Since early summer of this year I’ve been carrying out research that explores the influence of fear, anger and hope in the experiences of Christians during the pandemic.
So far I have carried out over 80 in-depth research interviews with people of different ages, genders and ethnicities in England, Wales and Scotland. Though it is too early to arrive at any definitive conclusions, some interesting issues seem to be emerging.
Given the focus in the media on fear and anger being major components of our experience of the virus, the people I have listened to have actually expressed surprisingly low levels of these emotions.
Most have described their experiences with the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘concern’ rather than fear. Even then, their anxiety and concern has not been for themselves or their own health but more for the welfare of others: the clinically vulnerable, problems of mental health, lack of social contact, and not being able to meet together as church.
A few have expressed fear and anger over the strategies being prescribed by scientists and the government for addressing the disease, such as suppressing the virus or seeking herd immunity. But most anger has been reserved for those who chose to flout the laws and advice for suppressing the spread of the virus. Largely, there has been sympathy for the Prime Minister and the government as they addressed the problems posed by a new virus. Even those who have expressed anger or frustration about government strategies freely admit that they would not like to have that responsibility themselves, that politicians and scientists are in a very difficult and unenviable position.
With the exception of a few biologists, most folk I have listened to admit to a poor understanding of viruses. Perhaps understandably, because of the novelty of experiencing a pandemic, the majority of people are focusing upon the current crisis alone with a deliberate theological, pastoral and scientific concentration. The problem for me is that this focus does not bode well for us living with viruses in the future. Virologists and epidemiologists have warned us for a number of years that other novel viruses are in the queue for our futures, and that some will be much more deadly than the coronavirus.
Scientists are finding that the more virulent and deadly viruses for humans tend to come from wildlife species and habitats, so we must give some serious thought and attention to this transmission route. The most concerning aspect is our relationship with the natural environment on a global scale, the ever-increasing encroachment of urban life into wildlife habitats, land-use change for industrial farming, and global preferential demands for foods and medicines. In addition to grievances about not being able to eat out in restaurants, we should be more concerned about our eating habits at a more fundamental level.
Personally, I am saddened by Christian communities dividing so passionately over closure of premises and meetings for worship, while there is a unified silence over lifestyles and appetites that pose real threats to life for future generations. We may be called to give account to God for being slow to evangelise souls for eternity, but do we have no fear of having to account before God for our silence and inertia in addressing our own personal lifestyles, diets, social systems and institutions that make deadly viruses so transmissible here and now? As far as viruses are concerned, and our susceptibility to them, the end of this coronavirus will not be the end of the story.
Should we allow our concerns about returning to normality take priority over our awareness of what God thinks of that normal and its contribution to viral disease? As Christians, let’s turn this pandemic into something really positive and life-saving for the future.
Rev Dr Roger P. Abbott is senior research associate in ‘Natural’ Disasters (though he is persuaded there are no disasters that are actually natural, just human). He has carried out projects in Haiti, following the devastating earthquake in 2010, which explored how survivors’ (largely) Christian beliefs influenced their response to and recovery from that catastrophic event. Following over thirty years of pastoral experience, Roger gained his Ph.D. in a practical theology of disaster response, from the University of Wales, Trinity & St. David. He is co-editor of What good is God? Disasters, faith and resilience