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Forming new relationships in a time of Coronavirus

Historical sources testify to the way Christians instead took care of their own sick and others too. (Painting by El Greco)

March 13, 2020 - 8:37am

There will be many repercussions from this moment’s particular crisis — the rapid and alarming spread of COVID-19. Our interrelatedness and dependence on others moral actions has rarely been so clear, nor the fact that health is ultimately a common good.

There is a tension for me though, in that to serve the common good in this moment, we might need to withdraw temporarily from our common life into a highly individual, atomised lock-down. This withdrawal, the cancelling of public events and refraining from travel, increasingly looks like the wise and kind course of action in order to protect those who are most vulnerable.

It goes against the grain though. Political theologian Luke Bretheron argues that all politics and common life should be seen as a setting for ‘neighbour-love’. Many historians, including Rodney Stark argue that the counter-cultural response of early Christians to pandemics was what turned the tide of public opinion towards them and contributed to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire.

In the second and third centuries plagues devastated multiple parts of Europe, and the general response was indeed “social distancing” in its most brutal form: expelling or running away from even infected loved ones who were often left to starve to death.

Multiple historical sources testify to the way Christians instead took care of their own sick and others too, bringing down their overall mortality rate as more and more survived and then became immune and could nurse others. The church was acting like a kind of early NHS.

That response to a pandemic was in a wildly different context, but I have been pondering what radical ‘neighbour-love’ might look like now. Circumstances may be about to physically isolate us, but a reactive, fearful atmosphere can do the same emotionally. I’m realising that techniques like meditation and prayer help keep me out of the low-level fight and flight response, while bingeing on rolling news does the opposite.

Fight and flight makes everyone look like the enemy and primes us to apportion blame. Therefore, a refusal to feed my anxiety helps people around me. I can take calm and appropriate action, and not play down risks, much more effectively.

More tangibly, neighbour-love may involve nursing the sick, especially those close to us, but it probably shouldn’t involve deliberately seeking them out. Supporting the medical professionals who now mainly carry that burden for us could be a better part of our response — I am offering childcare, shopping and generally sending encouragement to all the doctors and nurses in my life who are about to be swept up in a tsunami.

Checking in with a phone call to our elderly neighbours and those already in self-isolation is a concrete form of neighbour love. Wouldn’t it be amazing if hyper-local neighbourhood apps like Nextdoor suddenly exploded with offers of help and we saw an epidemic of anonymous care packages left in doorways?

Pandemics like COVID-19 have the potential to drive us even further apart into fear and distrust of each other, but we can choose (and it does need to be an intentional choice) to react differently.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield


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Miriam Uí
Miriam Uí
4 years ago

Well done on loving your neighbour – childcare is a really great support!
Here in Ireland smaller congregations are faced with the dilemma: gatherings of up to 100 are permitted, but does it pose unnecessary risks to the older members? Ultimately, how can we best love our neighbours? We’re going for a combination of spiritual and practical help. as Prayer for the situation, and prayer for and with the sick, by phone or online, to counteract the panic isolation and newsfeed. And practical help for thosein self isolation, such as care packages and so on. The Christians in Wuhan were brave in helping their fellow citizens – let’s hope we can be too.

James Chilton
James Chilton
4 years ago

A Christian or charitable response to the crisis seems most unlikely in the UK. Mammon rules here.

Already, the omens are not good. For instance, the selfish behaviour of a minority who have emptied supermarket shelves of some essentials, is an indication of what might be expected if the epidemic causes shortages of food. Dog will eat dog.

4 years ago

For all it’s faults, the Internet can act as a lifeline and window on the world for nearly all of us.

Social media ameliorates social distancing.