Covid-19’s questions to Christians: An African perspective

Fr. Louis Birabaluge, SX /Sierra Leone, West Africa

The questions that the Covid-19 virus poses to Christians are to be understood from the origin of this deadly virus, its consequences on humanity and the means available today to defeat it. About its origin, available research shows that the virus is from animal origin, which subsequently spread to humans. Now, transmission is from human to human. In terms of its consequences, they are disastrous considering the number of deaths worldwide: 846,851 so far![1]

In this regard, Africa was lucky. The 54 countries have so far recorded only 1,245,108 cases of contamination. The number of cures is 976,155, while the number of deaths is 29,581. In Sierra Leone, available figures show: 2,022 cases of infection; 1,594 cases of cure and 70 cases of death[2].  This number of deaths is certainly significant; but it remains lower compared to other continents. And so, fortunately, the apocalyptic predictions put forward by some WHO experts who estimated that 3 million possible cases of death would occur in Africa were proven wrong, at least as from now. As for the means available to defeat the virus, it is established that no vaccine has yet been found even though some clinical experimentations are reported to be promising.

These data on the origin, consequences and means to defeat the Covid-19 are from science, from human knowledge. There is every reason to believe that the discovery of the vaccine will be celebrated as the “event” of our 21st century. Moreover, viewed from Africa in general and Sierra Leone in particular, these issues take on another perspective, the religious dimension. An average Sierra Leonean believes that the Covid-19 virus was sent by God to punish the sinful humanity. And that those who have been spared, have been spared just by divine grace. I have heard people saying that it was the blood of Jesus Christ that protected them. As far as the vaccine is concerned, it is believed that it will only come from the goodness of God. He’s the one who’s going to cure us, they say. He is the true healer.

This point of view cannot be dismissed out of hand as a praespic. For it reflects an African vision of life and the world, which, in the words of L. Sedar Senghor, binds the pebble and the forest to God. It is a spiritual vision of human life. In other words, the questions that Covid-19 pose to theology are also to be included in this spiritual vision if they are to be approached from Africa.

1. God’s mighty power and goodness in question

By linking the origin, consequences and the means to defeat the Covid-19 to God, as does a certain opinion in Africa, we return to an ancient problem in Christian thinking that of the incompatibility of divine power and goodness and the existence of evil, represented here by the Covid-19. One way of answering has been to conclude that an almighty and righteous God would not exist. For his existence is contradicted by the existence of evil and the suffering of the righteous. In our times, his omnipotence seems to be denied by the existence and throes of the pandemic.

This kind of reasoning is not strange in Africa. During this time, I have heard people saying in mockery, “Where did the pastors go who used to claim that they had the holy oil that heals all diseases?” For others: “We were told that we could not live without going to pray in churches and mosques. But here we are still alive without this prayer. We can therefore do without prayers and live quietly!” If these people fail to deny the existence of God; nevertheless, they theoretically raise the enigma of his omnipotence.

But for those who have faith in an almighty and good God, things are not easy either. As the vaccine is not found yet and the cases of infections are raising again, where will the help come from? Why is God taking so long to act? Has he abandoned us? The answer to these questions will either be to abandon the faith in God, because it is ineffective. Or to be comforted in faith and trust in a good and almighty God by combining the psalmist’s prayer and that of Jesus even in the midst of confusion, saying: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? (Ps 22) and “Abba, Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. » (Lk 23:46).

2. On the African conception of illness and healing.

The African continent has its Covid-19 patients. Some are healed. Others are waiting for healing. From the religious vision of the origin, consequences and cure from Covid-19 described above and of which we find traces in a certain opinion in Africa, it would be wrong to believe that the discovery of a vaccine will be enough to restore the health of Covid-19 victims. Of course, this discovery will be a great relief, but our humanity will need more. What will be needed?

According to Father Hebga, an African approach to the disease is to consider it as distortion between the patient and his physical or social environment, between him and other living, even the deceased. Being cured in this context then means restoring the balance between these different factors and actors. Because illness is not a private matter. It is a communitarian matter[3]. In addition, the distinction of diseases in bodily, psychic, spiritual, etc., must be understood as a methodological necessity. In fact, he says, it’s the whole human being who needs to be healed[4].

