(A German version of this article can be found here: / Die deutsche Übersetzung dieses Textes wurde auf Zeitzeichen veröffentlicht und kann hier eingesehen werden: https://zeitzeichen.net/node/8206)
Not only is the coronavirus crisis challenging churches to find new forms of courageous charity amid the complicating requirement of social distancing, but it is also provoking theological reflection. Beyond Christian ethics, even dogmatics faces new challenges. The corona crisis is profoundly reconstructing the stage on which the Church performs. The tried and tested has already receded into the background, while the forgotten is pushing into the foreground. Much more than one specific theme – responsibility, creation, or theodicy— is at stake. This crisis calls the whole field of theology into discussion. The corona crisis is pulling out all the stops, so to speak, of theology. It is forcing theological honesty and constructive debate. This crisis has the power to cause familiar theological forms to crumble and publicly expose commonly accepted phrases for what they are: empty shells of long-gone battles.
There are indeed times when theology should remain silent. Here and now, however, theology owes the Church and thinking Christians suggestions for orientation. Pastors owe orientating guidance to their parishioners. Church and theology owe the public a public theology that is orienting and questions, that is spiritually rich and free of moral tutelage. In doing so, theologians, as well as the Church, must avoid drawing honey from this global crisis or to striving to gain cultural influence. Likewise, theology should prevent an escape into indecisiveness; it should avoid celebrating the contingency of life or the temptation to use religion as a means to deepen the experience of powerlessness. The questions are: What do we, as the Church, have to say and do that the political leaders are not already saying and doing? Do we, as Christians, as churches, and as theologians, have something to say and do that these leaders can not, may not, or must not say and do?
The following considerations are theological meditations, with many questions left open. However, they take as a background the fact that the subject of illness runs, like a common thread, throughout the biblical traditions. In addition, they do something quite old-fashioned (at least at first glance). They arrange themselves according to the very traditional thematic fields of theology: the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of providence, sin, Christology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, anthropology, eschatology, and finally, ethics. The following reflections are brief theological meditations on these traditional themes; they ask what resonances exist between the coronavirus crisis and these topics. They do not state definitive opinions but suggest directions in the ongoing search for theological insight.
The coronavirus requires theology to direct its attention to the traditions of understanding creation as the permanent overcoming of chaos. Christian talk of creation has followed the narrative in Genesis 1 for many centuries. This reading maintains that creation is good and that there is no reason for a second principle beyond God. Another focus in the tradition, however, is on the so-called second account of creation and its associated anthropology and conception of sin. The disturbing factor – “human beings” – comes to the fore in ecological theologies. These approaches consistently tend to harmonize the embeddedness of humans with broader nature. “Integrity of creation” or “preservation of creation” are the keywords.
But this loses sight of something important: Christians do not worship the forces of life. They do not deify evolution, nor do they deify life. The God of the living is not life itself. Only in the context of an overly harmonized, romantic understanding of life can the aspect of enmity – the conflict between the spheres and levels of life – be lost from view. Already in Genesis, one sees the necessity that something must also be pushed back.
In an excellent 1987 study entitled, “Creation and the Persistence of Evil,” the Jewish exegete and theologian Jon D. Levenson, pointed to the broad biblical tradition of creation as an overcoming of chaos. As early as the 1950s, Karl Barth presented a process-oriented doctrine of creation that emphasizes this overcoming of chaos. Even the first account of creation does not make the chaotic darkness disappear but juxtaposes it with day. The seventh day of God’s rest is without night, just as the vision of heavenly Jerusalem in the Apocalypse no longer knows night. This must be remembered when creation is repeatedly described as good or very good. It is not unsurpassably good. It is passably useful but always endangered by incoming chaos. It is a mistake in many ecological theologies of creation to locate the intrusion of chaos only on the side of human beings. In an evolutionarily unfolding world, risks are part of the process. Creation unfolds with an abysmal form of freedom, which also manifests itself in life-destroying mutations of viruses. Any piety emphasizing the embeddedness of all life in life can only be achieved under two alternative conditions: either a good dose of fatalism or enough antibiotics and other useful medications. Additionally, the religious elevation of “relationality” and “community,” raise difficult and necessary questions about separation, conflict, and limits as conditions of life that have been largely ignored.
