SEVENTY-FIVE years ago, VE Day marked the end of a period of great suffering and turmoil. This year, it falls amid one of the biggest crises the world has seen since 1945. After VE Day, the UK had the hope, vision, and unity to reimagine society and build the NHS. As we move slowly towards coming out of full lockdown, what future will we imagine, and what will we do to build it?
Churches can play a vital part in helping society to answer this question. Although our buildings may be closed, many have adapted quickly to serve their communities with food-distribution networks, phone banks for the isolated, online pastoral support, and much more; and we’ve seen huge numbers engaging online: a survey published last week suggested that a quarter of UK adults had tuned in to a religious service since lockdown began.
For many years, Tearfund has walked alongside communities around the world as they respond to disasters, and we have seen the crucial part that local churches play as communities rebuild. This crisis has held up a mirror to society and revealed aspects of brokenness that were often previously disregarded, but the church can demonstrate that a different way forward is not only possible, but a better option for everyone.
In the words of Dr Vinoth Ramachandra, one of the senior leaders of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), “just as a receding tide exposes the debris that we would rather not see, the virus has exposed the deep health and economic inequalities within rich nations, as well as between nations. Poor economies are on the brink of collapse. And it is the poor and vulnerable communities within the rich nations that have been disproportionately affected.”
Our relationship with the natural world is also under the spotlight. Our destruction of the natural environment has made it more likely for viruses to jump species and get into humans in the first place, and research suggests that those breathing the most polluted air are more likely to die. Covid-19 is not a natural disaster, but a disaster largely of our own making.
The crisis has also revealed some of the best of humanity, however. Around the world, communities are displaying an incredible capacity for sacrificial love, courage, and kindness. Medics, food-industry workers, and care staff are going the extra mile, and, through street-level initiatives, millions of us are exploring what it means to love our neighbours.
In fact, I believe that we are beginning to see values emerge that could shape a brighter future for us all:
1. From “I, alone” to “We, together”. Our interconnectedness and our need for one another has never been clearer. In the UK, there has been an extraordinary surge in volunteering, creating new expressions of community, and weekly celebrations of vital ‘key workers’. Globally, the rapid spread of the disease has also demonstrated how the health and well-being of just one of us has implications for us all. We are deeply connected with one another and with the whole of creation.
2. From valuing economic productivity above all to valuing life. In response to this crisis, we have seen those without homes being housed and communities coming together to make huge sacrifices to save lives, demonstrating a shift to valuing life over productivity.
3. From small tweaks to a new way of being. Many are beginning to realise that we have a chance to reshape culture and society. More and more people are joining this conversation, and there is an appetite for real change. In a recent YouGov poll, only nine per cent of respondents said that they wanted life to return to “normal” once the lockdown is over. We have seen that we are capable of adapting fast as human beings and as a society: fundamental renewal feels possible, and examples of this reshaping are popping up in Milan, Amsterdam, and elsewhere.
As a Christian, I believe that God’s intention is for peace, for ‘shalom’. This transcends our modern notion of peace to include ideas of wholeness, balance, and tranquillity: everything in its place, everyone connected in right relationship — the antithesis of chaos; a world reflecting back the love and beauty of God.
This crisis might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape society more towards this vision, but it is not guaranteed. We could easily fall back to the old normal, and forget the injustices that have been exposed. We could even go in a dangerous direction, where lockdowns result in a rise of racism and division, inequalities are worsened, those with the least are forgotten, and the economic stimulus package prioritises polluting industries.
Or, we could truly embrace the three shifts that we see emerging. We could live in the knowledge that our decisions affect everyone else and refuse to define people by their economic value or social status, instead valuing them as made in the image of God. We could pursue economic-recovery measures that fast-track action against the climate emergency, protect the vulnerable, and create greater global solidarity. We could reboot the world in a way that reduces the racial, economic, and other inequalities which have been exposed during the crisis.
ULTIMATELY, this choice is up to all of us. Crises of this scale give us, as a society, the rare opportunity to ask questions about who we are and about our place in the world. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his Easter sermon: “After so much suffering, so much heroism from key workers and the NHS, we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all is normal. There needs to be a resurrection of our common life.”
In the past, Christians have, so often, been central at moments of social renewal — from the abolition of the slave trade to the civil-rights struggle, to the Jubilee 2000 debt-relief campaign. We have a similar opportunity now. VE Day heralded an era of global reimagining and reconstruction. Seventy-five years on, what part will you and your church play in this great reshaping of society — locally, nationally, and internationally?
At Tearfund we have launched a new toolkit for church leaders and their congregations to prompt discussion about this among your friends or in a small group. The toolkit will help you explore how we can each play our part in shaping this big reboot of our society and economy. For more information, please visit www.tearfund.org/reboot and let’s work towards this new future together.
(This blog post first appeared as an article in The Church Times on 8 May 2020.)
Image: Volunteers pack supplies for vulnerable people at a food-distribution hub in London, last month.