THE pandemic has brought deep suffering and loss to the most vulnerable people. Theologically, we have had to wrestle with where God is in the midst of suffering, and how best we can deal with the difficult spiritual dimensions of lockdown, social distancing, and anxieties about infection and death. At the same time, crucial issues concerning race have emerged around the world.
The connections between the pandemic and race are complicated, but one connection may be going unnoticed. I was reading a book by the psychologist Mark Schaller on the behavioural immune system (BIS), as he calls it. This system is a cluster of psychological mechanisms that allow organisms to detect the presence of harmful disease, parasites, or disease-ridden substances. When you recoil from a foul smell or an unpleasant-looking pustule, it is this system that has clicked into action. Its origins are in the evolutionary need to distance ourselves from potential danger.
This system can, however, be overly sensitive, and can be easily hijacked into thinking that certain groups are unclean and to be avoided. This could indicate that anxiety about the coronavirus may be heightening certain biases. The use of the term “Chinese virus” specifically associates certain people as unclean, and has led to some horrible manifestations of xenophobia against East Asian people.
Again, the medical fact that BAME people are disproportionately affected by Covid- 19 may well have social consequences if such talk stimulates fear of infection and negative social distancing. The virus does not cause racism or xenophobia. It does feed into it. If we develop a cultural imagination that sees one group of people as more diseased than another, we can easily lay the foundations for dangerous responses and toxic politics. The virus does not cause toxic politics: chronic anxiety and insecurity, however, can provide an ideal context for noxious politics.
Amid current anxiety and the unusual cultural stimulation of the BIS, we are called to be like Jesus. Jesus responded to those living with culturally stigmatised illnesses such as leprosy not by recoiling from them or stigmatising them, but by moving towards them. He pushes beyond “natural” responses, cultural barriers, and political assumptions towards the person behind the condition.
We are not bound by our biological impulses. When we think about how best to love our neighbour during a pandemic, we need to learn how to be with, and to talk about, one another in ways that bring healing and not fear. Presence matters. Words matter. Words create worlds.
The Revd Dr John Swinton is Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at the University of Aberdeen.
Angela Tilby is away.