A Pandemic Crossroads for the Nations & the Church

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

“Lord, you are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing.
It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement:
a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate
what is necessary from what is not.”

Pope Francis, March 27, speaking to the world in Rome in an empty
St. Peter’s Square

As COVID-19 spreads rapidly across the world, death, grief, economic loss and fear have grown. UN Secretary-General António Guterres named the pandemic the greatest crisis in the UN’s 75-year history, and some analysts have drawn warnings from the 1920’s to early 1930’s worldwide Great Depression and an aftermath which divided the world. As the MCC UN Office tracks this situation with a moral lens as part of a global ministry engaged with vulnerable people and the global church, we see four serious challenges emerging regarding a time of crisis, kairos and call.

1. International institutions are floundering. Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed, a Christian believer, wrote in March that the pandemic is a global problem requiring global solutions. But the pandemic crisis has revealed another crisis of eroding multi-lateral cooperation between governments as nations turn inward to care for their own citizens. Many expected the UN Security Council, the world’s premier forum for international leadership, to take decisive action. But the five permanent Council members, who hold the greatest UN power (China, France, United Kingdom, Russia and United States), have been paralyzed by COVID-19 blaming battles, especially between the U.S. and China. The UN is facing an unprecedented test – as one key publication asks, “Can the UN Survive the COVID-19 Crisis?”

2. Catastrophic dangers in the global South. COVID-19 started in countries with wealth and infrastructure, with tragic losses. What about places where clean water is a luxury, daily economic situations are communal and social distancing is not possible, emergency financial support is nonexistent, and conflicts continue? In a presentation to MCC’s advocacy offices, MCC Global Health Coordinator Paul Shetler Fast said, “In most of the world this is not a medical crisis but a public health crisis at the deepest level. Places like Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo need prevention because there will never be the ICU beds to deal with this.” As the Security Council remains paralyzed, the World Food Programme has forecast that the number of people suffering acute hunger could double to 265 million (see “Instead of coronavirus, the hunger will kill us”).

3. A new post-pandemic world. Some historians contend that global shocks often awaken grievances and rapidly spread fear of the “other” and a rise in conflict, social unrest, hardening borders and leaders who gain power by seeking to divide. Recent weeks brought disturbing reports of rises in anti-Jewish and anti-Asian sentiment and of Africans evicted and harassed in one city in China. We can take sober warning from the reality that Nazism was unable to take power in Germany until after the Great Depression devastated the country’s economy. But shocks can also ignite unprecedented international movements for hope. Like the post-World War II creation of the UN to prevent more conflicts, national and civil society leaders stand before an opportunity to both reform and build new institutions which effectively promote peaceful solutions.

4. A defining moment for the global body of Christ. “Holy Week is a time to act in a new way,” said César García of Colombia, General Secretary of the Mennonite World Conference, evoking the New Testament understanding of “kairos” time. As cooperation between nations flounders during this pandemic, Sri Lankan thinker Vinoth Ramachandra writes, “We cannot afford to think in narrow, nationalist categories that only generate fear of those who are different to us… Science cannot provide the antidote to fear, although it can go a long way towards dispelling lies and misinformation. But it’s ‘love that casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18), the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally and that our worth as human beings does not rest on our color, gender, age or achievements.” Ministries find their deepest calling not in times of calm but in crisis. The World Council of Churches was born in 1948 after World War II, World Vision and Compassion International in the 1950s in response to the devastating Korean War, MCC in 1920 during the Russian revolution and famine in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine). In this pandemic time, the global church stands at a crossroads as people for whom passport citizenship is not primary but being disciples of the risen Lord who laid down his life in love for all, across all borders. According to MCC’s Paul Shetler Fast, there is currently “huge potential through churches,” because churches are generally trusted authorities in their communities (watch a story of hope from DR Congo). From the ministry of reconciliation in a time of COVID-19, to serving as channels of local, contextualized solutions, how can the transnational power of the global body of Christ be mobilized for such a time as this?

 Chris Rice is director of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office in New York City. He is co-author of Reconciling All Things and was founding co-director of the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation. This article originally appeared in the May issue of the MCC UN Office newsletter, a special issue on COVID-19, the United Nations, and the Global Church.


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