Trope Alert: The Real Virus Is Sin
If your social media feeds have been anything like mine since early March, they have been crowded with posts such as the one below:
The Facebook equivalent of a Chick tract, images like these could easily be dismissed as rhetorically clueless. (Who, among the poster’s presumably Christian connections, is the audience? How likely is somebody, prompted by an image with the graphic design quality of Geocities, to become a Christian?)The video makes it harder, not easier, for watching Christians to envision how their faith calls them to engage with the surrounding world in a time of crisis.
But the images proliferated across social media, reaching not only Facebook but Twitter and YouTube. I started collecting images––images reminding us that “god > coronavirus” and urging us to ask ourselves, “If [our] version of the Good News was a virus, how contagious would it be?” There was a clear pattern of Christians using the swift spread of COVID-19—and the equally swiftly spreading concern about it—to share their faith. The more examples I found of such discourse, the more concerned I grew that social media posts were not merely mild nonsense, easily dismissed, but tone-deaf, hurtful posts which contribute to the spread of misinformation and flatten Christian notions of hope, opting for a Gnostic approach that denies the reality of faithful engagement in the world.
A YouTube video called “Covid-19: The Real Issue” exemplifies the problems with comparing the virus to sin to make a spiritual point. Dramatic music playing in the background, the video outlines a scenario in which the viewer hears of the new virus, “dismiss[es] it as social hype,” and then contracts it. Viewers are further invited to “imagine” they hear of a cure, rush to the doctor, and receive it, overjoyed to be healed. The video concludes by likening this experience, contracting and being healed of a deadly illness, to salvation and urging viewers to become Christians. As I watch this narrative play out, now months into the pandemic, I can’t help but notice how the video rewrites many Americans’ experiences of the crisis in ways that are not only tone deaf but have profound consequences for public action.
Subtitled “The Real Issue,” the video implies that the actual disease, which would go on to claim the lives of more than 100,000 people in the United States alone, is not a real problem. In fact, as the screencap below shows, the video actually commandeers the name of the disease as an acronym to walk viewers through the Romans Road. Design choices like these show a thoughtlessness about the pandemic’s real victims, many of them Black, Latinx, or elderly people—the very people Jesus urged his disciples to care for.
Yet these design choices signal a deeper concern: the video rewrites the actual course of the pandemic in order to make a spiritual point. Near its start, the video imagines the viewer “go[ing] to [a] doctor” who “runs the tests”—a surprisingly glib invention, given that one defining feature of the pandemic is the extraordinary difficulty of obtaining timely, reliable testing. Even now, but especially early in the pandemic when the video was published, people could not simply go to the doctor and get a test. Some people died without receiving their test results.
The video also imagines an infected person “rush[ing] to the hospital” to receive a cure. “A new life is yours—for now,” the narrator proclaims, forebodingly. No cure is forthcoming, however; any vaccines are still more than a year away. Even if there were a cure, healthcare in the United States is sufficiently byzantine and expensive as to make a quick trip to the hospital out of reach for most Americans. In describing treatment for the virus, as in describing testing, the video makes light of a complicated and tragic situation in ways that suggest it is out of touch with the realities of people’s everyday lives.
Of course, the video is a digital tract, not an epidemiological study or a news report on the virus. Yet its inaccuracies still matter. Especially as conspiracy theories about the virus gain traction, the amount of noise increases and threatens to drown out the signal: that this virus is serious, has no cure, and merits purposeful action. The “Real Issue” video, by rewriting the pandemic to gloss over the most serious parts, contributes to the growing noise. Unlikely as viewers are to take the video as a source of scientific information, it distributes a decidedly rosy story that allows people to tune out real problems such as a contagious disease, testing, and healthcare.
Tuning out the pandemic is, ultimately, the deeper issue with “The Real Issue.” Chalking inaccuracies up to the fact that the video is, after all, a tract, its rewriting of the pandemic nevertheless signals that the priorities of believers who create and (re)circulate such material may be imbalanced, with dangerous consequences. By pretending, for the sake of its evangelistic story, that tests are readily available; healthcare, swift and affordable, the video turns a blind eye to the uncertainty, pain, and hardship people experience in the pandemic.
From this position, the video makes it harder, not easier, for watching Christians to envision how their faith calls them to engage with the surrounding world in a time of crisis. The video’s rewriting of the pandemic, with its distortion of reality, could influence Christians to ignore the call to protect human well-being and imagining alternative possibilities.
The video’s implicit assertion that the tragic, physical realities of COVID-19 do not matter compared with spiritual realities are amplified elsewhere on social media. Christian social media posts that insist the only necessary response to coronavirus is a spiritual one kneecap meaningful Christian action on the virus and distort Christian hope. One such post was published by conservative public theologian Owen Strachan:
The tweets are titled “preparation for #coronavirus,” yet all eleven suggestions are strictly spiritual. The first post shares the Gospel (readers are advised to “trust in Jesus as Savior”); the second encourages steps for spiritual growth such as regular prayer and thanksgiving. Given that Strachan is a public theologian with a largely Christian audience, this is not inherently poor advice. Yet the absence of practical suggestions for responding to the virus is striking and implies that a spiritual response is the only response. In other words, there is nothing tangible for Christians to do about the virus.
