Over the past week, the world has turned its full attention to the protein-thorned crown of COVID-19. It is rare to experience such a widespread global unease, in which we all find ourselves dwelling on the very same thing. In a way, the noise of modern life has been ousted by what C. S. Lewis called “God’s megaphone”: pain.
Patients are dying. People are scared. And we find ourselves stuck between the flippantly arrogant (“The coronavirus is just another flu”) and the fearfully paranoid (“We are on the brink of financial collapse”). Following Saturday’s episode of the “Italian COVID19 Experience” podcast, in which American and Australian pediatric intensivists spoke candidly with intensive care specialists in the ICUs of Italy, each of our institutions are preparing us for the next few weeks with a seriousness that is unique—even for those of us in medicine familiar with suffering, triage, and uncertainty.
It’s okay to be fearful—we are too. However, as Christians working inside and outside the health care space, this is a moment where our response might distinguish us as a people who practice what was once called by early pagans “a religion for the sick.”
To that end, we want to share some of our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic as resident physicians and trainees—and as fellows of the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Fellowship at Duke Divinity School, which brings together medical trainees, theologians, and pastors to think theologically at the frontlines of health care—in order to highlight the unique Christian contributions of repentance, hospitality, and lament to our preparations for the new coronavirus.
Health is a good in our society, and for good reason. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of God’s promise to bring health and heal wounds. In Ecclesiastes we are told to delight in the health of our youth. The apostle John prayed for the health of his readers.
While health is a good to be pursued and maintained, we sense we’ve turned a “good” into a “god.” Indeed, while the coronavirus is novel, it does not represent a new fear. It merely reveals a quiet, well-nourished idolatry toward the health of our bodies and our trust in the ability of our medical institutions to save us. The West is feeling one of its greatest idols shiver.
Orthodox theologian Jean-Claude Larchet goes so far as to argue that clinicians constitute a “new priestly class” of this idol, in which doctors and other health care workers minister a new “salvation of health” to devoted worshipers. In A Theology of Illness, he writes that modern medicine “encourages patients to consider that both their state and their fate lie entirely in the hands of the physician … and that the only way they can endure their suffering is to look passively to medicine for any hope of relief or healing.”
The hysteria surrounding the new coronavirus and our obsession with “flattening the curve” unmasks a deeply held belief that for any of us to die would prove both an extraordinary occasion and a failure of our society’s efforts to protect us. It should be little surprise then that in an effort to counter our anxiety, we employ the language of medical control: “the morbidity and mortality for the relatively young and healthy is low.”
And yet, it is precisely the opposite population—the relatively elderly and unwell—to whom Christians are called to pay closest attention. Psalm 82 and Romans 15 make it clear that worshiping our own well-being neglects our call to the weak—those whom Christ repeatedly identifies with throughout the New Testament. It is medical hubris that tells us that 99 percent of our population will likely survive the coronavirus. But it is the love of the shepherd that asks, unashamedly, “What about the 1 percent?”
Health is a good thing, but it is not an ultimate thing. It is not something that we can master through biohacking or guarantee through new vaccines—even as it is a gift and a duty to seek such medicine. Our comfort ought not lie in the fact that we are protected under the banner of epidemiological peace. Our comfort lies in the fact that even if we are stricken with the coronavirus and die, our lives are known and sealed in Christ.