The question the Coronavirus Crisis raises today is the following: How does this viral infection, and its concomitant suffering, relate to the goodness of creation? Is creation a unity of life and death in favor of life, in which the forces of destruction must always be pushed back? Is the life-destroying disease SARS-CoV-2 a manifestation of these powers? Is this disease simply one of the risks of good creation that must be accepted? Or is it a sign of rupture in creation that causes people to yearn for a New Creation? How much violence is woven into the web(s) of life? The Flood Narrative speaks profoundly about the problem of violence in all flesh. In these cases, does the self-creativity of creation, which is already clearly seen in Genesis 1:24, run out of control?
Even the theological tradition which did not have to deal with the problems posed by an evolutionary understanding of nature always had to navigate between a narrow Scylla and Charybdis: The assertion of an unsurpassable goodness of creation initially contradicts many everyday experiences. But it is also in conflict with the visions of a new creation of heaven and earth, which leaves the constellations of violence in life behind. Therefore, the lion devours straw in Isaiah 11. In the idea that the lion no longer continues its existence as a predator, life no longer lives at the expense of another life. Thus, a religious reconciliation with hardship, calamity, and misery was avoided. At the same time, the tradition evaded a complete darkening of creation, which leads to Gnostic and Platonic realms of thought and the idea of a religious liberation from the prison of this corporeality. Rediscovering the skill of theological navigation under the present conditions is of great importance. For a good reason, religiously kitschy theologies of creation have not been accepted by the people of the Church.
Much of the theological speechlessness in the face of a life-threatening illness is the result of the crisis of the doctrine of providence. With respect to the doctrine of providence, an enormous and probably unbridgeable distance exists between present circumstances and the past tradition. However, despite resolute dismissal of inadequate answers, the legitimate questions raised by this doctrine have certainly not disappeared.
In connection with the idea of God’s omnipotence, the concept of God’s providence served as a contingency buffer: The suffering that struck the godless could be recorded as judgment and punishment, and one’s own suffering as a test of one’s own righteousness. The chasm between our present theological intuitions and the theological tradition, can clearly be seen in the confident answer to the 27th question of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What do you understand by the providence of God? (Ac 17,:25-28) The almighty and present power of God, by which He still preserves heaven and earth with all creatures (Heb 1:2-3) as by His hand, and reigns in such a way that foliage and grass, rain and drought (Jer 5: 24/Ac 14: 17), fruitful and unfruitful years (Jn 9:3), food and drink (Pr 22:2), health and sickness, wealth and poverty, and everything else comes to us not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.”
Who wants to say this here and now, in public, in the face of the Corona deaths? Which bishop and which pastor stands fully behind this answer? Of course, we still find this theology in the popular hymns of the Church hymnals. Just think of Paul Gerhardt’s hymns of consolation. Amid the corona crisis, the Church cannot say “who rules everything so gloriously,” as Joachim Neander once wrote. The pastors should not conceal this doubt either. In my opinion, the road to these texts has been blocked by a brick wall. If nothing else, it was the radical Christological reorientation of 20th-century theology that revealed ways out of this theological fatalism. In the matter of providence, however, we are now caught between two questionable alternatives in the current crisis: an obscuration of God associated with the characteristics of omnipotence and all-powerfulness, and an “impotentification,” so to speak, of God related to the ideas of God’s loving accompaniment in weakness. Too seductive is the talk of surrender, destiny, and fate, which only leads to a false reconciliation with hardship and misery.
