By Mteteli Caba
What comes to mind as I reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic is the question that Zedekiah asked Jeremiah: “Is there any word from the Lord?” (Jeremiah 37:17). That is so because I have grown to learn that as a Christian, my responsibility is to discern the message of God in every situation. My reflection is mainly on the Christian Church, and consequently the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary, as well as on the general peoples of the world. On the former, the question is what message is there to the church and the seminary, enveloped in the experience of the pandemic and the subsequent responses by governments? On the latter, the question is what ethical considerations should we make as individuals and communities?
THE QUESTION TO THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
Without a doubt, the coronavirus and the restrictions imposed by government in terms of social distancing and the like, have thrown the church into unchartered waters. 2020 will go down in history as a year in which the church buildings became useless for months, and more so a year in which the Good Friday, Easter celebrations and the preceding associated events were thrown into disarray. The inability of the church to congregate “for worship” will have serious consequences for her sustenance. It is so because we have only lent to give when we gather, and even worse, the possibility exists that our sense of spirituality and Christianity is invoked when we wear our church uniforms and set our feet inside the church walls. The question therefore is whether COVID-19 has not brought into question our understanding of being and doing church. Linked to this question is whether or not we have a clear understanding and conviction of what it means to be the ecclesia – “the called out ones.”
Forster and Oosterbrink (2015) ask this question more pointedly: “Where is the Church on Monday?” They rightfully submit that “if Christians were inspired and equipped to understand the potential that their presence, talents and abilities could make towards achieving the aims of God’s kingdom in society, we could see a new missional thrust emerging within the church. Sadly, very few South African churches have realized the potential of a theology and practice of ministry for the church in the marketplace” (Forster and Oosterbrink, 2015: 1). My attraction to their paper is that their understanding of the business and being church does not begin and end with praising and worshipping in a sanctuary on a Sunday. They seem to argue that the primary purpose of the institutional church is to equip the followers of Christ to becoming what God has designed them to become, so that they live as true witnesses of the faith wherever they are, particularly in the market place [and their homes]. This is what Rusaw and Swanson (2004) define as an externally focused church, I submit. Rusaw and Swanson (2004:24) submit that an externally focussed church is the one that is not limited to just proclaiming good news but is convicted to doing good works that make a positive impact on communities. May I emphatically add that such good works by the church should begin with entrenching a change of lifestyles, introducing new values and virtues so that members of churches become the yeast that influences the transformation desperately needed in society. That is what for me it means to be a church that is not doing social work but is in the business of kingdom building (Rusaw and Swanson, 2004:25). The essence of my submission in this regard is that the primary business of the church is in the making of disciples as commanded by Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19-20a).
The more the church is faithful in the carving of disciples, the better our world will become. Disciples will further know as a matter of conviction and commitment that the church of God needs to be fuelled in order to do the mission of God effectively. That resourcing will not only happen when we gather in sanctuaries and as a way of compliance. If the church is to suffer because of the effects of COVID-19, it will be because the church has failed in her responsibility of forming disciples – true followers of Christ. I do not discard the possibility of the decline in church resources because this pandemic has surely had a devastating effect on the economy of the land. In fact, what the church should be doing at this point is not just mourn about not being able to gather so that money is collected, but to reflect on how effective we are as the church, and how we are going to contribute in the re-building of an ailing economy. The fruits of the church doing this work well is that she will grow even stronger and become more effective in her missionary agenda.
The church dares not fail this time in doing her own self introspection. The church dares not miss this opportunity as she has done in other instances. We have for a long time been inward focussed and forgot what our core business is. This pandemic, and its consequent destabilising effects on the life of the church is for me a glorious opportunity to self-introspect, self-correct, and make the main thing the main thing, as Stephen Covey puts it.
The church cannot and should not make it her primary business to simply collect money from God’s people, whom she does not even show much care to whether they have it, how they make it and how they use it. The church must be concerned about the economic life of God’s people. The church must ensure that God’s people have dignity and value. Unfortunately, the systems of the church somehow make it impossible to prioritise the main thing, but instead force the reprioritisation of the work. What should be consequential becomes primary. By default, or by design, the primary role of ministers becomes to ensure that their congregations are able to pay the assessments due to the institutional church, so that they in turn are able to receive a stipend at the end of the month. May this opportunity bring the church, at all levels, to a realisation that we can and should do things differently.
