by Zaphnath Paaneah
As the most bizarre Easter week many can ever remember begins to fade from view – police invading churches and some Christians in America trying to find the money to pay fines for attending services in their cars – [i] some very big questions are looming, and widespread street protests have begun.[ii] The media’s relentless editorializing about the unprecedented nature of the situation continues unabated, yet viruses and plagues are not unprecedented, even in recent history. The response – quarantining entire healthy populations under extreme lockdown and closing up the economy – is. The beginnings of public protest are therefore hardly surprising as people start to weigh for themselves the seemingly low mortality of this virus strain against the human cost of shutting down the world.[iii] Soaring levels of unemployment, business closures and the mass displacement of people have spiralled around the world amidst a colossal self-inflicted economic disaster – France now facing its worst economic contraction since 1945[iv], Canada looking at its deepest recession ever (at least in the short- term with possible long-term ramifications),[v] the U.K in the same situation with the worst downturn in a century,[vi] and the US debt-laden economy in the balance.[vii] Every thinking Christian should read some of the more thought-provoking articles of the last few weeks and reflect on the questions raised by them.[viii]
Freedom and Choices
The hazards involved in questioning dominant media narratives highlight that freedom of speech and expression are definitely on the endangered list in much of the West, and unending vigilance is required to guard our God-given freedoms.[ix] Perhaps our temporary ‘house arrest’ in North America will help us value and fight for our freedoms more attentively when the virus component of this crisis passes.
Questioning the official line of governments and health officials is not to undermine or underappreciate the efforts of those serving diligently in the medical profession. All should recognise these past weeks have been very difficult for many doctors and nurses and we should be truly thankful for their dedication and labor. I for one pray I am as troubled by the tragic loss of any life, as those first responders who care for the sick or dying at their bedside. That being said, my central concern as a Christian thinker is with weighing the risk posed by the virus and the societal response in the lives of everyone – not just medical workers – as well as meditating on what God might be saying in the midst of it all.
In view of this, as we think of our health professionals with gratitude at this time, it is also worth reflecting on the choices we all make to pursue any vocation – each involves certain risks. I know several businessmen whose small companies have already been decimated by the shutdowns and may not pull through. The restaurant industry will take decades to recover, with numerous real people having already lost everything. It invokes a false and dangerous dichotomy to accept popular mantras like ‘people over profits,’ as if economic concerns can somehow be isolated from our health and life as human beings. The health consequences of unemployment and business loss are well-known and can be devastating.[x] Many people are not aware of the high suicide rate recorded after the 2008 global market crash. The work of researchers from the University of Oxford, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in June 2014 identified a huge spike in what they call ‘economic suicides’ (10,000+) and a deep mental health crisis that followed due to job loss, home foreclosures and debt. Of course, business inescapably involves risk and can lead to various health-threatening losses.[xi]
Millions of other people across North America, who live paycheck to paycheck in laboring industries (not funded by the taxpayer) have lost their jobs and cannot pay their rent – in fact unemployment is now at its highest in the USA since the Great Depression, and Canada’s economic prospects hang on the edge of the abyss.[xii] It is not a lack of care or compassion to point out the risks to the health and wellbeing of everyone in this crisis; it is simply facing a human reality. I see no reason to single out healthcare workers as alone at the point of this spear nor the healthcare system as the only arena of serious strain.
Models, More Models, and Real Data
As the daily news feeds continue, many people have already reached ‘model’ or ‘projection’ fatigue. The secular prophecy of scientific prediction is notoriously unreliable.[xiii] No sooner has one model been suggested, than an alternate is offered in its place. Interestingly, almost all recent projections have revised mortality dramatically downward.[xiv] No computer model can accurately predict the course of this virus, in part because we simply do not have sufficient relevant information. Dr. Rosalind Smyth, professor of child health at UCL in Britain, has said that the data is so misleading in the UK, it should not be used.[xv] There is no doubt our medical workers are facing a serious outbreak of a novel, highly infectious respiratory disease which is placing serious strain on parts of the healthcare system. Yet this should not prevent people from asking serious questions, nor calling for an urgent review of the unprecedented reactionary measures not seen with SARS (2003), H1N1 (2009), nor even the deadly Spanish Flu (1918). To be a thinking Christian involves shunning a docile herd mentality that follows the crowd wherever it wanders. The Levitical laws for quarantining the sick are a vital biblical model for dealing with disease. But I question the humanity, validity, legality, and value of the practice of total population quarantine, bringing the world to a halt, rather than isolating the sick and vulnerable.