How can this abysmal freedom, which is not absolute, but undeniably present in the unfolding of nature, be combined with God’s faithful accompaniment? Sickness, physical misery, and broken lives present considerable challenges for speaking of God’s present providence. The problems that arise here are merely obscured by the talk of God as “all-determining reality.” On the other hand, it is theologically necessary to admit that the radical alternative of a theology in which God accompanies the process of the world only with possibilities to be accepted or to be rejected, is also not satisfactory. For if God is only the one who provides possibilities for each occasion, then no saving action of God can be declared in the face of human beings weakened by greed and stupidity. Some theologians and some sermons like to refer to the larger cosmic image of creation in God’s providential action. Apart from the fact that this cosmic perspective does not help sick people, the reference to the “grand picture” tempts us to see the small and miserable as a necessary sacrifice for the great process. To some extent, this thinking can already be found in sentences like, “Corona? Only old people are dying. Life goes on.”
The theological tradition already assumed an abundance of instruments through which God’s providence takes place. People, organizations, and natural processes, as well as cultural and historical forces, are all instruments of divine care and providence. None of these provide salvation but instead provide for the welfare of people. However, God Himself – to use the model of a theatre – was still the Director of the whole world theatre. For the emancipated modern age, it is humankind, with all its technical, social, legal, moral, and cultural inventions for coping with life, who claims the role of the Director – even in the rescue of the world. With the corona crisis, however, what should be self-evident has become abundantly clear: human beings, including the community of nations and all the coalitions of the well-intentioned, are not in a position to serve as a substitute for the divine Director, in spite of all the proper and necessary commitment. Theology and the Church, however, should be careful not to refer to the victory of the intangible, of contingency, or anything similar, with religious schadenfreude. They themselves are wrestling with answers and asking for the Director in their own way.
A reformulation of the doctrine of providence must, therefore, begin, on the one hand, with God’s aspirations for every life, the Church, and the world, but then be developed as a doctrine of the impatience of hope. The idea of God’s Providence thus does not formulate insight into an all-determining God, but instead into God’s relentlessness, as well as abysmally patient determination.
In theology, the doctrine of sin is the place where the divine aversion that liberates man becomes the subject. Beyond all superficial moralization, it is the context of reflection in which the question of forces and powers of the destruction of life in creation appears. Here reflection on the relationship and distinction between suffering and sin arises. Precisely because there were extremely problematic connections (suffering from illness indicates sin, sin leads to illness, etc.) drawn at this juncture in the theological past, great theological caution is required here. It has been a notorious mistake of theology and the churches in considering sin to focus on human deficiencies. So-called conservative and so-called progressive Christians represent very similar structural errors here – precisely as moralists. It is the reluctance of the life-promoting God, which determines something as sin.
The theological tradition has usually placed sin at the level of willful human actions. Unbridled greed, manifested in actions, leads to the destruction of social relations as well as lies. But how does one deal theologically with violence beyond the human will, within biological processes? Autoimmune diseases, cancers, and, last but not least, the disease caused by the coronavirus indicates destructive imbalances, “errors” in biological processes. Is it possible to speak here of analogies of sin? If one takes volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis into consideration, theology confronts the question of how to judge these forms of natural evil – which, of course, appear as evil only in the perspective of the affected person. Large parts of Western theology “after Immanuel Kant” did not declare themselves responsible for natural processes. The place of theology is the interpretation of human existence, its self-interpretation, theologians said. However, it is precisely the experience of a massively life-threatening illness that blocks this easy path with big stones. Is nature evil or evil natural?
With the exception of Western Protestant theology, large parts of world Christianity still hold the view that death is “the wages of sin”, even the biological death of a human being (Romans 6). In Protestant theology, the realization prevailed that human finiteness is an inevitable part of creatureliness. In the coronavirus crisis, this shift intensifies the question: Which manifestations of human finiteness and limitedness are to be accepted aspects of the wholly earthly and good creation? But what elements are manifestations of a deadly fragility of creation that only a determined struggle in favor of life can defy? Anyone who currently says that only the elderly are dying gives up the fight and shrugs his or her shoulders, saying: Such is the nature of finite life. But where is the line between the two views? Can it really be possible that only the availability of a ventilator decides such questions?
