believing that he was simply living the teachings of Jesus.
These counter-intuitive acts in the midst of community tragedy have marked out the Christian church throughout history. As the swine flu pandemic deepens in the UK, will we also be called to offer sacrificial love and counter-cultural service to our communities? As the H1N1 virus (swine flu) becomes more prevalent, what will holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other actually mean?
There are several areas of concern with the current pandemic:
• Older people’s bodies have H1N1 ‘memories’ from previous epidemics that will help them resist or shake off this new variant. Most younger people have no ‘immune system’ memory to help them. This means the virus will cause most illness and deaths in the under-45 age group.
• The virus is responding to drugs such as Tamiflu. But if it were to develop resistance, more vulnerable people would develop complications from the flu, or even die.
• The flu is mild at present. At the moment, definitive mortality rates are not available, but it appears that less than 0.4 per cent of those with the virus will die from it. However many people will suffer complications such as a chest infection following the flu. In different parts of the world the vulnerabilities of young adults will differ. Factors such as the high rates of asthma in Western Europe, tuberculosis in Eastern Europe and HIV/AIDS in Africa will make those affected more vulnerable.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
As we steel ourselves for testing times, what can the Church in history teach us? Early church historian Eusebius quotes Dionysius, a witness to a great epidemic that swept the Roman world around AD 260. While many were shunning the sick and throwing the dying into ditches, Dionysius discovered that his fellow Christians were defiant. As Rodney Stark states in his book, The Rise of Christianity:
‘Heedless of danger they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ’.
Some would die as a result, but, unlike their pagan contemporaries, they were confident of a life with God after death. The idea at the heart of these actions was the Christian belief that ‘because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love another’.
Stark further notes that the selfless actions of Christians were likely to lead to cuts in the mortality rate by 65 per cent or more. Conscientious nursing without any medication was enough to reverse the trend of death in many communities.
Sometimes the local knowledge of church leaders would help. An initially sceptical parish priest joined a scientist, who thought outside the normal boundaries, to track down the waterborne cholera that was killing hundreds in the 1850s. Henry Whitehead, curate of St Luke’s, a parish close to the West End of London, helped piece together the evidence as he visited his sick parishioners.
JUDGEMENT OR WHIRLWIND?
While the Church will be able to do much that is practical (see ‘Reaching your community in a flu pandemic’ box above), we will often be drawn back to one key debate. Is such widespread illness a judgement of God or have we ‘sowed the wind’ and are reaping the whirlwind?
This question arose following the collapse of the 35W Bridge in Minneapolis during the rush hour on August 1st 2007. High profile evangelical writer and speaker John Piper recounted in his blog how he and his daughter discussed the collapse hours after it had happened, and agreed that God had allowed the bridge to fall so that people in the city might ‘fear him’ and repent. (www.desiringgod.com/blog/745).
Writer and speaker Greg Boyd, also a local Minneapolis pastor begs to differ. He suggests that punishment of large groups by God ended with the sacrifice of Christ, who died for the ‘sins of the whole world’ 1 John 2:2. Boyd also notes that God usually only punished after clear warning. In Boyd’s view, wherever the blame for the collapsed bridge lay it wasn’t with God. (www.gregboyd.org/blog/why-the-35w-bridge-collapsed/)
Both men examined Jesus’ comments on Galileans brutalised by Pilate and 18 that died in a tower collapse and note that these people were not being picked out for judgement because they were more sinful than anyone else. We’re all sinful (Luke 13:1-5).
THE WAY WE EAT
If swine flu is not the judgement of God, is it a whirlwind of our own making? There are significant human factors we need to consider if we want to take this stance. One of these is the way we eat.
At the heart of the flu furore is the humble pig. Shunned by Jews and Muslims, it has long had the reputation among the scientific community as a potent ‘remixer’ of flu strains. With unique receptors in its breathing system for both bird flu genetic elements and human flu, it is the mixing vessel for many influenza streams.
This has been amplified in recent times by urbanisation – the move to cities around the world and the industrialisation of pig production. With thousands of pigs crammed into sheds in tiny compartments, viruses that might take years to mutate in a free range herd, can rip through the sheds in weeks and months. The pig industry has its own pig influenza vaccine programme which responds to this speeded up cycle.
In other nations where urban sprawl is multiplied by millions moving into the cities, the old habits of rural life co-exist with cramped conditions and novel farming approaches. Fish, chicken and pigs will often be raised in the same space, with the waste of one helping feed the other. All of this amplifies the possibility of novel influenza and its transmission in the crowded slums of many cities.
William O’Neill, author of the highly regarded Plagues and People notes that the Jewish/Muslim pork taboos reflected the fear that this scavenger animal might be harbouring disease. O’Neill then outlines the fact that many human diseases such as smallpox, measles and the common cold have come to us from animal populations.
The Old Testament hygiene laws begin to take on a different hue when viewed in this light. While Jesus and the disciples, and especially Peter following his rooftop dream about unclean animals, moved away from a legalistic application of these laws as a means to salvation, their underlying wisdom has only just begun to be understood.
Before blaming God for the flu pandemic, we may want to ponder the role of factory farming, rapid urbanisation, and economics in creating a context for a pandemic. And we might want to look to the Bible for wisdom on animals, health, infection and money.
NOT THE ‘WHO’ BUT THE ‘HOW’
Rather than getting tangled up in who is to blame for the pandemic, a healthier way of regarding it might be to consider how, as churches, we might respond. How can we bring God’s love to suffering and sick communities? The information in this article is intended to be a springboard for you to think about your own action and will need to be adapted to your own local situation. One thing is common to all locations – communication is key. Work hard to build relationships with local organisations, councils, schools and faith groups so you have a co-ordinated response in place. Recognise that part of the discussion in your own church will involve weighing up the willingness to risk your own health for the good of others, and remember that sacrificial love can mean just that – sacrifice. But this could be our chance to shine as Christians.
Advice to faith communities from the government published in May this year reads “If an influenza (flu) pandemic happens in the UK, everyone will need to play a part in managing how it affects our society. At such a time, faith communities have an important role. Strong leadership from faith communities is vital when large scale incidents trigger concerns about social cohesion.”
Let’s live up to this call from government to step up and make a difference. This could be our New Orleans.
Additional reporting by Dr Rebecca Payne, a GP in South Wales and former staffworker for the Christian Medical Fellowship.