Back in 2011, director Steven Soderbergh released Contagion, a little thriller about a global fictional virus: MEV-1. With the world still reeling from COVID-19, this movie has received a lot of attention recently, jumping to the top of the charts on iTunes and other streaming services. Warner Bros. even announced that Contagion, which had previously been in the 270th spot in their catalogue of titles, had jumped to the number two spot.

This isn’t surprising, given the film’s painstaking attention to detail—detail which is all too familiar in light of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. In this early scene, Kate Winslet explains how viruses spread, while the team wrestles with all the questions that we face today with COVID-19.

Soderbergh gives us a front row seat as we watch an array of characters deal with the fallout of the MEV-1. We watch the CDC scramble to find a vaccine, while others, like the devious character Jude Law plays, use the virus for their own profit. We witness the kidnapping of a high-level World Health Organization worker by a small village that uses her to get itself first in line for the vaccine. We watch everyday citizens become prisoners of fear and victims of misinformation.

“Nothing Spreads Like Fear”
Beyond the film’s portrayal of the contagious virus, perhaps the most interesting thing about the story is its portrayal of fear. At one point, one of the characters even suggests that fear may be the greater virus. Fear indeed is a dangerous thing. In the film, people steal, kill, threaten, and lie—all under the influence of fear. MEV-1 in the film, and COVID-19 in our world, reveal a lot about humans. As one character remarks, the virus is “figuring us out faster than we are figuring it out.”

In the film, MEV-1 figures out humans in the sense that it reveals people’s greatest fears. In our own day, COVID-19 reveals where our trust ultimately lies. We live in a society that is dangerously dependent on science and technology. We believe that, given enough time, we can solve any problem, fix any issue, and cure any disease. But what happens when those systems of science and technology that are supposed to protect us from suffering break down? We have gotten so used to living like God doesn’t exist that when something like this happens, what response remains besides panic and self-preservation? And our frustration and angst grows the longer we have to deal with the virus. “Why haven’t we figured this out yet? How long will this go on?”

It’s easy for us to fall into the same pattern of placing our trust in the wrong things. However, as Christians, we have a better anchor of trust. Our faith is not in technology or science, but in God. Our hope is that there is life beyond the grave. Our hope is that because of what Jesus has done, a new creation is coming. Christians, then, do not need to fear death. This doesn’t mean that we reject science and technology, letting the world go to pieces around us since everything will be better in Heaven. On the contrary, this refusal to put our ultimate trust in science or technology, alongside our witness to God’s coming Kingdom, is exactly the thing that leads Christians back into the world. Throughout history, this hope has led Christians to work even harder for the good of this world: developing science and technology; establishing schools, hospitals, and ministries for the elderly, sick, and dying; and even risking their own lives for the sake of others.

Christians and the Plague
During these times, we would do well to learn from the early Christians. During the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second century, an unknown plague swept the empire. With people living in crowded cities in incredibly unsanitary conditions, and given the general lack of medical knowledge at the time, the plague was deadly. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, this plague wiped out “from a quarter to a third of the empire’s population.”¹

During that time, the safest course of action was to get out of the city. Indeed, many of the rich and powerful did exactly that, including the eminent philosopher/doctor Galen. The poor had no other option but to sweat it out. Unfortunately, many did not survive. The sick and dying were abandoned in the streets.

However, it was during this time that the Christian witness shone brightest. The Christians did not leave the cities. They stayed and cared, not only for other Christians, but for sick pagans who would otherwise have been left for dead. Some Christians inevitably died as a result of their service, but according to Dionysius, these Christians “departed this life serenely happy”² because they did not fear death. Their loving sacrifice was such that the fourth-century pagan emperor Julian would complain about how pagans had failed to care for their own people while Christians supported “not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”³ What compelled Christians to these incredible acts of sacrifice? Love. Love led them to action.

The Key Question
The question we face today is: how can Christians demonstrate the love of Christ in the midst of this pandemic? In a time where most people in the US have access to medical systems, this is going to look different then it did in the second century. We have to think carefully about how best to love our neighbors, which might very well mean doing things that we don’t want to do.

Now, it’s possible that what just came to your mind is the mask issue or government restrictions on social gatherings. As Americans, our first reaction to these things is likely to be to question whether our rights are being taken away. As such, wearing a mask has been turned into a political issue as widespread cynicism of government leaders grows. It is, of course, possible that there are people in places of government who may be using the pandemic for their own ends, political or otherwise; there are also probably people who have no idea what to do and so are issuing confusing and contradictory directives; and then there are probably a lot more who are just trying to do what they think is best to help us get through this troubled season. In the end, turning this into a political issue doesn’t help anyone, it just creates more turmoil.

As Christians, the key question is not, “How can I protect my rights?” Rather, it should be: “How can I show the love of Christ to my neighbor?” To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the question of rights is unimportant or doesn’t matter. I’m not suggesting that we turn a blind eye to perceived abuses of power or sit by idly while freedoms are being taken away. What I am suggesting is that the question of rights is subservient to the question about loving my neighbor. If we lose our freedoms, we’ll be ok. We can still be Christians and love our neighbors. Of course, part of loving my neighbor is looking out for their rights—so, I should care about protecting my neighbor’s rights just as much as protecting my own. But, if I am not most concerned with loving my neighbor, then the question of rights is really self-serving—in which case, we find ourselves acting contrary to Jesus’ teaching.

Other Considerations
In each situation I must ask, “How can I best love my neighbor?” For starters, that will mean focusing on the total health of a person. It’s not as simple as being for or against masks. For example, we might ask how constantly wearing a mask hampers genuine human relationships and communication. We know from the science of communication that our words communicate only so much. Many communication experts even suggest that 70-93% of communication is nonverbal. How is our communication breaking down? How might we be depersonalizing people by never seeing their real face? At the same time, there is good evidence to suggest that wearing a mask does help protect others. We do well to pay attention to medical science and to try to protect others as best we know how. We have to consider all sides of the question.

There are other factors, of course. We must consider the livelihood of those who need to keep their business running to provide for their families. This should never be turned into a “profits vs. people” equation. We also must consider those who don’t have the option of working from home. And what about the mental and emotional health of those who are at greatest risk and are still quarantined? What other issues might be arising from the social isolation that people are experiencing? Every situation requires that we think carefully about how to best love our neighbors where they are.

A lot of the conversations around these issues have not been charitable. As winter approaches and many fear another wave of the virus, we need to be there for each other—even those we don’t agree with. There is much that we can do. You could try finding at least one person who holds a different view and commit to having a respectful conversation with them about COVID-19. You could commit to praying for the people who are making tough decisions in government. You could reach out to someone in your neighborhood with a note of encouragement or go talk to them in their front yard.

COVID-19, like MEV-1 in Contagion, reveals where our trust is and what is most important to us. As Christians, we do well to reflect on these revelations and to bring them to God in prayer, acting however we can in the interest of loving our neighbors.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.