One final remark on the “cluster risk” of sin. It seems to be the case that personal, but also social and cultural forms of sin, tend to attach themselves with preference to people and events connected to the faults and fractures of biological and physical life. As abysmal as it may be, victims magnetically attract perpetrators who do not help but continue to damage. The power of vitalism always rages against the weak. That is why suffering and sin remain subterraneously connected.
The coronavirus pandemic immediately dispenses with several cherished ideas of theological anthropology. Contrary to the widespread interest in focusing on freedom and autonomy as the determining factors of human existence, the coronavirus brutally points to human vulnerability. Finiteness means vulnerability. Whoever is vulnerable cannot entirely evade environmental factors, including the threats they pose. After many years of praising the physicality and corporeality of life, coronavirus also makes it ruthlessly clear: To exist physically means to be massively endangered on the biological level. Coronavirus casts a mighty shadow of misery on corporeal existence. The person who thought he was “made little lower than God” (Ps 8:6) is first and mostly “dust that breathes” (Gen 2:7). The coronavirus reminds us that all those who, in a long philosophical and theological tradition, regarded the body as a prison, were not, in all their error, devoid of a grain of truth.
But even all those who have emphasized creativity in human vulnerability in recent years cannot overlook the deep ambiguity of this vulnerability. Even the pandemic shows that it is the same human vulnerability that was behind both the revenge fantasies of Lamech (Gen 4:23f) and the mercy ethos of Isaiah (Isa 42:3). Acute events of vulnerability can unleash unimagined energies of support as well as brutal selfishness. The Siegfried myth is a dangerous memory. Struggle as a metaphor of life can also be combined with vulnerability. Since vulnerability is dangerous, there is also a struggle to be fought, precisely by the nurses and doctors, by researchers and by all those who are trying to limit the consequences of the pandemic. Human vulnerability remains iridescent.
There is another human disposition, influential in theology and the Church, that is also massively called into question by the corona crisis. The magic word is relationality. It is often assumed that relations are unexceptionally good and life-promoting. The “deification” of the other and otherness fall into the same category. However, increased connectivity also increases risk and threat – and not in the simplistic sense of social distancing. In truth, every life is surrounded by conducive as well as destructive powers and forces. Distinguishing the two is as difficult as it is necessary. People promote each other and damage each other. This iridescence of sociality is deeply inscribed in biblical traditions.
Pandemics undoubtedly lead to an almost paradoxical structure in the human community: If others need you for their own care, then they have to get out of the way and maintain distance. At the same time, people living in quarantine are particularly dependent on a provision that cannot be done “virtually” alone. We also need people who are productively ruthless in their support. It is the protective boundaries provided by protective clothing that allow closeness. For the communication of a worship service, a lot of creativity is required for new combinations of mediatization and physical presence. The anthropologically and theologically rich form of intercessory prayer awaits new developments. All these are only hints at the anthropologically as well as theologically – and especially liturgically – interesting questions of very subtle types of closeness and distance, relationality over distance, or proximity due to specific levels of distancing.
The passage into fleshliness indicates the depth of the Incarnation of God in Christ. With the Christ event, God reacts to the intolerable risks of evolutionarily unfolding creation and history. Christ comes into a world of violence. Jesus’ healings take place in direct connection with this profound incarnation. In the miracles of healing, Christ addresses the intolerable risks of biological evolution. Far from being just a sign of authority, the healings are interventions. They indicate God’s aspirations, intentions, and goals for vulnerable humanity. The theologian Karl Barth pointed out a simple fact when great debates were held in the 1960s about the miracles of Jesus: The real miracle is that in Christ, God turns to the actual physical needs of human beings. The miracle is the way into physicality, which is unclean and exposed to suffering. Three aspects are remarkable:
It is a real passion for mercy. Only in connection with the death of Lazarus from illness did Jesus weep. Human needs manifest through illness moves God.
