Corona and Christ

Valson Thampu

To see anything clearly, it needs to be held at an optimum distance from oneself. To be too close is to be too far in terms of effect. In both cases, one cannot see the given object or phenomenon for what it is.

Apart from distance, there is another factor that interferes with understanding: prejudice. This is where Jesus Christ comes in. He taught us to love‘enemies.’ This involves removing the coloured glasses of enmity from our perception of others. From a disposition of enmity, we see only evil in the person concerned. This reflects who we are, rather than what the object of perception really is.

That is where the corona comes in. We assume that this virus is our enemy. It seems a plausible view to take, given the harm the virus is causing to human beings. But does the virus ‘cause’ anything? Does it act out of targeted anti-human malice? Has it come to kill us or our economy? Or, is it simply acting according to its nature?

What is the nature of a virus? It is to act instinctively by its nature; unable to ‘mind’ how it affects anything else. Is the force of gravity a friend or a foe? Well, the answer depends on the context. It is certainly our friend because it enables us to stand, walk and go on stably with our daily business, rather than float about like gossamers, as cosmonauts do on the lunar surface. But if you are on your terrace and leap from there, the self-same force of gravity plays a part in your death, without ‘causing’ it. Thanks to it, you come down with accelerated velocity and crash with lamentable consequences.

We overlook all this and talk as if the corona is our enemy; indeed, the enemy of humankind, afflicting us with an intractable pandemic that is causing peoples and nations to dither under its malevolence. This is childishly inaccurate; and it serves to hide the fact that the virus is, in point of fact, a mirror held up to unregenerate human nature.

So, what about human nature? It is here that Christ and corona should meet in our thinking. The public ministry of Jesus Christ was addressed to the universal fact that human nature had declined to the level currently represented by viruses, bacteria, microbes and so on. They are wholly and exclusively focused on their interests and are ‘naturally’ unmindful of all other interests, realities and consequences. If I were to borrow Rousseau’s insight in Emile, his classic work on education which influenced Europe for a very long time, I’d say: the virus relates to the given whole only in terms of its own interests. Human beings, if they are indeed human, are capable of relating to the given context in terms also of what is good for the whole and adjust individual interests accordingly. When they don’t their behaviour is, in principle, akin to that of the virus.

From a spiritual point of view, this raises the question of ‘nature.’ What is nature? And human nature? What, if any, is the difference between the two?

Well, nature, as nature, does not function by choice according to the principle of self-transcendence or (to use Jesus’ word for it) self-denial. That is also the bottom-line of unregenerate human nature. But human nature is capable of being trained and refined towards ‘loving one’s neighbour as oneself.’ Other animals know herds; the human alone knows ‘neighbour.’ Neighbour, according to Soren Kierkegaard, is the ethical sign-post. ‘Neighbour’ transcends all labels of discrimination and separation. And challenges us to bridle our interests so as to make room for the needs of others.

The virus knows no such! It is, for aught we know, unconsciously self-contained and self-centred. It pursues its interests, such as they are, in pure self-absorption, genetically incapable of minding the needs and interests of others. The point is that human beings too are free to live and behave in this fashion. The sad reality is that a vast majority of our species do so, undisquieted by any awareness that it is, humanly speaking, ‘unnatural.’ To the same principle, when embodied in a phenomenon of nature that goes against our interests, we ascribe wilful malice. That’s why the corona seems our enemy. The truth is different, though. The corona is ourselves; our nature reduced to its barest, crudest level marked by monomaniacal self-seeking. A political party, to take a random example, that resorts to any means to capture power – including spreading communal hate and blood-shed- should have the corona as its symbol, if it is truthful to its nature. But, if a party is capable of truth, it will not behave in a virus-like fashion. So, the path of deception, not of truth, is its preferred strategy for self-advancement, even if, corona-like, it imperils the vitality and unity of the nation.

Thousands of years of human history is concentrated into the words of Jesus: ‘The Son of Man has come not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for the sin of the world.’ Instinctive self-centredness is the essence of the ‘sin of the world.’ It is its operative ‘pattern.’

This brings us to the precincts of Jesus’ teaching on denying oneself    (Mt. 16:24). This is a positive and expansive concept. It pertains not only to what we give, but also to who we are. The proof that we deny ourselves is that our life is distinguished by ‘fruit’ and ‘harvest.’ We are free to be, and live, like the corona –wholly and instinctively self-absorbed, utterly indifferent to what this entails for others. But we would be contrary to the Christological mark of self-denial, no matter how many self-denial covers we submit. ‘Life in all its fullness’ (Jn.10:10) is the hallmark of true self-denial. Overflowing alone proves fullness. To overflow is to touch the lives of others in a beneficial fashion. ‘Overflow’ is the ‘outreach’ of ‘fullness.’

The corona is nobody’s enemy! It merely exists. It finds our lungs and other vital organs congenial habitats, where it thrives. It is incapable of knowing us as human beings, much like a rapist’s incapacity to know a woman as a human being. No rapist is self-consciously a criminal. He becomes one because there is law. A rapist exists wholly for himself; he simply is. The problem is that he has not become a human being, though he has the shape and chemistry of the human animal.

It is time, therefore, that we began decoding this pandemic. This is not a task we can leave to scientists and politicians. Both are indifferent to meanings, being obsessed with mechanisms. ‘Meaning’ is a human thing. ‘Meaning,’ not technological remedies like vaccine or drugs, will turn us from the corona-principle to the Christ-principle. But to do that is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, to realize that Christ calls us to ‘come and die’ Jesus said.

“He who loves his life will lose it, while he who hates his life in this world for my sake will keep it for eternal life”  (Jn.12:25).

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