A truth that is difficult to avoid
A reflection on the impact of Covid-19 by Baptist minister Paul Goodliff, General Secretary of Churches Together in England.
This is based on the sermon Paul will deliver via his iPhone to a Baptist church this Sunday, and follows the Lectionary Readings for 4 May 2020: 4th Sunday of Easter
In an article for the Observer newspaper in the middle of April, Tobias Jones wrote, "One of the consequences of the crisis is that we're suddenly more serious about the truth....
"Without truth there is no trust, and the gates of civilisation are wide open to political blackguards and devious disinformation. Those gates have been open for decades, and it's one of the hard-to-swallow lessons of this contagion that gate-keeping is paramount, that we need boundaries and membranes."
Jesus in the reading from John's Gospel (10:1–10) begins with a boundary, a place of safety for sheep, a sheepfold. There's a gate, guarded by the shepherd, but thieves and robbers climb in by another way. In fact, says Jesus in v. 7, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.'...... "Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture." (9)
Our three readings this Sunday, Psalm 23, John 10:1–10 and 1 Peter 2:19– end, all take up this theme of the shepherd, with the reading from 1 Peter 2 closing with "For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls." (25) Jesus Christ is the shepherd of the flock, the one who brings life in all its fullness (John 10:10) and provides the still waters and good pasture essential for our human flourishing.
All of this at the close of the lambing season, and in the midst of a pandemic that has deeply transformed our lives. Make no mistake, this coronavirus, and the disease it gives rise to, Covid-19, is highly infectious and deadly, even if less so than those other recent terrors, Ebola, and MERS. Ebola kills over two thirds of those it infects, and MERS, that similar acute respiratory distress, highly localised to the Middle East, kills up to a half of those infected. The danger of Covid-19, which will, in the end, be far harder to contain and will kill far more, therefore, is that we minimise the impact of mere 1–2 per cent death rates. It is a thief and a robber that has climbed into the human sheepfold and run riot. Too many have had to walk the 'valley of the shadow of death' of David's Psalm as they have watched loved ones die, or die themselves.
John 10 in its next verse after our reading ends, has Jesus proclaim that he is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep, and 1 Peter explains how: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed." (24) Here is the one who has suffered for our sins, but what of the Covid-19 emergency?
What is becoming clear is that those working in caring for our health — especially those on the virus danger zones in hospitals and care homes — have put themselves in harm's way, and many have paid for that self-less and courageous decision with their lives. Rather than 'looking after number one', they have looked after others; rather than seeking to protect their own lives, they have sought to save others.
And, what is also becoming clear is that there is a disproportionate impact of that upon black and minority ethnic communities. Black Covid-19 patients are dying at twice the rate of white patients in hospitals. Theories abound to explain this, including the structural racism that sees black people more likely to be living in poverty or in poorly-paid jobs, often at the front line of caring and servicing our health service. Vitamin D deficiency might be a factor, as also those diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure that have been associated with the genetic inheritance of 300 years of the slave trade. We are discovering that Coronavirus is not so indiscriminate after all — it exploits our societal ills, and throws a mirror of how we live for all who will look.
Covid-19 is giving us a wake-up call, if one were needed, that we still live in grossly unequal societies, where if you are black, you are disadvantaged, for no fault of your own.
Here is a truth that is difficult to avoid. Suddenly, after some years of being told lies when we all know that they are manipulations of the truth — from the Boris Bus in the Referendum with its false claim about how much we pay to the EU, to the numerous and blatant lies from Donald Trump and Putin's Russian Federation — suddenly, the scientific truths about this coronavirus matter, and we want truth, not opinions. It is scientific advisors who flank Government ministers at the Downing Street daily briefing, not special advisors or political flunkies. Sure, there'll be some who peddle the outrageous claim that it's all to do with 5G phone networks (and one of the originators of that was a charismatic pastor from Luton) or it's an American or Chinese plot, but on the whole truth has seemed vital once again.
Yet, there are some truths that we still find difficult to handle — the racism that still permeates our society; the neo-liberal economics which claimed that with a globalised market the poor would be lifted out of abject poverty, while it seems that really, the rich have just gotten richer; and the myth that on one small planet we could carry on growing our economies without ultimately over-heating the whole environment. As one Quaker economist once put it, "Anyone who believes in infinite growth on a finite planet is either mad or an economist."!
This first, great global pandemic of the third millennium — and it certainly won't be the last — has shone a light on what we should hold dear, and what we had in its place. Our addictions to consumption, to shopping, to activity and busyness, to believing convenient lies so often we can no longer tell the difference, all have come under that spotlight, and been shown to be inadequate objects of our society's worship. We are discovering communities again, good neighbourliness, gratitude instead of constant blaming and shaming.
And above all, what we long for now is a cup that runs over with God's grace, what we have found to be life-affirming is a place besides the still waters of God's Spirit, and what we need is the strength that comes from the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd, "yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
Baptist minister the Revd Dr Paul Goodliff is the General Secretary, Churches Together in England
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