Love documented in the healings is so profligate that it does not necessarily ask for faith. In this radical devotion, the boundaries of faith and of the Church are crossed.
Jesus’ healings on the Sabbath, in particular, the day on which God Himself rests, indicate a creative restlessness of God, which pushes in the direction of a new creation. God does not rest but heals. He creates anew, albeit within the horizon of the finite world.
Already, the hope of the first Christians relied on the empty grave on Easter morning. The Christ, who also died the “death of nature” (Jürgen Moltmann), was resurrected. The empty tomb indicates that the corporeality of existence was not stripped away but was wholly incorporated into the events of Resurrection and transformation. The key to the theological processing of the destructive aspects of life is, therefore, the relationship between the Cross and the Resurrection. The Resurrection of the Crucified is also God’s protest against the processes of victimization and the absence of justice.
In speech and action, the Church takes up both dimensions of Jesus’ speaking and acting: concern for healing and concern for the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. With both, the Church participates in the mission of Jesus. It is not without reason that Christian congregations have always built hospitals. Through such concern for the real well-being of people, the Church confronts present days with a problem-creating solution in two ways. In the German churches, the testimony of charity is mostly delegated to the professional and often business-oriented Diakonie. This testimony of the state-sponsored corporate deaconry also takes place in a developed welfare state. At this point, the coronavirus crisis, similar to the refugee crisis in 2015, could open up opportunities for community-based diaconal work – if it were not for the problem of social distancing. Nevertheless, the demands for neighborly support in one’s living quarters will increase to such an extent that, despite the need for distancing, creative, necessary, and radiant initiatives will develop.
Such times of crisis make visible the broad coalitions and alliances through which churches work during dark times. Organizations and people in these coalitions repair worlds every day. They need to be perceived and appreciated, also at the very local level and especially in the coming weeks of the crisis.
An extraordinary ethical challenge for the Church in this time of the rediscovery of the nation-state will be to testify to God’s borderless devotion and compassion. This can only be done as an example, not as a moral demand.
However, in these alliances and partnerships of the Church, it must not be forgotten that the Church has something to contribute in this crisis that only the Church itself can contribute: Talking to God, negotiating with God. The task of the Church in the corona crisis is to maintain and offer a space for the polyphony of faith. In the polyphony of faith, the Church becomes a space in which people believe in the form of honest and angry lamentation, in the way of petitions of exhausted people, but also in the form of courageous thanksgiving and not least in the form of audacious praise.
In concrete terms, this means that churches ask God for His Spirit of consolation for all the sick. Churches ask for God’s Spirit of strength for all who care for others. And not least, the Church asks God for His Spirit of mercy for all the healthy. As believers, Christians also lament to God the suffering wrought by this pandemic. They complain to God about the chaos and darkness of these times, and the long-term impact it will have. At the same time, congregations have the freedom to thank God for all the people in whom the blessings of care, solidarity, and love are at work these days. And hopefully, there will also be people who, in this crisis, can truly daringly live and formulate in praise a radicalism of dependency on God’s saving vitality. In all expressions of the polyphony of faith, Christians also act as representatives for all those who are suffering in sickness, and consequently, can no longer find ways to express faith.
None of this excludes the additional possibility of the Church remaining courageously and honestly silent. As true as this would be, a crisis like this global pandemic offers an astonishingly productive provocation: the vexing and comforting insight that the Church always witnesses more than she can live out. In such a crisis, the Church’s ongoing declaration of the presence of God in Christ and in the Spirit can only be audacious, perhaps even really defiant. The Church – admitting this herself – witnesses to something “incredible” and presently “implausible,” namely God’s goodness. This is a tight rope to walk and, of course, in the cold light of day, a paradoxical form, analogous to the motto: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” But this is precisely the point of the Reformation-based understanding of the Church. And it is the point of the theological assertion that only God can reveal Himself, witness to Himself, and make Himself present. This means that the Church, as a witness, says a word which the Church itself also doubts. That is why the Church asks for the Spirit exactly when it preaches and when it addresses the public. The Church then has the chutzpah to say things that it itself can hardly believe. This is, as already mentioned, a necessary balancing act between an implausible “rosy-cheeked certainty,” which is nothing else but an extremely eloquent speechlessness, on the one hand, and on the other, a religiously dressed up fatalism. This hopeful honesty has a liberating effect, both on the many sorrow-stricken people in the Church who ask existential questions, as well on those who ask skeptically outside the Church.
