The present pandemic is more than a health issue. It has brought to the foreground sharp differences of opinion not only about how to respond but, in some cases, about the nature of our civil society. How can Christians navigate this debate?
In this article, Stephen O’Doherty draws on his own life experience as a broadcast journalist, member of parliament and Christian leader to suggest a framework for Christian thought and action. The Board of Hope Media has adopted a summarised version of this article as its position statement on COVID -19 and it can be seen here.
A Christian Media Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Knowing the times
At all times, but particularly in times of great uncertainty, media has a special burden to speak with truth, reason and authority. The present pandemic, and our society’s response to it, represents such a time.
Disease, suffering and death are not part of God’s plan for humanity. They were not present in the beginning and will not be present in the new heavens and new earth.
Between these theological bookends lie humankind’s rebellion and God’s rescue plan: through Jesus on the cross.
Understanding the times requires attention to the entirety of God’s plan. Creation, fall, redemption and renewal.
We live in the season between the means of redemption (the first Easter) and Christ’s return when all things will be made new. This understanding shapes the work of this media ministry.
We carry the message of reconciliation to all who can hear it. Paul describes it this way: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” 2 Corinthians 5:19–20 (NIV).
There is a plan and a future. God loves us so much that He has provided a way for us to share in His Kingdom, at His personal cost.
Our purpose: experiences of God’s love
This message of hope lies at the centre of all we do at Hope 1032.
Our Purpose Statement puts it this way – as a media ministry our purpose is: To engage people with experiences of God’s love so that they may become more like Christ, and the world more like the Kingdom.
What would it look like if the world was more like the Kingdom of God?
It would be a world where people are reconciled to God and to each other. A world where truth matters and the pursuit of wisdom, informed by the evidence of truth, is an antidote to misinformation that would bring fear and harm.
It would be a world where people are valued as God’s image-bearers and treated with respect. A world where people’s actions are characterised by loving care for their neighbours. Where those in authority understand God as the source of power and use it in a godly way to serve others.
It would be a world where rights are balanced by responsibilities, where actions have consequences, and where justice and mercy are held in the proper tension.
This is what we long for and work towards.
As a culture-making ministry, we are agents of common grace, pointing to evidence of God’s love.
God’s common grace can be seen in the majestic natural environment He created to provide for us and inspire us. It can be seen in the inherent beauty and dignity of every person, as image-bearers of God. It is seen in the person of Jesus who shows us what it is to be truly human.
It can equally be seen in selfless service, acts of bravery, the creativity and genius of humankind, in great artistic or musical works, or through the advancement of knowledge, science and technology.
Hope in the present times: our COVID-19 coverage
Diseases like COVID-19 are not part of God’s plan. They were not present in the beginning and will not be part of the ultimate future.
Theologically, maladies of all kinds entered the world with the fall, a consequence of our rebellion. Disease is not a pre-condition but a consequence. As Christians, we know that through Christ’s death, and in His resurrection, the consequences of sin are dealt with. Redemption comes through Jesus – and only through Him – available to everyone who embraces Him as their Saviour and Lord.
When all things are made new, in the new creation to come, we are assured there will be no further consequences for our rebellion. That’s been dealt with, and not by anything we’ve done, but because of God’s grace in Jesus.
This lens – creation, fall, redemption and renewal – is the lens of the Christian faith. When we view the current pandemic through this lens we see hope.
But if this hope ultimately will be fulfilled when Jesus returns, what about the here and now? For people living between the means of redemption and the fulfilment of renewal, what is there for us?
Answering this question depends on our view of God. Is He absent, or present? Is He remote from our daily experience, or constantly concerned with our welfare?
We are convinced that God remains at work. The incarnation of Jesus: that God became a man and took up residence on the earth among His people, is a powerful testimony to His care for and interest in us. His saving grace on our behalf, completed on the cross, is powerful and extraordinary. But it is not the end of the story.
Firstly, it remains available to anyone who accepts Jesus until His return. Secondly, until then, as He has done from the beginning, God continues to shower us with blessings. Thirdly, God wants us to be actively involved. Just as there was fulfilling work in the first garden, there remains work for us to do today. It is pleasing and meaningful because it is God’s work. We – His people – are one of the ways God brings people to know Jesus, and we are involved in the work of generally blessing the society around us.
Seeing the world in this way, acknowledging the entirety of God’s desire to provide for us now and into eternity; looking through this lens is what shapes our purpose and goals as a media ministry.
