- Daniel G Opperwall
Covid and the Life of the Kingdom
(Murillo, Christ Healing the Paralytic, 1667-1670)
For nearly two years the world has been gripped by a pandemic that has upended every aspect of human life. And while the beginning of the present rolling lockdowns and disruptions was greeted with the hope that they would soon end, marked by a celebratory return to normal life, humanity has long since accepted that Covid will never vanish from the earth, and that coming to live alongside it will be a long, slow process culminating in nothing like the festal exuberance that we all would wish.
Covid-19 in its early forms revealed much about life in the modern world. Now, in its mature stages, different realizations begin to come to the fore. These are the realizations of a kind of basic failure. Where once we thought interventions and vaccines might prove sufficient to fully eradicate the disease, we now must accept that humanity has no such power over this new and threatening force of nature. Yet, perhaps even more importantly, those policy makers and civil authorities who continue to emphasize disruptive interventions demonstrate how difficult it is to relinquish our sense of control over our lives and our planet. Western society once saw itself as “the end of history”—a kind of invincible bulwark against chaos of all kinds whose few remaining battles with the abyss would soon be won. Covid has put the lie to any such notions, and those who cling to this vision of modern existence look increasingly foolish in their ill-fated attempts to turn back the clock.
Ontario, where I live, has recently closed its school systems yet again in a move that is backed by neither scientific evidence nor any common sense, and which has been much derided by countless public health experts and average citizens alike. The government does not even seem interested in pretending that the closure of schools (along with restaurants and some other services), and the limiting of social gatherings, will actually accomplish anything this time around. Instead, the moves seem to be driven simply by the notion that the government must do something because the government must serve as the protector of human health. However many outraged responses there might be to current policy, those in power refuse to let go of a worldview in which their choices are by definition sufficient to protect citizens from danger, and that any incursion of risk on the system can only be attributed to insufficient policy responses.
The good news is that, anecdotally, this worldview seems decreasingly popular, and at the very least is no longer taken for granted. While a wave of solidarity about lockdowns and other heavy measures marked the very beginning of the pandemic, a wave of resignation and exhaustion marks the current moment. This fracturing is not a bad thing—not in the least. The sense of safety that Western society enjoyed in the late 20th and early 21st century was always both false and broken. No policy and no technology is infallible against the vicissitudes of finite existence. We are not safe, and we never have been. History is not over. Chaos lurks as it always has, and always will, in this fallen world.
For those wedded to the world, the result of this resignation is despair and fragmentation. When a polity built on the promise of solving all problems through a combination of technology and law falls apart in the face of a virus that our ancestors would have thought tame, those whose sense of meaning and purpose is wrapped up in that polity can only respond with anger and discord. We were building Utopia—so we believed—but something and someone came along and wrecked it. We must respond with social and technological cleansing of the villains. To those on the left, the villains may be politicians who do not go far enough in restricting human activity and those who refuse a manifestly life-saving vaccine. To those on the right, the villains are those who restrict freedom and mandate medical therapies so as to trample the fundamental rights that were a bulwark of the modern Utopia. For those in the middle, blame can be found in every sector.
But what of the Christian? Where does he stand in such a fray? Nowhere, I think—at least not anywhere that our world can locate or even understand. For the Christian seeks to live—here and now—only in the Kingdom of God. And this Kingdom takes no sides in the political and technological wars of the pandemic; it locates itself outside this world completely. The Christian is in some ways like an austronaut walking on the surface of the moon, encapsulated in a suit that surrounds him with the atmosphere he needs to survive while allowing him to interact (slowly and with many limitations) with the physical terrain around him. We are here in this world, yes, and yet we exist in a world of our own—the world of the Kingdom that is within us no matter how foreign and inhospitable our surroundings become.
The Christian response to Covid must be nothing short of truly living well—which is to say living in the light of Christ every moment. No matter what we are told we cannot do or must do, and no matter what we choose in terms of protecting ourselves (or not) from the potential ravages of the virus itself, neither the world nor this disease can take from us the peace and joy of the Kingdom of Christ. We may face stumbling blocks, to be sure, from the closure of schools to the elimination of fellowship to even the closure of churches and banning of communion. Yet none of it amounts to anything for the one who lives every moment in and for Him. We may be locked in our homes for weeks at a time, but there we will find prayer and God’s presence. We may bury friends and loved ones, and become sick ourselves, but we do so in knowledge that life eternal springs forth even from death itself for those who love the Lord. We may show our love for others by carefully following public health guidelines, or show our courage and faith in God alone by flaunting them, and perhaps we will do a little of both. But whichever ways we choose, when we respond to ourselves and our world in knowledge of His Love, the Kingdom becomes our home and not this place of chaos that we humans have created for ourselves.
This far along, Covid reminds us of the utter frailty of our physical bodies, and even more of the frailty of our worldly institutions. But what Covid has shown equally, precisely by highlighting the untrustworthiness of this world, is that our faith and our lives belong in Christ in whom is both our true safety and our true freedom, and in whom joy and light can be found no matter what the world might throw at us. However we might respond (or simply not respond) to what those around us are doing, if we respond from within the Kingdom we will have the gift of that light for ourselves, and stand no small chance of spreading just a little of it abroad to those around us.