By speaking of the Spirit of God, theology and Church speak of specific presences and a special closeness of God. The corona crisis reveals a seductive, but ultimately misleading, misunderstanding on this point. God’s Spirit is enlivening and preserving. Therefore, as the second creation account states, human beings are not only dust but dust that breathes (William Schweiker). But God’s life-awakening Spirit is not merely the Spirit of life. “Trusting life,” the motto of the theological program of the Guetersloh publishing house for many years, indicates a severe theological error or misunderstanding. God’s Spirit is compassionately present in this creation and groaning along with it (Romans 8), but without confirming or being entangled with the life-destroying forces. Whoever equates the Spirit of God with the forces of life inevitably ends up in adoration of robust and assertive life. The Spirit of God calls the crucified and buried Christ from death— and yet remains a Spirit that does not merely manifest itself in strong life. The Spirit of mercy and comfort remains.
God’s compassionate presence in the Spirit is always a transforming, resisting presence. In speaking of the Spirit, it is always about healing, comforting, renewing, and ultimately transforming, the intimate presence of God in the midst of sickness, misery, and suffering. The presence of the Spirit brings not only joy and fulfillment. The Spirit intensifies the awareness of the groaning of creation in sickness and distress and leads Christians to their own groaning. At the same time, the Spirit is a Spirit of comfort for all those who are exhausted– both in their motivation and spiritually. If one looks back at the connection of the Messiah, the Spirit, and the practice of mercy, the Spirit of Christ, even in the corona crisis, is one who “does not break the bruised reed and does not quench the smoking flax.” (Isa 42:3)
In the corona crisis, congregations can become a community of development and discovery of the Spirit. Talents, willingness for engagement, and for risk-taking love can be discovered. Radically risk-taking love will always seem a little foolish. But there may come times when this foolishness is exactly what characterizes life in Christ. Then Christians extravagantly transcend the boundaries of the Golden Rule and do things that other people do not expect from them.
On the other hand, in such times of crisis, the Spirit of Jesus Christ takes the liberty of crossing the boundaries of the Church on a large scale. When forces of solidarity and support are at work among those who are caring for vulnerable and endangered lives, and when passionate and professionally confident help is present with them, then the saving Spirit of God is at work there. Church and theology should be careful not to turn all these people into anonymous Christians or hidden religious subjects. Instead, the Church should simply thank them. And the Church can also tell these people that for Christians, the Spirit of God works in the caring devotion to fragile life. A Church that is not spiritless but full of the Spirit will find forms of appreciation and acknowledgment of the people who are working at the center of the storm of this pandemic.
Thinking through Christian hope in the face of the corona crisis is a very delicate matter. Accusations of empty promises or spiritual cynicism would be too simple. Does not the talk of hope betray the radical this-worldliness that is demanded of the Church right now?
I think that theology and the Church may and must keep their nerves in precisely this crisis, which is still far from foreseeable in its consequences. They should not capitulate to the justified moments of critical suspicion of religion. If the church no longer dares to expose itself to the accusation of empty promises, then she can no longer comfort others.