It shapes our coverage of COVID-19, including the way we approach content, the way we engage with our audience and the way we see our responsibilities as a media organisation.
What response can possibly be adequate in the light of God’s love for us? What can we offer in return for His plan to rescue us?
The Old Testament prophet Micah poses this very question.
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
And the answer? “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6:6–8 (NIV).
Centuries later, Jesus, the living embodiment of the Word of God, was asked which was the greatest commandment? The question, from religious lawmakers of the day, invited a hierarchical answer: is love of God more important than loving acts of service to others?
Jesus’ response is the model for our times, as those living under the new covenant. To love God is to love others. “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” Matthew 22:37–40 (NIV).
The biblical mandate is clear: as God loves us, so we should love others. This is the way we are to worship: through loving service. As God acts justly and with mercy, so we are to do the same.
Throughout history this mandate has inspired Christians to sacrificial service and incredible acts of selfless courage.
And what does the Lord require of us now?
What is being asked of us in the present time? To reduce community harm by complying with public health and safety measures: social distancing, restrictions on movement, and vaccination. Yet some Christians fail to connect this with our mandate to love one another and to act justly and with mercy. We respectfully disagree with their arguments and will examine some of these matters below.
Health and wellbeing as a means of justice
Biblical justice requires that we act to protect the health and wellbeing of others because they are image-bearers of God. And we have a special responsibility for those Jesus calls “the least of these” (see Matthew 25).
We, the Church universal, working individually, and through charitable agencies and the governments we elect, must use our resources to meet needs, especially when preventable factors cause suffering or unequal life outcomes, or when they impact human dignity.
To act justly towards our neighbours is to ensure they have access to clean water, maternal and infant care, and medical supplies – including vaccines. Whether in impoverished nations or in our own nation, public health and social measures bring justice by preventing the spread of disease and ensuring better, more equitable, life outcomes.
In the same way the actions we take now to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with urgency due to the particular challenges of new variants such as Delta, enhance health justice to our local and global communities, reducing death and suffering and bringing hope: hope of a better future.
We would rightly hold our public authorities culpable if they failed their duty of care to protect public health at any time, let alone during a pandemic. As citizens and members of families and communities, we should hold ourselves to no lesser standard. This suggests the following conclusions:
- Our individual responsibility is to actively participate in public health and social measures.
- Unless there is a clear medical reason for not doing so, this requires that we take part in the current vaccination program as it will help protect others, as well as ourselves.
- Likewise social distancing, quarantine and isolation requirements, mask wearing, QR code check-ins and other social measures all are appropriate, necessary and in the public interest.
With responsibility comes accountability
Christians above all understand that love sometimes requires a price to be paid. Acting in the interests of others for public health reasons does come at a cost; in changes to the way we do things and the loss of some freedoms.
There are very consequential mental health effects of prolonged lockdowns. The economic consequences are real and must be weighed. There are many questions about appropriate regulation in a world where a minority is unvaccinated. How will their rights and needs be met? Who decides? All these must be weighed in the balance.
Any action to restrict individual freedom can only be justified if absolutely necessary for the protection of the public and must be proportionate to the threat or risk.
So are we to accept unquestioningly the decisions of those in authority? How should Christians think about these things?
A parliamentary democracy such as Australia can be seen as a “contract” between the governed and the governors; in return for living in an ordered society we agree to be bound by the rule of law.
The system is characterised by checks and balances including the separation of powers doctrine regarding the interplay between executive government (the sworn ministry), the parliament, and the judiciary. An overbearing government can be held to account by the parliament (which ultimately wields power on behalf of the electorate, including the power to change the government), or by the judiciary: government, like people and corporations, is subject to the rule of law.
Little of this is seen day-to-day.
What is mostly seen is politics rather than governance, yet these checks and balances remain a constitutional cornerstone that constantly works in the interest of a fair and prosperous society; one in which all should share in the natural, social and economic benefits of living in a commonwealth.
It is regrettable that the greater good argument gets lost in the stuff of daily politics. Much effort is wasted in blame shifting and name calling. Little wonder public cynicism grows as a result, especially when we all are under a great deal of pressure because of COVID-19.
Arguments between the jurisdictions in our Commonwealth are particularly irksome. It is perhaps helpful to take a step back from the daily shouting match and consider that the interplay of state, territory and federal governments and their departments, a design feature of the Constitution, provides another balancing feature. Australians live out this principle come election time: often eagerly electing different political parties to govern at state and federal levels. The electorate takes seriously its role in holding government to be accountable.
