LESS than 90 years ago, in the year 1918, the world had exhausted itself after four years of a world war that took the lives of more than 15 million people. To rub salt into the wounds of a despairing world, an epidemic of global proportions emerged that year. Like an angry tornado of death, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 swept across the world, killing 40 million people.
This tragic event in history is largely forgotten today, but when it struck it caused real terror and fear in the hearts of people. The flu virus caused a highly infectious and deadly airborne disease that killed its victims through pneumonia. The world came to a halt. Many places, including some churches, were closed. The killer epidemic abated only after taking millions to the grave.
In recent times newspaper and television headlines have been dominated by two events — the war in Iraq and the SARS epidemic. Both have caused global concern, unrest and panic. SARS has clearly affected Singapore and brought about all kinds of reactions among Singaporeans. The churches have not been spared. The death of a pastor has raised many questions among Christians. How should we as Christians respond to such tragic and dangerous situations?
Wars, pestilences and economic disasters (what the Bible calls “famines”) are not new to the human race. God is not surprised by them, too. These tragic themes have become common strands that run through the course of human history. How can we explain them?
The Bible does point to the existence of radical evil. It names the devil and a host of dark forces that seek to destroy and do harm. These principalities and powers are often embedded in the tragic structures of our world and work in collusion with our sinful human hearts. We don’t know everything about them and much mystery remains.
What is clearer when we look at war and pestilence is our human condition and its two key problems — sin and death. It is to address these that God sent His Son Jesus. As I write this just before Holy Week, before Good Friday and Easter, I am mindful of how relevant the Gospel is to us these days. After we have processed all the discourses, arguments, discussions and explanations, we must face these primary underlying issues of sin and death. Only then would we recognise the real solution that is found in Christ our Lord.
Only when we are rooted in the biblical diagnosis of our condition and the Gospel solution found in Christ can we respond adequately and appropriately to the challenges of our times. There are two responses we must especially think about.
Firstly, we must respond with faith.
John Donne, the 17th century English spiritual writer and Anglican priest, came down with a serious illness at the prime of his life. He thought it was bubonic plague for many around him were dying of a mystery illness and their deaths were announced by the ringing of church bells. Fortunately Donne recovered and wrote a book of 23 devotions based on his experience. Besides his piece entitled “For whom the bells toll …” Donne’s meditations reflect his struggles in coming to terms with what he thought was a deadly and infectious disease.
He asked God whether his affliction was a “correction” or a “mercy”. He had difficulty interpreting his condition. Was God punishing him or did God have a higher mysterious purpose? In the midst of his many questions, he saw God’s hand on him and knew that it was a sovereign and loving hand. He surrendered himself to God, trusting that God was with him and that perfect joy and glory belonged to the future. He kept company with Job, the man who suffered in every way, and who said of God, “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him.” (Job 13:15). His was the response of faith in a God who is with us.
Secondly, we must respond with courage and loving compassion.
The French-Algerian writer Albert Camus wrote his famous novel The Plague in 1940. It tells the story of a plague in the city of Oran and how people responded in different ways. Within the novel’s many layers of meaning we can learn some important lessons. The novel is really against the indifference of people in a time of crisis. Camus combined the reality of an emerging global war fuelled by a rising Nazism with the story of a plague. Those who fled in panic when the plague struck were individualists who only thought of their own survival. They were not part of the solution; they were part of the problem. What was required was a rediscovery of community, the taking of responsibility, and acts of courage and compassion.
I am reminded of a real plague that struck the world in 250 AD. It is named after a bishop and called Cyprian’s plague, not because he caused it but because he mobilised the church to respond in such a way that the world noticed. It was probably a smallpox epidemic, a highly contagious and deadly disease. It killed more than 5,000 people daily and lasted for 16 years. There was much panic and some even blamed Christians for the epidemic.
Those who did not know the hope that is in Christ were extremely afraid. They did not go near the sick. They discarded the dead bodies of loved ones on the streets. Cyprian got the Christians to go out to care for the sick and dying and to bury the dead.
What is our response in such times? Should we panic and behave like practical atheists (professing faith in God but behaving as if there is no God) and let our worship of God and our service for Him be seriously affected? Surely not! On the other hand, should we live recklessly, mistaking foolhardiness for faith? No, we must take precautions not only for our own safety but more importantly for the sake of others.
While we take precautions, let us also avoid hysteria and panic for these do not belong to faith in an almighty and loving God. And let us avoid withdrawing into narcissistic strategies of self-preservation but break out from self-centred individualism and show courage and compassion in our handling of crisis and in our responses to those who suffer.
Does being Christians make any difference in our response to war and pestilence? Our answer has to be clearly declared and convincingly demonstrated.