On the Refusal to Capitulate to Suffering
Now they are calling it a once-in-a-century pandemic. But who knows how pandemic this relatively young century will become yet? Worldwide, more than 60 million people have been infected with Covid-19, and 1.4 million have died as a result. Between the time of writing this text and its publication, these figures will have faded from memory, giving way to higher numbers. We are living in dark times. It is an undeniable fact that the coronavirus is bringing suffering to almost all corners of the earth. Worldwide, people will emerge from this crisis marked – physically and psychologically, with their livelihoods under threat. Exhaustion and reluctance to comply are spreading. So far, few people have protested against the restriction of civil liberties aimed at preventing tragic triage situations in intensive care units. But here too, developments are fast-paced. Many societies could soon be put to a critical test if anti-democratic groups spreading conspiracy theories continue to gain ground. In some places there is already talk of “pandemic populism”.1
How well the crisis can ultimately be overcome will undeniably depend on our response to the respective infection situation, and, in particular, on pooling our strengths in the medical and nursing fields. The Bundeswehr is also making an important contribution in this respect. Thousands of military personnel have now been deployed, and for example are helping overburdened health authorities track infection chains. This focus on what needs to be decided in the here and now of the acute emergency situation is necessary. But it is also in danger of turning into a destructive short-sightedness – if the population stops accepting the sometimes painful restrictions, which many anti-corona measures undoubtedly are. Any such acceptance, especially when it has far-reaching consequences for many people, more than anything else demands good reasons. It seems far more necessary than before to promote a broad discourse in civil society as an effective means against the spread of the virus. This discourse should constructively address controversies, without provoking polarization or vilifying those who hold differing opinions. Another feature of this discourse would be that because of the fast-paced developments, admitting mistakes would be a sign of strength, not weakness.
In the face of the current pandemic, but also prompted by climate change and political upheavals, previously neglected questions of justice are becoming more pressing. I believe that the most important task for theologians at present is to demonstrate the extent to which, in regard to these global and epochal challenges, Christian theology can be considered not merely a provider of simple answers, but also a companion for reflection. Yet some people will ask, in surprise or irritation: Why should theology, a discipline whose social relevance seems to be on a permanent downward trajectory, have something to say? And why now of all times?
Probably the shortest answer is that theology, in talking about God, implies a refusal to accept things as they are. At present, in a way that has not been seen for a long time and which in this intensity is completely new to the younger generations, people in Germany are confronted with this question: How should the world change so that everyone can live well in it now, but also in the future? This question may not be as harmless as it sounds. Theology is in danger of either not letting itself be touched by this question, or of giving the impression that it always has the answers to hand. But a theology that is not seen to grapple with the questions of the time is one that discredits itself. It is by no means clear whether theology can raise its core concerns in such a way that it plays a valid and helpful role with regard to the urgent questions of the present. But one thing is certain: If theology fails this test, the crisis will undermine it and further erode its perception as a socially relevant force, as well as its influence on contemporary discourse. Let us for a moment imagine sand dunes, and picture how small plants prevent their erosion by taking root, holding the soil in place, and providing protection from the wind. In a similar way, with its words, this essay aims to do the same for theology.
In March of this year, during the first corona wave, Europe was paralyzed by grief and fear. In Italy, even the crematoria ran out of space because so many people died in such a short time. The image of a military convoy in Lombardy transporting hundreds of coffins – the dead of one day – made a deep impression on the iconographic memory of Europe. At the time, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben complained that the Italians were ready to sacrifice anything out of fear of infection – their normal life, social relationships and friendships, their feelings and political and religious beliefs. His compatriots’ only goal, as Agamben saw it, was to survive. His further remarks are of interest here simply because of one particular sentence which leads us to think about solidarity in the crisis: “The struggle for life and the fear of losing it,” Agamben wrote, “is not something that unites people but something that divides them and makes them blind.”2 In other words, when their own lives are at risk, people no longer think and act in solidarity.
Anyone who begins to reflect on the much-used concept of solidarity will be unable to avoid the initial question of whether Agamben might actually be right. Is it true that fear of infection undermines people’s solidarity with and for one another? Do they become blind to the concerns of others when they fear for their own lives? The first question therefore is whether Agamben’s claim turns out to be true. To answer this, we have to look to the findings of disaster sociology and disaster psychology.
