Towards Inclusive Communities: People Living with COVID-19

Introduction

The COVID-19 scenario in Myanmar is distressing and calls for some urgent responses. According to Ministry of Health and Sport, Myanmar, in August 17, 2020 there are 376 people effected with COVID-19 in Myanmar today. Therefore, biblical speaking, COVID-19 disease affects the Church, society and God’s creation as a whole and, thus, poses a great challenge to traditional patterns of biblical education in Myanmar in particular, and all over the world.

Use and misuse of Bible in understanding and responding to the pandemic

Christian faith, as shown in the bible, is central to Christianity. Nevertheless, the bible has often been read and interpreted in such a way as to encourage stigmatizing attitudes and practices within the church, and to increase the stigmatization of the vulnerable and marginalized. Historically churches have often used the bible for purpose of exclusion. In the context of stigmatization, attempts are being made to discover and reclaim texts that foster inclusion. It is not possible to find, in the bible, and exact parallel to the stigmatization of those living with COVID-19: and yet within biblical tradition there are many examples that point to the way in which the stigmatized of the day were treated. We need to learn from the manner in which Jesus related to and responded to the stigmatized, for example people affected by leprosy, Samaritans, a menstruating woman, and those with physical and emotional disabilities. Jesus mixed with them, included them, invited them into his circle of friends, touched them and, in turn, allowed himself to be touched by them. In the end Jesus submitted himself to the ultimate stigmatization of public crucifixion outside the city walls. Readings of the bible must be Christ-centered, and linked to the context in which we find ourselves. We need to acknowledge insights, now available to the biblical authors and previous generations of people studying or reading the bible. These include the findings of modern biblical scholarship, and relevant anthropological and sociological research on biblical themes. They also include insights gained form contextual theologies, and from a deepening understanding, within the church, of issues of social justice.

Whether liberal or conservative or somewhere in between, how we think or act theologically or biblically may be revealed, for example by asking ourselves some basic questions. Do our thoughts about God hinder or help us in loving other persons? Does the way we read the bible obscure or open our vision of God’s truth? Do the traditions and teaching of our church freeze us in the past or free us for the future? Does our Christian faith contradict of correspond to what we experience in life? Does our theology limit or liberate us in the way we respond to people and the kind of world in which we live? Do our beliefs create barriers or draw us closer to other children of God? Realizing that some people think their way into new ways of acting, while possibly more act their way into new ways of thinking, it remains essential that theology develop in response to empirical or actual situations. Therefore, making efforts to know personally, people infected with COVID-19 may help one discover new scriptural insights and resources.

The suffering and death resulting from COVID-19 stands in stark contrast to God’s intentions for abundant life. This unprecedented pandemic thus confronts the world with a complex crisis of profound proportions, including medical, scientific, logistical and structural challenges. It also raises for Christ’s church a series of theological and moral challenges. How are we to respond to such challenges? The following represents our commitment to reflect faithfully upon our Christian responsibilities in the face of this global threat.

A Biblical Response

Scripture repeatedly reminds us that God animates, sustains, and protects life (John 1:4; Amos 5:4; cf. Ezekiel 18:32). Thus our theological reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic must be grounded in a theology of life. God’s gifts of life, dignity and love obligate humans to glorify him in faithful obedience. These gifts extend to all humanity, the just and the unjust, because God’s redemptive love encompasses the world. A truly Christian theology of life will be, moreover, thoroughly Christ-centered. He who created life (John 1:3-4) also joined the human race, giving himself to die in order that we may live. Jesus has entered into the suffering and brokenness of the world and won victory over death through his own suffering and weakness.

The COVID-19 pandemic thus calls for a consistent Christ-centered theology of life, one in which human existence is properly understood as life before the living God. The devastating threat posed by COVID-19 challenges us both to affirm the life and dignity which flow from God’s creative and sacrificial love, and to do all we all we can to enhance them.

Compassion and Justice

God calls his people “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). He honors those who stop to care for suffering strangers (Luke 10:29-37). Thus the Apostle Paul instructs us, “Let us not become weary in doing good. As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:9-10).

Jesus summarizes the entire law when he commands us to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:25-28). Just as the church responds to the needs of the unborn, the homeless, and the persecuted church, so also the love of Christ compels us (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) to offer ourselves in sacrificial service to those who suffer, especially to the most vulnerable and fragile of our neighbors (James 1:27). According to the Bible, justice and mercy are inseparable (Isaiah 11:1-5; Psalm 113:5-9). Thus, in addition to caring for those who suffer (acts of mercy), we are also called to proclaim a holistic Gospel. Not only must we speak truthfully about individual sin; we must also by extension speak truthfully about ineffective political and economic structures, poverty, and inadequate health care, and about institutionalized sin such as government corruption, organized crime, and economic oppression.