Researchers at the University of Oxford suggested weeks ago that up to 50% of the UK population may already have been infected, which if true, alters mortality projections and brings to the fore the question and importance of herd immunity and the wisdom of shutting down the entire economy.[xvi] Likewise, in North America, it seems there may be untold numbers of undiagnosed cases with different presenting symptoms or none at all.[xvii] Other experts have recommended the Swedish model of allowing children to go to school and pass the virus around to develop immunity – whilst protecting the elderly and vulnerable in isolation for a few weeks. They argue this virus is following the pattern of other similar respiratory diseases. Some have even suggested that containment and lockdown just prolongs the epidemic and risks bringing it back more aggressively in the future.[xviii] A top German epidemiologist has written an open letter to the German Chancellor citing critical questions that he believes need to be answered and calling for a serious review of current measures.[xix] A good friend of mine and leading medical professional has told me he believes we will all have immunity soon enough through wide community spread and that the optimal response would be targeted – isolating the elderly and immunocompromised demographic who are clearly most at risk. Factoring in the issue of co-morbidities (dying with but not simply from the virus), or dying of Covid-19 instead of common influenza or another respiratory disease (the well-known phenomenon of a new virus displacing the other ones),[xx] it is going to be a long time before we get to an accurate understanding regarding those whose tragic deaths are directly attributable to Covid-19 and what the real excess mortality for any nation really is.
As a philosopher I don’t pretend to have the expertise to authoritatively sort through all the scientific opinion and my friends in the medical profession themselves offer only tentative responses based on limited information. As such, it remains vitally important to reiterate that computer models used to justify a course of action are not the same as rear-view-mirror analysis of real data. In addition, the data is not self-interpreting – just like a philosophy of life, assumptions are always built in. It is because of this that the response to the crisis should be measured and targeted, lest the destruction and havoc caused by our panicked actions be the dreadful product of our ignorance. At the very least, public debate and creative alternatives to the current approach need to be advanced.
Consequences for Human Wellbeing
Factors like these should encourage us all to reflect carefully on the dangerous employment of special legal powers and to question the unprecedented use of mass quarantine; in particular, how long it should be prolonged! Together, these measures are extending business lockdown, social dislocation and isolation, furthering market uncertainty and decline and leading the globe to the brink of a potentially catastrophic economic depression. The long-term health implications of these decisions for the poor, unemployed and isolated elderly must be seriously reviewed. In addition, we should consider what is happening with displaced people in India and other developing nations right now because of their attempt to copy Western lockdown measures.[xxi] The real suffering and eventual death toll from this mass displacement of people and economic disaster is unimaginable to us with our relatively comfortable lives in the West.
My appeal then is for communities and nations not to approach the problem of public health in a one-dimensional way. Civil authorities can lock down a business, but they cannot switch off the essence of human nature. We are cultural beings made specifically to work (Gen. 1:28; 2:15) and social beings made for fellowship (Gen 2. 18; 21-23). To deny human beings these things, even amidst sickness, is to deny part of the essence of their humanity and fundamentally undermine their life and well-being. Work is part of the normative structure of human life and existence and is therefore pre-political because political life presupposes it. Human governments do not bestow on people a right to work, they are merely called to recognize and protect it. It is God himself who commands human beings to rule and subdue, to work and serve (and observe sabbath rest), so we might reasonably ask if we are not presently being forbidden to do what God commands?
Whatever we make of these biblical considerations, we must responsibly weigh the outcomes of our actions legally, economically, socially in terms of human wellbeing as a whole, and then not just for ourselves, but for poor and developing nations.