Those in authority are accountable, ultimately, to God
Taking a step further back, the Bible tells us that those who exercise authority are accountable to God. We, those who are governed, are encouraged to abide by the law not only to avoid the consequences but as a matter of conscience. Respecting duly appointed authorities is akin to respecting God, for they are established under His overall authority (see Romans 13).
But does that mean an unquestioning obedience even to bad law? Absolutely not! To do so would be to make a false idol of a political/governmental/judicial system. History teaches the clear danger of making that mistake.
But imagine what it would look like if those in authority recognised godly principles in their decision-making? If, in responding to the example and teaching of Jesus, they were servant leaders whose decisions genuinely reflected truth, promoted justice, and saw the kind of human flourishing that was a foretaste of the Kingdom?
If that cannot be imagined, then Paul’s exhortation to Timothy had better be our guide: to pray for those in authority, so that life will be peaceful, quiet, godly and dignified (1 Timothy 2:1–4).
This provides no comfort for those whose posture is constantly to denounce and undermine legitimate authority, many of whom use information that is knowingly false, or easily verifiable as false.
Yes, we who benefit from or are impacted by public policy have a responsibility to hold governments and other decision-makers to account. This is entirely consistent with the biblical principles outlined above. In doing so, our own responsibility is to be wise and informed citizens. To participate in democracy, prayerfully and recognising our special responsibilities, being quick to listen and slow to judge, and prepared to give account for the consequences of our own civic engagement.
Church and state are both institutions established by God. They have distinct and separate functions. State was not established to be the Church; nor was Church established to be the state. Both should work in the interests of the people and where possible seek common approaches and agreed outcomes. A balancing principle, for an ordered society, established by God.
Nowhere is it more important to get the balance right than in the exercise and protection of freedom.
Freedom is a fundamental right, protected by international covenants, in legislation, and by the common law.
These and other frameworks require that the universal right to freedom should only be limited to the extent necessary to avoid harm to others.
Sometimes this is seen in obvious ways: the road rules protect the public safety by limiting absolute freedom, e.g., curbing the freedom to drink and drive is necessary to protect the public.
Sometimes it is harder to see and more controversial. The introduction of compulsory seat-belt wearing was such an example. The greater good argument eventually won out and our behaviour changed as people realised their loved ones were safer because of this small limit to their freedom. Hospitals were treating less serious road traumas. Health funding could be purposed for other priorities. And now we don’t think twice about buckling up.
A good tool for finding a balance between freedoms and the public good is an evidence-based risk mitigation approach. Such an approach is very much at the heart of the COVID-19 public health and social measures debate.
It is hard to imagine a more clear-cut example where the protection of public health and promotion of long-term public good requires that we accept changes to the way we live, including some limits on our usual freedoms.
We should also inform ourselves so as to be able to discern where the lines should reasonably be drawn on those limitations and be prepared to hold government (and the people around us) accountable.
The responsibility of our media
The media sector, including Christian media, has a particular responsibility to promote informed discussion. Media is a means of information exchange between government and the community. It helps keep government accountable.
As modern democracies emerged from the era of Empires during the 18th and 19th centuries, the idea grew that a free press, acting as a “fourth estate” was essential to holding official power to account, on behalf of the people.
Every day we see this accountability loop played out in real time on any connected device. Until the (relatively) recent advent of live media conference coverage, most people did not see the interaction between public officials and the press gallery up close. For the most part we usually saw and heard only the packaged, produced and polished final product.
Up close it is raw, even uncomfortable. Yet it is an expression of what it is to hold power to account. Can anyone witnessing this daily wrestling match seriously hold to the idea that these media professionals are toeing a government line as part of a grand conspiracy?
Far from being an enemy, a free media is an essential ally to a free and democratic society.
The media itself therefore must also be accountable. This critical obligation is contained in various Codes of Practice as well as codified ethical, values and belief statements.
Our particular concerns as a Christian media organisation
As a Christian media ministry, in addition to the Codes of Practice under which we operate, we hold ourselves to the principles enshrined in the Purpose Statement referred to above and the biblical principles that lie behind it.
Our responsibility as broadcasters is to serve the community with factual, verifiable information from authoritative sources. This serves the common good and provides the best basis on which the community can base its decisions and actions.
