The Problem of Pandemic Theology

Everyone is doing pandemic theology, even politicians. Recently, the governor of Mississippi said belief in eternal life was one major explanation for why Mississippians aren’t scared of COVID-19. Incidentally, Mississippi has the second lowest vaccination rate in the US; just 37% of residents were vaccinated as of August 27th.

We’re all doing pandemic theology, even if we don’t agree. By “pandemic theology” I mean the particular ways of being Christian during the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem is, some pandemic theology invokes Jesus to avoid wearing masks, another to mandate vaccines. What are we to make of this?

In a pandemic where lives hang in the balance, the worst thing we could do is take off into the upper atmosphere of theological abstraction. Now is not the time to be neutral, chalking up differences to theory. What’s needed is theology that works on the ground, to God’s glory and the good of our neighbor.

By doing better pandemic theology, we are also calling into question the discipleship process & outcomes of the American church for the last 50 years. For example, eternal life is not just a tomorrow “heaven when you die”, but a life to be lived now in step with the ways of Jesus. The Mississippi Governor’s words show us that yesterday’s teachings are impacting today’s pandemic theology.

Here are four things I think we need to consider if we want to embody a more Christian pandemic theology.

It’s Not About Autonomy

A pandemic theology that embodies Christ doesn’t put our neighbor in orbit around our personal autonomy. Too much pandemic theology centers personal autonomy at the expense of the other. To the point that some Christians scream “my body my choice” at school board hearings over masks, not realizing that they are contradicting the very pro-life ethic that contests abortion and defends the vulnerable in the womb. Paul taught that in Christ, the categories of both slave and free are demolished. We understand how Jesus breaks the chains of the slave, but have yet to fully grapple in our pandemic theology with a Jesus who destroys the illusion that we can truly be free apart from our neighbor, and from God.

When “The Bible Told Me So” is dangerous.

You simply cannot chapter/verse your way to good pandemic theology. It is not enough to find “sick” in the Bible’s index, and work out a Christian response to the pandemic. Here, some may find themselves arguing masks are “unbiblical” because Jesus touched the sick. Evangelicals read a flattened Bible. Brandon O’Brian notes how our bias works to blind us to new ways of reading the Scripture. What we call the “clear meaning of the text” might just be a mirror of our own biases, limiting what we perceive and receive as plausible. The Scripture isn’t a footnote in support of our argument, it makes its own. Pandemic theology must wrestle with the text on its own terms.

Have we reduced Jesus’ New Creation to American Culture War?

Pandemic theology is often framed by political culture war. The politicization of masks, vaccines, and public health guidance is a new front for this war. American Christians for the last 50 years have been increasingly caught up in this conflict. Culture War is a reduction, a flattening, of the Christian expectation for New Creation. When this happens, we live as though Jesus is taking us to heaven tomorrow, but commit ourselves to fight like hell today. It’s not that we shouldn’t cultivate culture, but the question is how.

When liberals or conservatives are behind everything, it’s a sure sign your faith has been framed by Culture War Christianity. But pandemic theology, framed by a New Creation perspective, allows the Christian life to blossom in its fullness. Masks, vaccines, mandates are not tools of the political machine, but rather a local expression of neighbor love. Trading immediate Culture War militancy for a hopeful New Creation posture allows love, joy, and peace — all the fruits of the Spirit — to flourish, and not be extinguished by militancy.

Lead with compassion, not questions.

Generally, Christians should be the first people in society to do what is right for the greater good. But also, Christians should be the last to hang our compassion on the question of someone’s views or vaccination status. This is what keeps pandemic theology “on the ground”. When we elevate masks, vaccines, and public health guidance beyond an expression of faith to rather a test, or a confession, we betray the Good Samaritan of Jesus. He simply put the man on his donkey, and paid his medical bills in full. No questions asked.

Better pandemic theology flows out of reexamining our approach to the Scriptures, our personal autonomy, and the narrative of American Culture War. Lives hang in the balance. We must take seriously the command to not take God’s name in vain, and not tempt him with our foolishness. This way, Christian love, joy, and peace flourish through the counter-cultural acts of sacrifice, not survival, and solidarity, not autonomy.

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Published by Jared Stacy

Jared is an American Pastor, writer, and PhD Candidate in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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