The Christian faith is not just a personal commitment, it is also a communal experience. From the very beginning, Christians have gathered to share the Word of God and break bread in confined spaces. They drank from the same cup and shared a holy kiss. They also cared for the poor and the sick.
All of these Christian practices are now seen as ways that the coronavirus can spread through populations. That is why the coronavirus is so threatening, not only physically but also spiritually.
In a pre-scientific age, we might carry on and ask God to protect us. Many saints died caring for plague victims. The Catholic saint Aloysius Gonzaga died in 1591 at the age of 23 while caring for victims of the plague in Rome.
Today, public health officials recommend we put distance between ourselves and others so as not to spread the virus. At first blush, this “social distancing” sounds un-Christian, but we need to listen to medical experts. As with doctors, the first rule of a Christian at this time is “do no harm.” That means not doing anything that might spread the virus to others.
The experts tell us that the best ways to avoid the virus are truly simple: Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face.
Like Naaman, who scoffed when Elisha told him to wash seven times in the Jordan to cure his illness, we don’t take simple solutions seriously. But we need to listen to Naaman’s servants, who challenged him by saying, “If the prophet told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more since he told you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
But Christians have a responsibility beyond practicing personal hygiene. We also have a public responsibility to support civic programs to protect the vulnerable and care for the sick. In the short term, that means supporting health-care workers who put themselves at risk caring for those who have fallen ill. It means scrupulously following the instructions of public health officials. It means supporting programs to help those without health insurance, without sick leave, without day care and without paychecks because their employers have laid them off during the health crisis.
Beyond these short-term responses, Christians also must demand that their government be better prepared for such epidemics. Cutting budgets for research and preparedness is not only shortsighted but dangerous. In a globalized world, pandemics must be expected and planned for. When this crisis is over, we cannot go back to sleep and ignore the best advice from scientists and experts.
The saints of old risked their lives for those with the plague. We can at least do our civic duty.