The Church and the Global COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic compounds the strain on institutions and resources, while at the same time undermining social systems that enable people to cope with adversity. In seriously affected nations, COVID-19 compromises education and health systems, shrinks economic output and undermines sociopolitical stability. With life expectancy falling and the labor force becoming decimated, many countries are facing low economic growth rates. The ramifications of COVID-19 are particularly grave for societies where the extended family is the system of social security for the care of elderly people, those who are ill, and orphans. In keeping with our faith in the risen Christ, we confess our belief that God has received those who have died, that the wounds of living loved ones will be healed, and that Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is present among us as we strive to exemplify what it means to be bearers of Christ’s name in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. There is no longer a situation that could seem hopeless, dark and dreadful. For Christ also seemed to have been forsaken by all in the Gesthimane garden and on the Cross, but on the third day He rose from the dead in glory, thus giving us eternal life, happiness and the meaning of life.

Healing as Wholeness, Restoration, and Societal Transformation

Thousands of years of sin have caused human degeneration with darkness of heart and foolishness of mind and associated hatred, prejudice, isolation, violence and fear. Degraded humans exploited this planet by poisoning the atmosphere and depleting the soil and wasting natural resources. Despite all of this, a bit of the “Garden of Eden” is still present on Earth; some of the “image of God” is still present in each person (Genesis 9:6). We are still the objects of God’s love and affection. God wants us to return to Him by responding to His love so He can restore us (Jeremiah 29:11; Jeremiah 33:6-11).

God seeks for man. He wants to restore His image

God always initiates restoration. After the fall, God went in search of man (Genesis 3:9). His Father’s heart wanted to heal and restore each of His children (1Timothy 2:4). He is always faithful; He cannot be otherwise (2 Timothy 2:13). Jesus, His incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension are the clearest, most convincing documentation of God’s loving concern  for  His  children  (Luke  19:10;  2  Corinthians  5:18-19).  God  continues  to  reveal Himself and to call people to a trusting relationship with Him (Romans 1:20; Psalms 138:8, Romans 11:29). God is our Healer, He wants to tell us how to live lives that will be joyous and peaceful (Psalms 119:73). Today, God seeks for people through His Spirit, His goodness, His mercy, His Word and His Church.

Our fellowship with God (the “image of God”) is and remains the core of our being. For ministry to be healing it must begin with a full appreciation of the nature of sin and its terrible consequences, as seen in the life and death of Jesus Christ. It must be rooted in the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of broken relationships. This can only occur through Jesus’ sacrifice.

Church: A Healing Presence-Biblical Imperatives

The stigmatization of people living with COVID-19 calls the church to ask itself what it means, in our time, to be the inclusive community that Jesus proclaimed. Churches have a fine record in the care of people living with COVID-19 and their families, care of orphans, and support for the families of those who have died; while today, in the context of COVID-19, some churches are stretched to breaking point the burden of funerals and of ministry to the sick and dying. But these efforts have not always been successful in tackling the stigma attached to COVID-19.

As a community of disciples of Jesus Christ, the church should be a sanctuary, a safe place a refuge, a shelter for the stigmatized and the excluded. The church is called to work towards both the prevention of stigma and the care of the stigmatized. And yet churches have habitually excluded and stigmatized those who were “different”, those who did not conform, and those who have sinned or were thought to have sinned. This challenges our understanding of the church’s identity, and calls for deeper reflection on the issue of inclusion and exclusion within our communities. Jesus’ ministry was inclusive to the point of scandalizing religious authorities and so-called “respectable” people. In a time when people living with COVID-19 are being stigmatized and discriminate against within our churches, this suggests the need of renewed theological reflection on the nature and identity of the church itself.

If we acknowledge suffering we must be prepared to respond, and many church leaders are realizing the need for help and support at parish level. However, sometimes our ability to accompany suffering people is restricted by our lack of confidence, and by our sense that we do not have the necessary resources. Education is therefore needed for churches trying to accompany those who are carrying the stigma of COVID-19.

This role needs to explored at the level of theological education, so that Christians go into parishes with some understanding of the dynamics of accompanying stigmatized and suffering people, of praying with them and their families, of ‘standing and waiting’ alongside them, and of loving them into hope.

In addressing stigma, people living with COVID-19 are the churches’ most precious resource. They have been described as the ‘wounded healers’ of our time. Their full inclusion in all aspects of the church’s life is the best possible strategy for changing attitudes and removing fear. The experience of living with COVID-19 raises profound questions about the meaning of suffering and the nature of God and in sharing these insights, the spirituality of the whole worshipping community may be enriched.

In all of our efforts, as God’s people we proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We affirm that, in the end, true and lasting healing is found only in a living embrace of the Gospel. Given that personal and social transformation is the work of God, we offer ourselves to God, in full confidence that He will sanctify our efforts to His good purposes. In all of this we endeavor to glorify God as we seek to fulfill our Christian responsibilities through prayer and action “for Christ and His Kingdom.” God’s clinicians will work together in unity (John 17:20-23) ministering to the spiritual, religious, social, emotional and physical causes, manifestations and complications of human brokenness and suffering.

Conclusion

In our reflections on church that says ‘no’ stigma, we need constantly revisit the Christ of the gospel narratives, who has given us paradigm for accompaniment, human relationships and Christ healing. We believe that our scriptures encourage us to move beyond the stigmatization and exclusion of the crucifixion toward resurrection, hope and redemption. The church must remain a church of hope even in a context of COVID-19.

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