March 20, 2020 - 10:26am

Christ the Redeemer, the famous statue that stands guard over Rio de Janeiro, has been lit up with a projection of flags of all the countries that have been affected by the virus. It’s a rather touching expression of global solidarity.

Contrast this with Donald Trump’s desire to exploit this crisis to further his trade war with China. For Trump, it’s not coronavirus, it’s the Chinese virus. Or Kung Flu, as others have dubbed it. With Trump it’s always the same: us first and sod the rest.

Contrast also with the nauseating cover of John Lennon’s Imagine that Israeli actress Gal Gadot and her famous Hollywood friends have pushed out on Twitter. Set aside the ludicrous thought of those who are among the most pampered multi-millionaires in the world preaching from a song that asks us to “imagine no possessions”, what gets my goat is also the wistful “imagine there’s no countries.” And of course, there are Lennonists in this country who are spying this crisis as one last chance to reverse Brexit.

Trump and Lennon represent two opposite ends of the scale in terms of political reactions to the virus. In a crisis such as this there is an inevitable tension between the national and the global. The virus is decidedly a globalist, respecting no national borders. Which is why the Imagine brigade think it makes no sense, for instance, that even Schengen countries are closing their borders to each other.

And yet, at a time when national governments are having to make big decisions about how to marshal financial and other resources and close down public gatherings, it is vital that such decisions are not seen as imposing on a population from some distant authority, but are decisions over which a population feels it has some political purchase. That, at least, is how we understand things in a democracy.

Christ the Redeemer, covered in flags, is a pretty good put down to Trump’s national chauvinism. This is a man who self-describes as Christian, so he should know the Biblical injunction that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. Nor American or British, nor Japanese or Ugandan. And yes, I admit: there is a little bit of Imagine here.

But this Christian ‘Lennonism’ has to be offset by the rootedness of Christianity in the specific, in the local. The original Christ the Redeemer was born in a particular place, at a particular moment in time, with a message to a particular people. And the particularity of His message can easily get washed away in the saccharine universalism of evangelistic Lennonism.

As a Christian, Christ the Redeemer, covered in flags, represents my political theology pretty closely. Christ speaks to us all — yes, of course, all — the words of salvation, but not in some vacuous theological Esperanto; rather, in our own language and through our own place.

“How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” was how the multi-cultural crowd at Pentecost described hearing the message of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:8). That beautiful art-deco statue, arms embracing the people of Rio, now superimposed with the tokens of our various national identities, is a refusal both of Trump’s national chauvinism and of Lennon’s sentimental universalism. To my mind, it gets the balance exactly right.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.