The debate about the church’s role in politics never ends. I shall not enter it here. But I think there is something to be said just now about Christianity’s role in society, particularly at a time of pain and suffering. Most of the world has recently experienced such a time, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Britain, where I live, the immediate reaction of most active Christians to the pandemic was good, practical, and direct. Local parishes of all denominations set about identifying those most at risk, not only in the direct risk of infection which – in our rural area – was not nearly as high as in crowded cities, but also in the many other difficulties that arose.
In our own parish, church leaders quickly recognized that the main problems were those of isolation. People over the age of seventy were not allowed out. They therefore needed deliveries of food, medicines, and other necessaries, and they might be suffering loneliness on their own. Our church therefore organized a neighborly system of “phone buddies.” Each person in need of help was assigned two such buddies – one to organize the shopping and deliveries, the other simply to chat. I was allotted the latter task, and had the pleasure of speaking every other day to our church organist, who was sheltering at home because of bad lungs. I shall remember the fascinating conversations with her long after the dreary details of our lives under Covid-19 have been happily forgotten. I hope they helped her get through confined, uneventful days.
Where was the recognition of shared difficulty which needs mutual sympathy to be overcome?
Such modest activities added up to a great deal of help. Meanwhile, across the country, there was a strong sense of common purpose. The authorities worked extremely hard to contain the disaster. So did many enterprising businesses, great and small. Among the general public, after an initial reluctance to accept the scale of the risk, people quickly switched to taking it very seriously indeed. Most complied with the rules and were calm and stoical in the face of largely justified fear, widespread loss of income, and innumerable practical and emotional problems. Very few had to be punished by the law before they would do what was necessary.
The flip side of unity in a crisis, however, tends to be a desire to stigmatize anyone believed to be breaking or evading the rules. It did not take long for this to surface, and it was not pleasant to witness. Famous commentators and television personalities began tweeting angrily about minor infractions of the rather complicated rules. There was a tendency for the media to pursue scapegoats, or to over-dramatize problems such as “panic-buying,” which were highly untypical of public behavior. There is a difference between disagreeing – which can be necessary – and being disagreeable. This tended to get lost.
In this shouting match, the Christian voice was notable by its absence. The most vocal specific public contribution by church leaders in the whole four months was to attack the prime minister’s chief of staff. He may or may not have broken lockdown rules by driving 160 miles to place his small son in safety while he and his wife were suffering from Covid. Bishops, tweeting almost in unison, used words like “lie,” said that the prime minister’s defense of the man’s behavior was “an insult to all those who made such sacrifices,” and called for the adviser’s sacking.
Regardless of who was right about the facts of this particular dispute, it brought out, for me at least, what was missing. Where was the Christian readiness to give people in stressful situations the benefit of the doubt? Where was the recognition of shared difficulty which needs mutual sympathy to be overcome? Where were the well-known Gospel words about not casting the first stone?
Christianity, especially, has much to say about the difference between being moral and being moralistic. Arising, as it does, out of the Jewish tradition, it shows a reverence for the law, but it opposes mere legalism: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). This approach matters so much in the midst of a plague, where social discipline and social cohesion count for even more than usual. It is a classic example of where faith is not only a private matter, but also a means by which we can all live better lives together.
When forgiveness is practiced across society, it does not mean that people can get away with murder: it means that people can live together in charity.
Allied with that idea of the life-giving spirit is that of forgiveness. The point about doing good is not to show that you are better than someone else. The problem about doing harm is not that the wrongdoer is incurably bad. It is that all human beings are in the same boat and they are confronted every day with choices about whether to help that boat sink or stay afloat. None will make the right choice every time. Forgiveness is the concept that acknowledges this, and therefore helps make the right choices more likely. When it is practiced across society, it does not mean that people can get away with murder: it means that people can live together in charity.
This does not stop mattering as the world emerges from Covid-19. The right attitudes will shape the recovery. If asking “What went wrong?” degenerates into “Whom can we punish?” no lessons will have been learned. Full health after a horrible disease has its corollary in Christianity in the power of redemption.
One Christian who hit the true note was the supreme governor of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth II. Speaking as monarch for sixty-eight years, she used all her public utterances to bring out the common good in us. She recalled her first broadcast, eighty years earlier, aimed at children separated from their families by war. Then as now, she expressed her confidence in “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humored resolve, and of fellow feeling” among her countrymen, summoning us to the task ahead: “While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavor, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us.” These were the words of a quiet but serious Christian, the more powerful for being rare.