Thus, the African cure responds to an integrality logic which takes into account the pluralist scheme of the “human being”; of the conception of disease and healing, the forces at work in disease and treatment. The African context in which the Covid-19 is rife therefore postulates a medicine that is both integral and communitarian. Integral because for the African, it is absurd to claim to heal sometimes my body and sometimes my mind. It is I who am sick as a whole, although the morbid infection only manifests itself in one side of the person. Communitarian medicine, because in a certain sense, it is not only the individual but also the social group that is sick and that has to be restored by the cure[5].

To limit the spread of Covid-19, social distancing is one of the means proposed with the consequences on the social bond that we know today. It is therefore necessary to wonder if the communitarian medicine claimed by African cultures does not find here all its relevance as a means of healing for the entire infected social body.

Postulating an integral and communitarian medicine as theology does from an African perspective is not without consonance with the action of Jesus considering the biblical accounts of the miracles of healing: Mt 8, 5-13; Mc 10, 45-52, Lk 17; 11-19: the healing of ten lepers, Jn 5: 1-9 … In these accounts, we can clearly see that Jesus does not say to the sick person, you are healed, but: “Go, your faith has saved you” ( Mk 10, 52; Lk 7, 50). It appears here that in the practice of Jesus, physical healing is encompassed in a larger reality, physical and spiritual, which covers salvation. Jesus’ dismissal of ten lepers to priests (Lk 17, 14) indicates social and religious integration as part of the healing process without which it would be incomplete.

In short, while the world is awaiting the good news of the discovery of the vaccine against the Covid-19, the African conception of the disease and the cure shows that other challenges await our humanity so that it is fully healed. Therefore, purely techno-scientific solutions will not suffice. We need another vaccine: a spiritual and a social vaccine. To believe in the spiritual cure that this spiritual vaccine would provide is not superstition, but it is the belief in a spiritual worldview[6].

Faced with the challenges of individual and community spiritual care, the Church is not without means. The ministry of the sick and the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick have potential to be explored for this purpose. Visiting the sick, which is part of the ministry of the sick, breaks the bond of isolation and becomes a sign of comfort and hope for the sick person deprived of any family and social relationship[7].

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the issue of human fragility. It is all the humanity that is struck; who by infection with the virus, who by fear of being infected, who by depression due to isolation and confinement, who by precariousness … At this precise moment, everyone has his disease, could we say. And therefore the need to be fully and together healed. For Christians, the scourge facing our humanity allows us to rediscover the whole meaning of the sacrament of the sick as a sacrament in which Christ comes to the sick to comfort him, to give him confidence, to forgive his weaknesses and strengthen him morally in the midst of illness[8].

But to do this, it will be necessary to get rid of a narrow understanding of this sacrament often known as: “Extreme – Anointing”, “Anointing of those who are about to die” (Saint Thomas Aquinas)[9]. As all it is all the humanity that is sick, priority should be given to the community celebration of the Anointing of the Sick and thus help the whole community to understand that through the Anointing, the sick receives from the Holy Spirit a renewal of confidence in God and new forces against temptation (Ritual 54). For the primary grace of this sacrament is a grace of comfort, of peace and of courage, which can help in healing[10]. Who wouldn’t need such grace today?

[1] Cf. www.who.int.fr/Covid-19/ Global deaths/ 31/08/2020. Since this text was written two months ago, the numbers had surely changed.

[2] Cf. www.who.int.fr/Covid-19-Africa-who/ 31/08/2020). . Since this text was written two months ago, the numbers had surely changed.

[3] HEBGA MEINRAD, « Guérir l’homme. Expérience africaine et perspective évangélique » in Telema 3-4( 7-19/1987), p. 15.

[4] Ibid., p. 17.

[5] HEBGA MEINRAD, « La guérison en Afrique », in Concilium 234( 1991), p. 86.

[6] HEBGA MEINRAD, « Guérir l’homme. Expérience africaine et perspective évangélique », op.cit., p. 17-18.

[7] LA CELEBRATION DES SACRAMENTS, présentée par Pierre Jounel avec la collaboration de Jean Evenou, Paris, Desclée, 1983 ; p. 802.

[8] Ibid., p. 804.

[9] Ibid., p. 806.

[10] Ibid., p. 808.

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