The Dark Side
It is my view that our lack of level-headedness in this pandemic has highlighted again that we are an end-stage culture in the West. We are ready to demand that ‘government’ save us and are happy to surrender measured judgment for media soundbites. One of Britain’s finest legal minds and former Supreme Court judge, Lord Sumption, has called the response to Covid-19 a ‘collective hysteria’ and warned of the dire consequences. In an interview with BBC Radio 4 he said:
The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated. That’s what I fear we are seeing now. The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don’t pause to ask whether the action will work. They don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying. They want action anyway. And anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria. Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.[xxii]
Epidemics have frequently reshaped political and cultural life in human history and one outcome seen before is the growth of authoritarianism.[xxiii] We seem strangely blind to the fact that this health crisis is being exploited to expand evils like abortion,[xxiv] assault historic freedoms,[xxv] mortgage the future of our children and further the control, reach and power of a secular interventionist state, with their big banks and corporations too big to fail – how much of the American private sector does the Federal Reserve now own or control? The longer current measures persist, the deeper the economic hole we dig for ourselves, the more incomprehensible our debt load, and the greater the loss of freedoms, long-term health and the prospects of the next generation.[xxvi] In this crisis we have already witnessed a definitive end, in our lifetime, to fiscal conservatism and limited government – even in the United States. Fiscal conservatism was never going to survive without social conservatism, which itself cannot survive without a Christian world-and-life-view underpinning it. It is hard not to be concerned now, not only about an inevitable recession, but with the looming threat of inflation and geo-political shifts in influence and power waiting in the wings. Statism and welfarism are now entrenched and will be for decades in the West. It is going to take nothing short of a massive Christian reformation to recover Western nations.
There are sinister actors at work in the midst of all this, and not just at the national level. Marxists, neo-Marxists and socialist intellectuals have long held that destabilizing crises are necessary to provide ideal conditions for the socialist revolution – and must always be exploited to that end.[xxvii] There are numerous radicals, bred by our universities across the West, who crave the abolition of the family, the church, private property and free markets in pursuit of a pagan egalitarian order. Likewise, the hostility to freedom emanating from globalists and socialist elites is increasingly surfacing. The World Health Organisation spoke openly about the potential need to separate families. American journalist Tucker Carlson recently raised some very disturbing questions in regard to these beneficent threats to liberty. He highlights a recent statement by Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme:
In most parts of the world, due to lockdown, most of the transmission that’s actually happening in many countries now is happening in the household at family level. In some senses, transmission has been taken off the streets and pushed back into family units. Now, we need to go and look in families to find those people who may be sick and remove them and isolate them in a safe and dignified manner.[xxviii]
A UN Press Release citing the Secretary-General’s plan for more global and societal cooperation proposes to “advocate and support implementation of a human-centered, innovative and coordinated stimulus package reaching double-digit percentage points of the world’s gross domestic product.”[xxix] It is at least important to be aware of what some of these international governmental bodies propose in the name of saving us from the virus – including getting hold of 10% of the world’s GDP to stage-manage the world in crisis!
People’s willingness to surrender freedom for servitude and Scripture for secular prophecy, is certainly aided by a deep-rooted utopian longing – a motive basic to all Marxist-socialist thought. People yearn for a redemptive rupture in the continuity of history – a moment of crisis that will birth a better day. For the average person, carried along by the secular prophets of doomsday, the crisis may even hide the promise of temporary relief from the daily concerns and monotony of urban life. The reaction to the threat even becomes an ephemeral substitute unity for society and the supposed basis of a new global solidarity. But in it all, do we hear anything about God, His righteousness, justice, and salvation? Do we hear about Jesus Christ, our creator and redeemer, as the true source of meaning and unity; the man whose resurrection introduced the only real rupture in the continuity of history? The Son whose return to consummate His kingdom will be the next!
At times like this, the truth and power of the gospel of the kingdom must be seen and heard – the Christian faith should come into its own as it has since plagues and panic struck Rome in the time of the early church.[xxx] Yet some quarters of the church are actually abandoning the historic practices and gospel ministry tradition of God’s people in times of sickness and crisis and fleeing whilst the pagans stay put or just parroting the concerns of radical environmentalists. Pope Francis for example, in a remarkable moment of false prophecy, has said that the virus is certainly natures response, and may even be its revenge, for humanities ignoring of man-made climate change! In England, some members of the Church of England hierarchy (not the civil government!) banned their own clergy from ministering to the sick and dying (whether from Covid-19 or not) and even prevented them from streaming Easter services alone in their church buildings. These are cowards and apostates, clouds without rain, fruitless trees, twice dead and pulled out by the roots (Jude 12-13), throwing dirt on the coffin of the national English church. If Florence Nightingale were raised from the dead, the COE would ban her from serving, just as they have deemed Christ’s gospel for the dying a non-essential service.[xxxi]
Some noted theologians are not helping much either. Tom Wright, respected oracle within beleaguered British Anglicanism has suggested that Christianity offers no answers about the coronavirus crisis.[xxxii] For Wright, anyone who suggests we can see God’s warning, work or judgment in a pandemic and its consequences is just one of those ‘usual silly suspects’ who think they can tell us what God is doing. To think we can show that God judges and warns by such things in history is simply ‘rationalism.’ Wright’s explanation is that there is no explanation for such things, and according to him, it is part of the Christian vocation, not to be able to explain.