THE QUESTION TO SMMS
There is no doubt that to institutions of learning, the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent restrictions imposed by the various governments as well as the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, will equally badly affect the life and work of SMMS. The negative effect will be both to the academic life as well as the Field Education and Ministry (FEM) and more so on the latter. I have no doubt that something will be done to respond to the challenge and its effects. However, like the question posed earlier to the church, I ask whether or not there could be a message from the Lord to the seminary. Of particular interest to me through this question is a reflection on whether we do not need to do things differently in the “forming of transforming leaders for church and nation” through FEM. For example, even when the lockdown is over, there could still be restrictions on how we behave, including the continued enforcement of social distancing. That will particularly affect our interaction with external stakeholders. Does this then not call us to redefine what we mean by field education and therefore redefine its constituent program? There are key questions that we would need to ask and answer if we are to faithfully and honestly respond to the main question, as a way of discerning God’s message in the context.
My last reflection point on the subject is what ethical questions are we being asked to respond to as we discern God’s message through and in this situation? In this regard, I wish to briefly reflect on two ethical philosophies: universal ethics and subversive ethics. The reflection on ethics is simply because the COVID-19 pandemic has touched directly the way we interact, the way we do things, and thus has called into question our ways of life.
On universal ethics, my attention is drawn to the deontological approach whereby one has to ask him or herself the question, “What is the right thing to do” under the circumstances? This situation calls for us to remain home-bound in the main and avoid being where it is not necessary to be.
Without suggesting that we are facing this pandemic as a wrath from God, I however am in agreement with Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy on ethics that our response to it requires the use of reason. Thomas Aquinas argued that “our reason allows us to derive the natural law from the basic goods and that right acts are those which are in accordance with natural law.” The Wesleyan approach in responding to situations in general is the Wesleyan Quadrilaterals wherein the springboard is the scripture, followed by tradition and experience and then reason. In a situation like this, we therefore cannot afford to behave like headless chickens, each doing as each pleases. Reason should dictate that some precautionary steps need to be taken if God’s people are to be saved from this pandemic. Thomas Aquinas argues that all of us have the capacity to reason as an inherent attribute. One may, however, decide to ignore reason as it has been found to be the case in some instances during this lockdown.
Secondly, the concept of subversive ethics comes to play, particularly when some of us choose to ignore reason. Joseph Fletcher gives us three approaches to subversive ethics: legalism, antinomianism and situationism. I do not subscribe to antinomianism as it seems to suggest a free-for-all approach. Clearly, the times we are in do require a responsible government to put in place a legal framework that will guide and protect the citizenry. The situation therefore has called for government to develop appropriate legal measures through which the COVID-19 pandemic will be contained. For that, we must commend the various governments and leaders of churches. They have all shown responsible leadership.
In conclusion, it is my considered view that the era we find ourselves in is a Kairos moment, an opportunity we dare not miss. It is an opportunity for the church to reclaim her prophetic witness and ministry, not only through proclaiming what the Lord is saying to all of us. I agree with Wessel Bentley when he submits that when it comes to prophetic action, the church needs to recognise that it has a vital role to play in the building of local communities, in a way the state cannot. The state lacks the short-term capacity to reach communities and effect change at grassroots level; it is simply too far removed from people’s daily realities. That recognition will begin with the equipping and forming of clergy who are able to discern the times and the word of God through and in the events of those times. It will continue with those clergy persons being convicted that their primary role in the institutional church is the giving to society a people who are well equipped to become a yeast to transform society into the Kingdom of God.
I strongly believe that discomforting as these times may be, unsettling as they may be, and disruptive as they are in our way of doing things; these are the times for us to discern the word from the Lord. It just might be that we are called to do things differently, for the sake of God and God’s church.
 In Forster D. and Oosterbrink J. 2015. Where is the church on Monday? Awakening the church to the theology and practice of ministry and mission in the marketplace. In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi, 49(3), 8 pages. doi:https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v49i3.1944
 In Rusaw R. and Swanson E. 2004. The Externally Focused Church. Loveland, Colorado. Group
 Fletcher J. 1966. Situation Ethics. Philadelphia. Westminster Press
 In his paper titled “Defining Christianity’s “prophetic witness” in the post-apartheid South African democracy”