Surveys show that the fears triggered by the pandemic change depending on the infection situation.3 In a Germany-wide representative survey conducted in October 2020 – at a time when the number of infections was rising very rapidly – 11 percent of respondents described their level of fear of catching Covid-19 as “very high” while 26 percent described it as “high”. (38 percent “not so high” and 24 percent “low”).4 In some people, the fear is very great and may even lead them to extremes of behavior. They find it difficult to escape the dictates of their fear, and become trapped in painful self-isolation. At the other end of the fear scale are those who ignore or suppress their fear, who may even think they are invulnerable and feel no fear; or who do not want to admit this to themselves and instead wish to demonstrate their apparent lack of fear as visibly as possible. Think, for example, of those people who refuse to wear a mask, or who deliberately break rules on social contact that are designed to protect others and prevent the spread of the virus. It seems obvious that both excessive fear and denied or non-existent fear tend to encourage selfish rather than altruistic behavior. However, psychologists point to much more complex relationships between feelings of fear, selfishness, altruism, reciprocity and empathy.
Fears – this much can be said – do not necessarily lead to selfish behavior. They can also cause people to show greater solidarity for each other. But researchers of fear also note that research still needs to be done on the question of when fear tends to promote solidarity, and when the opposite is the case.5 At any rate, the corona crisis has given rise to civil society engagement in an impressive way and shaped solidarity in different contexts. Rarely before has such a distinct and creative, such a vibrant willingness to help been seen as in the first months of the crisis. The willingness to temporarily forgo civil liberties or provide concrete help to protect at-risk groups has been high. Here the fear of infection – which always has a life-preserving element within it, since it prevents recklessness – seems to have assumed a function of not only reducing solidarity, but actually promoting it.
At the same time, however, the sociology of disaster points out that especially in a pandemic, where the threat comes from other people (as opposed to natural disasters, for example), there is a danger of solidarity turning into hostility. In this view, people have been showing an extreme urge ultimately to ensure only their own survival.
In the Judeo-Christian context, the connection between altruism and egoism is fundamentally expressed in the commandment to love oneself and one’s neighbor: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” says the Book of Leviticus, which Jesus quotes later on. For a long time, loving thy neighbor was primarily interpreted as being about unconditionally sacrificing oneself for others. But theology in the context of today’s discourses on care ethics faces the task of redefining the dialectic of love of one’s self, love of one’s neighbor, and love of one’s enemy. This is a task that can only be mentioned here, not pursued further. In view of the considerations above, we should instead turn to the question of the significance of fear in the relationship between altruism and egoism.
“Fear not!” – this exhortation is one of the central biblical imperatives. It extends across the whole life of Jesus. In the Christmas story, an angel in the field says this to the shepherds (Luke 2:10); and at the grave of Jesus, to the women (Matthew 28:5). In numerous encounters witnessed in the Bible, this imperative is recalled again and again. Fear is to be overcome by trusting in God and his promise of salvation for mankind. Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii gaudium: “The Christian ideal will always be a summons to overcome suspicion, habitual mistrust, fear of losing our privacy, all the defensive attitudes which today’s world imposes on us.”6 From a deep relationship of trust in God, this seems possible. In other words, faith can free the believer from fear for himself – as people of all eras have impressively demonstrated.