Wright goes on to offer his own view of how Christians should respond in his non-explanation – with lament. Since we know that we don’t know why any of these things happen, we should simply join in God’s lament and the groaning of His Spirit. So, perhaps Wright does know what God is doing after all? However, it seems clear that the former Bishop of Durham is simply playing God’s attributes off against one another, thereby rendering God’s Word essentially irrelevant to real-world problems. Dr. Wright is indeed helpful in highlighting the Psalms of lament at times of disaster as well as in pointing out that the living God is not the God of rational theology – a distant unmoved mover, estranged from the world or His people in trouble. But is it not precisely because God is not estranged from the world, confused about its turbulence, surprised at its sin, nor absent from the wheel of history, that we can explore His Word (and world events in the light of that Word) for meaningful answers?
The ‘explanations’ of rationalism are, by definition, the arrogant answers of man’s fallen reason, disconnected from God’s Word and covenantal promises. But it is not rationalism to recognise that God’s work is not random or pointless, nor is He a helpless spectator, weeping on the edge of history, powerless to act. The God of Scripture is fully engaged with His creation at every moment (Col. 1:15-17); is truly grieved over human wickedness (Gen. 6:5-7); is genuinely angry with those who pervert justice, showing His wrath every day (Ps. 7:11); He pleads with the rebel to repent (Ez. 33:10-11); reasons with the wanderer regarding sin (Is. 1:18-20); scoffs at the calamity of the wicked and apostate (Prov. 1:26); and yet rejoices over His people with singing (Zeph. 3:17). It is because of this that we know God is at work sovereignly to warn, to judge, to speak, to save, to curse and to bless in terms of His covenant Word in all of history. God’s transcendence and immanence are not a contradiction – His sovereign works of judgment and yet deep sorrow are not in opposition. As such, according to Scripture, God doesn’t have only one response to human wickedness, tragedy, disease and panic. He is not just a lamenting God, but also a jealous God, a wrathful God, a just God, a merciful God, a loving God, a provident God, a gracious God, and a redeeming God.
So, we should part company with the good bishop and the habitually uncertain sound of the Anglican trumpet. Instead, we should side with the ‘usual silly suspects’ like John Calvin who preached numerous sermons, just on Deuteronomy 27-28, which deal with God’s blessing and cursing on the nation of Israel. Contrary to Wright, there is in fact a rich reformed and evangelical tradition of using the scriptures and God’s acts in history to help us interpret and understand how to respond when things like pandemic and panic strike a nation in our own time. In fact, this is how the New Testament requires us to use the scriptures. For example, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul rehearses the journey of God’s people in the Exodus and their experience in the wilderness, pointing out that they were drinking from a spiritual rock during that time, which was Christ. But because of their rebellion they were struck down! Paul then says explicitly, “Now these things became examples for us” (10:6), so that we don’t pursue evil, become idolaters, commit sexual immorality, complain against God and test Christ. Paul specifically tells us it was Christ they were testing (10:9) and we are warned not to do the same, lest these consequences fall upon us, “Now these things happened to them as examples and they were written as a warning to us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (10:11). It reminds me of the second half of the first chapter in Proverbs which is devoted to warning us of the societal consequences of hating knowledge, despising God, rejecting His counsel and refusing His correction. Paul warns of similar severe consequences for idolatrous cultures in Romans 1 – including the outbreak of disease.