If the Church conceals Christian hope, it loses a space of rebellion. So-called eschatology articulates the Christian confession of God’s ultimate and unsurpassable devotion to his creation – and thus to the final overcoming of pain, suffering, and death through illness. The Resurrection of the Crucified is, first of all, God’s protest against the forces of destruction of life, which are among the apparent risks of creation. If God will “wipe away all tears,” he will thus acknowledge the abysmal robbery of life opportunities by sinners – but at the same time also those robberies that disfigure life through life-destroying processes beyond human influence, i.e., in the context of illness. So-called eschatology is, therefore, the imaginative space in which Christians proclaim: It is God Himself who ultimately assumes the final responsibility for the world.
When the power of human beings to keep and preserve life ends, God’s power does not. The Church also hopes “backward,” for Christian hope hopes against the timeline: It is a defiant hope that God, even in the face of Corona Crisis, will once again turn creatively to the countless victims who often remain nameless for us. The reason for this defiant hope lies in the promise that occurred in the Resurrection of the Crucified One.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ documents God’s will not to let the last word be taken away. Against this background, the place of hope is a place of God’s gift of life. It is not God’s destructive response to these lives, but rather an answer that brings them to justice. But I am also sure that this is a place where God is questioned and has to justify Himself. Why this suffering? Was the price of evolutionary freedom not too high? Why the abysmal patience? How many times would a warrior God have been more in line with our expectations? This is why we suffer from God’s patience.
The corona crisis exposes the many David Copperfields of Protestant ethics for what they are: Illusionists for good times. And it will increasingly unmask the religious chauvinists as well. This crisis exposes a fundamental and difficult conflict of the 21st century, specifically that of cosmopolitanism.
Contrary to the dreams of political, cultural, and religious cosmopolitans, the crisis, unfortunately, makes the following mercilessly clear: Communities of solidarity are limited communities. If one wanted to characterize the present with an ethical, technical term, one would have to speak of a powerful resurgence of natural-law insights. This is, at first, only an observation, not an appraisal. Grandchildren care for their grandparents in the space of the family. The street becomes a place of lived solidarity. The neighborhood, which is nothing other than the village in the city, becomes a place of care. The city, the Polis, organizes health care. The various imagined and modernized communities unified by traditions and customs (“We in Bavaria,”; “We in Montana.”; “We in Southern France.”) are organizing matters for themselves and with their own personality. Centers of multiculturalism are much slower. The nation-state closes its borders and prohibits the export of masks and protective suits.
At the moment when humanity is not only morally demanded but has to be organized, this happens according to sociology necessarily in limited organizational units.
Real responsibility, the kind, which is practiced, and which can also be expected to continue, takes place in restricted areas of responsibility. The borders of these communities are not rigid, but in many cases, movable and open to negotiation. But these borders indicate where decisions and responsibilities end. It is not uncommon for different responsibilities to be intertwined so that responsibilities and decision-making competencies can overlap and be entangled. In addition, each person usually moves in several areas of responsibility at the same time. Yet they all remain finite.
In the present collective, even global, emergency situation, something surprising is happening: a) Efficient organization, b) valid assumption of responsibility in limited areas of responsibility, and c) natural communities are currently magnetically attracting each other. The particular spaces of responsible action do not have to be natural communities, but the attraction is remarkable. This is, from the standpoint of theological ethics, both a solution and a problem.
The insight is sobering and also bitter for many: Vast spaces of responsibility are only efficient, when pressed for time, if they are not participatory but organized like dictatorships. 1.5 billion people cannot be organized by a circle of chairs. In its own way, the EU is trying in vain to be a counterexample. Those who want and must use the power of self-organization cannot let the organizational units become too large. The question is how to sufficiently coordinate clusters of self-organization. Ethically, this means that there is no such thing as pointedly unlimited responsibility, not even world responsibility. This is the disillusioning force of the corona crisis. Yes, there is no genuinely responsible action that, in its limitation, is not in a triage constellation and becomes guilty because of this.