But if there were actually an inherent freedom from fear for oneself in all Christians, then many of those who have demonstrated this freedom from fear would not be venerated as saints. It is not for nothing that Pope Francis speaks of an ideal. Fear remains an open wound, a gateway to the loss of solidarity – even for Christians. “The storm reveals our weakness,” Pope Francis said in a deserted St. Peter’s Square, at the end of March 2020, about the world facing Covid-19. He referred to the frightened disciples in the boat who are caught out by the storm and called upon to help each other. Thus vulnerability comes into focus as a fundamental anthropological dimension, which people in the pandemic are confronted with on a daily basis. Christianity in a sense represents a single large exercise in the perception of vulnerability. In Jesus, “the experiences of suffering of the biblical tradition” are combined with “physical mistreatment to the point of brutal destruction, psychological fear and social isolation, doubts about one’s own ability to maintain one’s identity in this suffering (Mark 14-15), and panicky fear that this painful shattering of his life is a terrible encounter with a furious God.”7
Now the all-important clue as to what this suffering shows – and this includes first and foremost also the suffering of fear – is owed to, of all people, the one who did not (any longer) feel he belonged unconditionally to the flock of disciples. He who doubted and therefore was often chastised in the history of reception of Christian texts as an “unbeliever”. Thomas, as is told in the Gospel of John, asks to see Jesus’ wounds (John 20:24-29). Only after he has seen the wounds does this doubting apostle declare in all clarity to the Risen One: “My Lord and my God”. One could say that Thomas is a “figure by means of whom the narrator in John attempts to convey to the reader – and indirectly, to us – the path from unbelief to paschal faith”8.
But what happens on this path from unbelief to faith? As the Czech theologian Tomáš Halík puts it in his interpretation of the story of Thomas, only he who sees and touches the wounds of Jesus and in them the wounds of the world, and does not “capitulate to the fire of suffering” will recognize that God is alive.9 From the perception of fear and suffering, from being deeply touched despite all necessary physical distance, an exuberant solidarity has grown in the past months – not everywhere, but nevertheless in many places. This refusal to capitulate before the fire of suffering was and is the glimmer of hope in this time. Thus in a tangible and credible way, in the midst of the corona crisis, it would also be possible to talk of the aliveness of God.
1 This is the title of a study on Facebook posts of alternative news media relating to Covid-19: arxiv.org/abs/2004.02566 (accessed November 13, 2020).
2 Agamben, Giorgio (2020): “Nach Corona: Wir sind nurmehr das nackte Leben”: Gastkommentar. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, March 18, 2020.
3 Cf. e.g. https://www.polsoz.fu-berlin.de/ethnologie/forschung/arbeitsstellen/katastrophenforschung/publikationen/Schulze_et_al_2020_Vera_nderte_Wahrnehmung_der_COVID-19_Lage_von_Ma_z_bis_April_2020.pdf (accessed November 13, 2020).
4 de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1096524/umfrage/umfrage-zur-angst-vor-ansteckung-mit-dem-coronavirus-in-deutschland/ (accessed November 13, 2020).
5 Cf. “Angst ist ansteckend”. Interview with Jürgen Margraf, available online at: taz.de/Psychologe-ueber-das-Coronavirus/!5665965/ (accessed November 13, 2020).
6 Apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to the bishops, clergy, consecrated persons and the lay faithful on the proclamation of the gospel in today’s world. Available online at www.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.pdf (accessed November 24, 2020).
7 Zenger, Erich (1980): “Leiden, IV. Biblische Perspektiven.” In: Brantschen, Johannes B. et al. (eds.): Leiden. Gesundheit – Krankheit – Heilung. Sterben – Sterbebeistand. Trauer und Trost. Freiburg (Christlicher Glaube in moderner Gesellschaft 10) pp.27-36, 27.
8 Frey, Jörg (2011): “Der ‘zweifelnde’ Thomas (Joh 20,24-29) im Spiegel seiner Rezeptionsgeschichte.” In: Hermeneutische Blätter, pp. 5-32, p. 24.
9 Cf. Halík, Tomáš (2013): Berühre die Wunden. Über Leid, Vertrauen und die Kunst der Verwandlung. Freiburg, p. 22.
Dr. Katharina Klöcker is a theologian and journalist. In 2015 she became junior professor of theological ethics in the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Ruhr University Bochum. After studying Catholic theology in Tübingen, Paris, and Münster, she worked at the Catholic News Agency (Katholische Nachrichten-Agentur, KNA) in Bonn, initially as a trainee, then as editor. From 2004 to 2012 she was a research assistant in the department of moral theology at the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Münster. In 2009 she published her dissertation on the theological and ethical aspects of counterterrorism – “Zur Moral der Terrorbekämpfung. Eine theologisch-ethische Kritik.” Between 2012 and 2015 she set up and developed the theology career network office at the University of Münster.