Rereading Paul's Letter to Corinth Amid 1 Million U.S. COVID Deaths | Sojourners

Rereading Paul's Letter to Corinth Amid 1 Million U.S. COVID Deaths

Earlier this week, the United States surpassed a staggering one million deaths due to COVID-19, according to an NBC tally. I pray for everyone grieving the loss of a loved one; given the tragic reach of this virus, I suspect these prayers include all of us. Despite this unfathomable milestone, the virus no longer dominates headlines, even though the country is likely headed into another surge, with cases rising in many regions after a two-month decline.

A few weeks ago, just before my church’s Easter service, I tested positive for COVID-19. The results derailed our family’s plans to experience in-person worship with Alfred Street Baptist Church for the first time together in over two years.

While not even coronavirus could erase my resurrection Sunday joy, the illness felt like a minor test of faith: I feared I’d give the virus to my wife and kids; I didn’t know whether being sick would disrupt my much-anticipated travel plans. I knew I was blessed: fully vaccinated, boosted, and — after a couple of days of aches, fever, and cough — feeling fine and able to work from home while I quarantined for the recommended period. Yet I became increasingly exasperated and ready to get back to my life. The emotional, physical, and spiritual roller coaster of those 10 days felt like a microcosm of what our nation has been through over the last few years.

Much of our nation seems to be done worrying about COVID-19 and is ready to get back to life as normal. Meanwhile, we’ve stopped talking about the deep racial and socioeconomic inequalities that the pandemic revealed and exacerbated. But we can’t afford to return to a highly unequal and broken old normal.

Since the pandemic upended life as we knew it over two years ago, I have found the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth particularly instructive. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul provides one of the most poignant metaphors in all of scripture, comparing the health of the church to that of the human body — a comparison that also applies to the health of our broader communities, nation, and world. Writing to a church that was embroiled in bickering and division, Paul offers three powerful prescriptions on how to heal a broken and ailing body. He emphasizes that we must show equal concern for one another, treat our weakest members as being the most indispensable, and always remember our interdependence as we advance the common good — for “when one part suffers, all parts suffer with them.”

These instructions provide a critical moral framework and practical blueprint that must guide our continued response to COVID-19, especially as the virus transitions from a pandemic — in which the virus spread quickly across multiple countries — to an endemic disease that is consistently present, but in more targeted areas. In this transition, we must resist the temptation of selfish individualism and instead prioritize the common good by showing special attention and care to those who are most vulnerable due to preexisting conditions. Even when the virus is officially declared endemic in the United States, we will still need continued leadership, resources, and sound policy rooted in science that can help mitigate the impact of the virus and allow us to adapt to its ever-evolving strains.

Despite President Joe Biden’s repeated requests this spring for $22 billion in domestic and global COVID-19 funding for continued access to vaccines, testing, and treatment, Congress has failed to act. Short-sighted and myopic leadership will further enable variants to thrive and jeopardizes so much of the progress that we have made at such a great human and economic cost. Lack of funding will debilitate our nation’s COVID-19 response as the government will be unable to provide additional boosters for those in need and will likely run out of tests and treatments.

USAID Assistant Secretary of Global Health Atul Gawande sounded the alarm in March about what discontinued funding means for our global response, arguing that:

Without more funding, we would have to halt our plans to expand the Global VAX initiative. The United States would have to turn its back on countries that need urgent help to boost their vaccination rates. And many countries that finally have the vaccines they need to protect their populations would risk seeing them spoil on the tarmac. We can’t let this happen. It not only endangers people abroad but also risks the health and prosperity of all Americans. The virus is not waiting on Congress to negotiate; it is infecting people and mutating as we speak.

Most recently, the Biden Administration has asked Congress to include $10 billion in additional COVID-19 funding to be combined within an aid package for Ukraine, but partisan bickering has stalled those efforts. 

With the president’s leadership and the consistent bipartisan support of Congress, the United States has delivered more than half a billion coronavirus vaccines to 114 lower-income countries free of charge, a historic accomplishment. This example spurred contributions from other wealthy nations and contributed vaccinating of almost 60 percent of the world. Yet if we want to save countless lives by limiting the ability of the virus to mutate into more dangerous variants, we can’t stop here. We must continue to push our elected representatives to prioritize getting lifesaving vaccines into arms in the least vaccinated nations.

The church has critical role to play as we navigate the unpredictable transition from dealing with a pandemic to learning to cope with an endemic disease. It’s critical that congregations not abandon their most vulnerable members in efforts to resume in-person services. There are many immunocompromised and otherwise medically vulnerable parishioners who should not have to choose between their safety and their desire to worship God in community with their fellow believers. Maintaining virtual and hybrid options as long as they are needed is critical for churches to show that they value every part of the body of Christ.

Throughout the pandemic, federal programs provided housing support, food assistance, and other aid to struggling families. As these programs end, congregations must stand in the breach and strengthen programs that care for the people in their midst who are most vulnerable. It’s equally important that we look beyond the boundaries of our communities and this nation and advocate that Congress approve desperately needed funding for a domestic and global response to COVID-19. Just as the whole body suffers when one part suffers, Christians cannot ignore fellow children of God in nations where the supply of vaccines, tests, and effective treatments for the virus remain scarce. While COVID-19 fatigue is real and understandable, I’m prayerful that as we honor the over one million lives lost in the United States and the millions more around the world, we will also commit to building a more just and compassionate new normal.