Indeed, the spiritual advice offered is worded in a way that subtly undermines tangible, practical responses. Readers are encouraged to “claim the hope that is in Christ,” reminded of God’s “meticulous providence” and “many blessings,” and advised to embrace “trusting faith, not anxious paranoia.” The caution against “anxious paranoia” recalls how protective measures against spreading the virus—everything from delaying family gatherings to wearing masks—are characterized as unnecessarily fearful. The tweet contrasts “paranoia” with Christian virtues such as hope, thankfulness, and trust—and in so doing, implies that any concern about the virus, any tangible response, is not only unnecessary but actually sinful.
True, Strachan does not explicitly call out readers who choose to take protective measures, nor, as far as I know, has he engaged in any of the “best hits” of pandemic denialism, such as celebrating businesses that ban customers from wearing masks. But characterizing a healthy fear of the virus as “paranoia” and contrasting it with trust in God, a vein of the wider Christian tendency to assume that all problems are a sin problem, is dangerous. Like people who see every problem as a nail in need of a hammer, discourse that insists on seeing all problems as fundamentally spiritual problems, as the post above does, is unable to muster any meaningful response to real-world concerns. Platitudes about “out-worshiping the world” (whatever that means) and trusting God can offer no real hope.
Hope, as I noted previously, is more than a generic wish for things to be better; hope is a commitment to imagine and work for new ways of being, (re)arranging our world to make human flourishing possible. This version of hope is not altogether aligned with Christian hope, which insists upon eternal fulfillment. Saint Paul, after all, warns that our hope in Christ is pointless if it is “‘only for this life,” while Lady Julian of Norwich, living through the Black Plague, looked beyond her present experiences to a moment when “all shall be well.”
Yet Christian hope does not only look to a new heaven and a new earth; Christian hope looks to this earth as well, as believers seek to serve their communities. Like Christ, meeting both physical and spiritual needs, believers nourish justice and mercy among those who need it most. Posts which rewrite the pandemic as a spiritual problem needing a spiritual response denies such hope. Emphasizing positivity—giving thanks, claiming hope—without engaging in lament has much more in common with a white, American approach to the world than a Christian one. Esau McCaulley, who recently addressed the Bible’s take on Black anger in the New York Times, writes that while ultimately we have a “resurrection hope,” such “hope doesn’t remove the Christian from the struggle for justice;” in fact, McCaulley suggests, hope calls the Christian toward the struggle for justice. Yes, we hope in a future resurrection, but because of that resurrection, we are empowered, while still on this earth, to pursue justice and reconciliation. Hope is already-and-not-yet, something we await not passively wishing for a better world beyond the grave but seizing our confidence in that world to make this one better.
McCaulley is writing about Black Lives Matter, but his words are relevant to our response to the coronavirus, particularly since COVID-19 disproportionately affects Black and Latinx citizens. Messaging that urges “hope,” “thanksgiving,” and trust in God’s “providence” at the expense of lament and justice for the hundreds of thousands dead is not hope at all. Such messaging denies that we are embodied beings inhabiting a broken world. Refusing to acknowledge the lives lost to COVID-19, refusing to take precautions to prevent further deaths, especially among minoritized citizens, these messages have far more to do with white American privilege than Christian hope.
This outlook has real consequences. It denies the chance for a hopeful, Christian response to the virus, staked on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. Christian hope, which invests sacrificially in the lives in others, cares not only for spiritual needs but also for physical needs. Hope, ultimately, calls us beyond “trusting God” and “out-worshiping the world” toward practical actions of care, from making wise community decisions that protect public health and work toward health equity to purchasing groceries for at-risk people and establishing a relief fund for those who are out of work.
In Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich writes that “positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology—the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it.” Messaging that urges “hope,” “thanksgiving,” and trust in God’s “providence” at the expense of lamenting the hundreds of thousands dead and taking precautions to prevent further deaths has far more to do with white American thinking, the American pursuit of silver linings, than Christian hope.
Ultimately, so long as Christian messaging persists in pitting sin (the “real issue”) against real life-and-death sickness, or conflating reasonable caution with unfounded paranoia, Christians will do no earthly good. Their message will not be one of hope but of positivity, anchored in a privileged outlook unable to offer much beyond a vague wish for prosperity. On the other hand, as believers recognize that material needs are real needs and commit to cautious, thoughtful actions that prioritize justice and mercy among the diverse members of their community, they offer, in the darkest of times, a bright spot of real hope.