Our news journalists and other content makers take seriously their role to inform, investigate and educate.
We are committed to seeking information from authoritative sources (where possible, primary sources), peer-reviewed research and other verified sources of information.
Rumour and hearsay have no place in news coverage. Neither do unvalidated conspiracies. We have a duty of care not to broadcast or publish unproven and unreliable theories. To publish information that is known to be wrong, or to fail to check facts before publishing, would be a breach of trust.
When factually incorrect or unreliable material prevents or discourages people from making informed decisions for their own or the public good, those who promote it risk causing harm. They are doing the opposite of loving their neighbour.
We also have a special responsibility not to promote unsound doctrine, such as the errant idea that the blood of Jesus will protect believers from COVID-19. The death and resurrection of Jesus is our means of eternal salvation, not a talisman against disease or indeed our eventual, mortal death. As believers, we will be healed because of His sacrifice when all things are made new. Christ’s sacrifice is our saving (salvation) grace, ultimately fulfilled at His return.
Until then we have the creativity, skills and knowledge of the medical and scientific community to provide us with protective health measures, and for any of us to not take advantage of them is to deny God’s common grace.
We acknowledge there are differing views about the management of the pandemic. We see our role as to model critical thinking based on open-minded questioning in a genuine effort to discover truth.
We acknowledge that some in our community hold contrary views about the management of the pandemic. There are many channels through which people can make their views public. Each person or organisation must consider the consequences of their own approach.
For our part, we are committed to promote discussion that is informative, considered, and helps promote the common good, while holding those in authority accountable in appropriate ways.
How can we experience God’s love in the midst of a pandemic? Where can we look to see common grace at work? How can we point people to hope when the news all seems so bleak?
As part of the Church universal, we take a long-term, transcendent view of history. We point to Jesus as the means of our eternal salvation, and to His resurrection as proof that hope will be fulfilled for all who call on His name.
In the meantime there is work to do – good, fulfilling God-given work. It involves seeing people reconciled to God through Christ and consequently reconciling to each other. It involves working for the common good, being both agents of and witnesses to God’s common grace.
We are also to be witnesses to the truth. But what is truth? Pilate’s cynical question as he gave in to a baying crowd, handing over Jesus for execution without trial, has its echoes today. But truth has a way of commending itself. We are wise to be discerning and to seek truth.
It’s too easy to follow the patterns of the world around us, a world without a transformational vision where selfishness, cynicism and vilification descend like the evening on a moonless night. In that darkness all kinds of conspiracies and untruths feed fear.
The apostle John, one of Jesus’ closest followers and a witness to truth, nailed it in the opening of his account of those remarkable times (see John 1). The Word of God is a light that shines so piercingly that the dark cannot overcome it. Shining that light on the troubles of our time and pointing to hope: this is our purpose.
Summary of conclusions
- The public interest is served by measures that promote good health outcomes, reduce suffering, and maximise the good stewardship of finite health resources.
- To this end, public health and social measures including vaccination, quarantine, distancing, movement restrictions, mask-wearing and contact tracing are important and, used correctly, in the public good.
- These use of public health and social measures should be based on evidence, be proportionate to risk, and be equitable.
- As a Christian media organisation, we take seriously our responsibility to foster informed debate, hold authority to account, and promote the best ideals of democracy.
- Our benchmarks for this are the biblical imperatives of acting lovingly towards our neighbour, promoting justice and mercy, and working for human flourishing.
- We will pray for those in authority and urge others to do likewise.
- We are committed to discussion that is informative, fair, educative and not inflammatory, is respectful of all persons, and that will not promote hate speech, ridicule or vilification.
- We will encourage Christians to take part in community discussions in a like manner.
Our expectations of others
- We take seriously our duty of care to staff and volunteers. The standards we apply to ourselves are the standards we expect in others.
- When listeners and others interact with our staff and volunteers whether to provide feedback, express a contrary view or make a complaint they are required to do likewise, whether engaging by text, phone call, email, letter, or on social media.
- Any public-facing communication (e.g. Facebook comment) that does not respect these standards will be removed.
- Where texts or other communication with our staff offend these standards, they will be removed and repeat offenders blocked. Offensive and abusive correspondence will not receive a reply.
© Stephen O’Doherty 2021
References to this article must include the name of the Author and that it was written for publication by Hope 1032. Re-publication in part or full is not permitted without the prior written permission of Hope Media Limited.