Moral clarity and brightness inevitably give way to the problematic shades of grey: Is the decision by the German federal government to ban the export of protective masks and protective suits a responsible act of caring for the German nation, or is it in the face of the plight of other countries, an act of nation-state chauvinism? What would be the alternative? Boundless empathy notoriously shuns the decision of the triage situation – that is to say, the limit or the border. In the corona crisis, the ship of the Golden Rule, which is praised so frequently by many church leaders for the reconciliation of Gospel and politics, also runs into the rocky reef of decision: Who is the other person I should treat the way I want to be treated? Whoever says “everyone” here is shirking responsibility. Conversely, how much self-assertion and self-implementation of natural communities is essential and right – even for a Church that preaches selfless love and for a theology that wants to understand love as a free self-giving for the benefit of others? Which others? Who should now receive the protective masks that have not yet been exported? The problem of necessary exclusionary solidarity and inescapably limited love is not new. Already in the refugee crisis, many churches have ducked away from these insights. The corona crisis, however, brings this problem to the fore and illuminates it glaringly.
Theologically, the power of historically developed communities of solidarity must be recognized – though not uncritically. To theologically polemicize against them, only to nevertheless use them when necessary, is obviously self-deception. But nor can these communities be idealized, or even religiously exalted. They are literally complex emergency solutions.
They address a need. But they are not an ideal solution. And their solution is also an indication of distress. This inner tension is to be lived throughout the crisis. In the corona crisis, however, this also means that the Church must send out unambiguous and extravagant signals of boundary-transcending care. In view of the corona crisis rising in countries without an effective health system, more than a life raft is needed. The Church is inevitably part of communities of solidarity and yet at the same time participates in God’s boundary-transcending care. As the ban on the export of protective equipment makes clear, there will be no morally pristine decisions in the coming weeks and months. When, in times of the corona crisis, there is an organizationally necessary revitalization of the nation-state, the Church, in particular, is challenged to live out worldwide ecumenism. There is no doubt that this then radiates into politics. In the lived solidarity with this world and its always ambivalent communities, the Church then embodies powerful signs, visible and effective parables of a coming world with a love that transcends borders. Ethics is still the litmus test for the shape and content of Christian hope.
Theology and church will be well advised in the still further intensifying crisis not to nag morally against exclusionary communities of solidarity. To presently play the role of the superior moral agent and to serve as an amplifier of moral attacks would be a suicidal endeavor. Theological and ethical honesty is required. Nerves are lying bare anyway. Those in positions of responsibility need not be dealt with by moral blows. The Gospel is also an invitation for those in positions of responsibility to risk making mistakes. The Church must not forget to say, in all cooperation with other forces of civil society, what only she can say. Ethically, it will be essential at all levels of the Church to consciously keep an eye on the conflict between exclusionary solidarity and boundary-transcending humanity or even love, without indignation and without ducking away.
A final self-critical note is still necessary. In recent years, the churches have sung loudly in the choir of biotechnology critics. However, it is a fact that vaccination against the coronavirus will come from some biotechnological laboratory. What is riskier? Biotechnological development or mutating viruses? Perhaps up to this point, the Church, in addition to a few other parties, has not wanted to see much of the night, of the dark sides of natural creation in its ethics. It is not necessary to make an ultimate statement here and now. But here, too, the corona crisis poses unpleasant questions to the Church and theology, which await an answer.
As Christians, we believe in a Creator who created this world to be good, but not perfect. This good creation also unfolds in abysmal freedom, but God faithfully accompanies it. On God’s side, Christians work together with many people to limit the chaos and darkness that this creation, and thus our lives, contain. Even without Church services, we celebrate a new world of God on the coming Easter: a world without cries of pain, without suffering and without death. The Church hopes boldly and defiantly for a new world of God, in which the nights of illness will be no longer. But we are always repelled back, not only as individual Christians but also as a Church, to the father’s cry in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 9:24). Facing the plight of illness, suffering, and death, we people cry out: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” In these challenging weeks, we as a Church ultimately live by God’s promise that even in times of distress, He will remain attuned to this world and will be in the midst of us in His Spirit.