Most people, those who acknowledge some or other religious faith as well as those of no faith at all, allow humour to meld with their understandings of life crises.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant national lockdown have not changed our nature in that respect.
Someone sent me a photograph of a sign outside a church announcing that all services have been cancelled during the virus season because God is making house calls.
Joking helps ease the stresses and strains from the impact of Covid-19 and the measures taken to prevent its spread. But what if God is making house calls — and church calls?
A conservative theology, which knows no denominational or socioeconomic boundaries, promotes the idea that Christians are safe from any threat, including a calamitous pandemic, that “normal” life must continue in every respect, that Covid-19 presents a moment of revival for Christians — an impetus towards Christian triumphalism, if we don’t give in to its evil.
Eastern Cape-born pastor Rodney Howard-Brown, who now touts his brand of conservative, conspiracy-packed theology from a mega-church in Florida in the US, is one of many eccentric Christian leaders continuing to promote gatherings in opposition to widespread efforts to stop public interaction in the light of the Covid-19 onslaught.
Howard-Brown has described Covid-19 as a “phantom plague”. And yet the pandemic is radically altering every aspect of life as we know it, presenting a threat to long-established and cherished patterns, but also offering opportunities for significant, life-affirming change.
This chance to change is available also to the Christian church, universal, national and local. And Easter provides an apposite moment to reflect on this need for change.
If President Cyril Ramaphosa had not declared a national lockdown to start on March 27, it is likely that many Christian leaders in SA would happily have continued performing what they believe are the sanctifying rituals of their faith — including gathering in large congregations for worship, communion, preaching, confession — and in the process exposing their congregants to the risk of infection.
Churches would be packed to capacity for Good Friday and Easter Sunday services, among other devotionals. Instead, our churches are as empty as the tomb was on that first resurrection Sunday.
The virus season with all its negative impacts for faith, worship and witness, represents a kairos moment, a time given by God to consider and do the right thing.
Christian theology is a living thing. There are few denominations, barring those that espouse hardline and conservative fundamentalism, which cling to notions of a god who does not continue its engagement with her world throughout history (sic).
Sociologists would take it further in their argument that, since god is a social construct — created by ourselves — it stands to reason that, as society changes, our god(s) will continue to be re-created in our own images.
What faith, what new Christian theology, might emerge in, through and after the novel coronavirus?
An emerging Christian theology is not, itself, new for the church. Emergence has existed throughout the centuries, thriving, as one scholar has noted, “at the margins” of the religious establishment while eschewing institutional appearances and practices.
In the modern era, it has emerged in opposition to patriarchy and the rigidity of the dominant mega- and mainline churches, and in support of progressive ideologies grounded in the women’s movement, social justice, homosexual rights, compassion, hospitality, forgiveness, antimilitarism.
One of the ways in which a new theology might emerge is to use John Caputo’s notion of “the deconstructed church”. Based on the phrase first used in 1896 by Charles Sheldon, a Kansas, US, pastor, “What would Jesus do?”, Caputo asks: “What would Jesus deconstruct” about the church today?
In other words, what would He challenge? What would Jesus discern and interpret about the theology underpinning much of the church’s practices today, about their meaning and value, about the extent to which they go against the founding principles of His kingdom?
Caputo writes that the first thing Jesus would deconstruct is “the church! He would deconstruct a very great deal of what people do in the name of Jesus, the whole ‘industry’, the whole commercial operation of spiritual and very real moneymaking Christian capitalists”.
Through this deconstruction, Caputo suggests we can sketch a portrait of an alternative Christianity, an emerging church, the kingdom of God.
Jesus gives us two visions of this kingdom. The first is in his recitation of the words of Isaiah “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release for the captive, and recovery of sight for the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”.
The second is in His Sermon on the Mount, during which Jesus proclaims who are the blessed in his kingdom — those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted because of righteousness, those who are insulted and falsely accused.
And for each category of person there is a special reward.
These are old but enduring and compelling ideas to consider to reimagine a new theology for the church, which is not focused on institutionalism, structure, roles and rites.
If all the church has learnt during this time of Covid-19 is how to livestream sermons, worship songs, religious rites, and requests for tithes, we have lost the kairos moment.