Similarly, the letter of Jude, using the examples of God’s judgment on Israel and Sodom and Gomorrah severely warns those who have turned the grace of God into promiscuity. Jude tells us that such false teachers have gone the way of Cain, abandoned themselves to the error of the false prophet Balaam and are perishing like those in Korah’s rebellion (v11). Apostasy is a serious matter. Neither Paul nor Jude suggest that should disaster come upon a people, Christianity has nothing to say – just lament with God because scripture gives no clue as to why great and startling events occur (Heb 12:25-29). Is it not the case that the Church of England hierarchy is guilty, par-excellence, of turning the grace of God into promiscuity (Jude v4), permitting and even celebrating sexual immorality, perversion and apostasy in its ranks, wearying and exasperating the people? Might the disease and panic that has struck England be a warning and judgment from God? And should not bishops take note that judgment begins at the house of God (1 Pt. 4:17)? The great reformer John Calvin believed so. In a sermon delivered March 18, 1556 on Deuteronomy 28:25-29 he writes:
Now let us come to what Moses says next, that God shall strike the despisers of His law with many diseases (v.27). He has spoken earlier of fevers and inflammations and of the yellow jaundice, as well as of others … All these things are the weapons of God to punish the offenders of His law…when we favor our own lusts and violate his righteousness, breaking the order He has established among us, and when he sees our lusts to be so inordinate as to be thieves and robbers, then He arms His people [i.e. our enemies to make war on us] and substitutes, which are the diseases that are spoken of and other sorts as well.… The extraordinary diseases are especially so, however, as when God sends upon us such sicknesses as are not common among men, and of which the cures are unknown or very difficult to discover. By these God means to make us feel his anger toward us doubly, and to show that we have provoked Him too much…
Noting the hardness of people’s hearts in the face of such things Calvin goes on:
I would to God that the examples of such were not as notorious as they are! … As for the extraordinary diseases, we see how men are hardened by them as well. I pray you, have we not seen that God within these fifty years has brought up new diseases against harlotry? Whence comes syphilis and all the other filthy diseases, which cannot be counted at this time? Where do these come from except from God, who utters such vengeance as formerly was never seen … Though God smites them with such a leprosy (for it is a kind of leprosy indeed), so that they are eaten up with fretting and with other filthiness, yet they do not cease following their practices and only mock at the illness.[xxxiii]
These kinds of writings regarding God’s warnings and judgments in history can be found widely in the reformation and puritan eras amongst faithful evangelicals. Calvin’s call to God’s people in this series of sermons is powerful and telling:
Therefore, let us benefit ourselves by the things that are said here concerning the commandments and statutes that God has ordained…so then let us be afraid to take such a rebellious stance against our God and let us prevent the condemnation here pronounced. And as soon as God begins to correct us, let us bestir ourselves to return to Him. And let us not tarry long, but being admonished by His Word, let us fall to bewailing our sins, being sorry for them, and let us ask forgiveness of them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, let us bow down before the majesty of our good God, with acknowledgement of our sins, beseeching him not to allow us to be so blinded in this mortal life not to realise that all the miseries and wretchedness that we suffer are warnings given to us, to make us think on ourselves and on our lives, and also to move us to repentance. And that when we see the wretched world at this day to be so full of wretchedness and horrible miseries, and thus behold the wrath of God for the sins that reign therein, it may be a means to hold us in awe, praying God not to use any such rigor toward us, but rather that we, fleeing for refuge to His mercy in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, may be touched with true repentance…[xxxiv]
That is Christian prophecy! That is biblical faithfulness in times of disaster. Christianity does have something to say to the crises in the world and always has.
In the wake of Easter Sunday, we should have more to say than ever. Viruses have been with us for centuries, we still do not really understand them scientifically, and we often find ourselves powerless against them. Yet viruses are dead things – they do not ‘live,’ as such, but require a host to prosper. Analogous to sin in our hearts, they enter and then take control over the metabolism of the host cell to multiply and exercise a deforming and parasitic operation. Much like viral disease in the body, sin is a parasite that seeks to deform, destroy and rob us of life, but Jesus Christ has come that we might have life, and life in super-abundance (John 10:10).
[viii] Here are just a few examples from both sides of the political spectrum:
[xiii] Nick Yablon, ‘The League of Planets: Science and superstition collided when an apocalypse was predicted to strike the United States in December 1919,’ History Today (January 2020, Vol 70, Issue 1).
[xviii] https://www.hoover.org/research/coronavirus-perspective-revised and this fascinating interview with Professor Knut Wittkowski https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGC5sGdz4kg
[xix] https://www.globalresearch.ca/open-letter-professor-sucharit-bhakdi-german-chancellor-dr-angela-merkel/5708004 This early study raises important questions: Roussel et al. SARS-CoV-2: Fear Versus Data. Int. J. Antimicrob. Agents 2020, 105947
[xxii] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8168001/Ex-Supreme-Court-judge-blasts-UKs-collective-hysteria-coronavirus-astonishing-rant.html and https://christianconcern.com/comment/are-we-becoming-a-police-state/
[xxxiii] John Calvin, The Covenant Enforced: Sermons on Deuteronomy 27 and 28, ed. James B. Jordan (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), 158-159. Note that Syphilis is thought to have appeared in Europe around 1495.
[xxxiv] Ibid., Covenant Enforced, 198-200
Zaphnath Paaneah is (obviously) a pseudonym.