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Thu 4 June 2020
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Reverend Joe Haward laments the lack of religious leadership in the UK during the pandemic, particularly in speaking truth to Nietzschean ideas of power.

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There is a touch of irony regarding the deafening silence that echoes out from the UK Church over the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Christian tradition has taught how the voice of God can be found within the silence. Perhaps Christian leaders are waiting for a holy reverberation before they highlight the catalogue of failures by this Government, failures that have led to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people? 

Silence, at this moment in time, is not a divine gift, but a moral tragedy. 

Martin Luther King Jr was sharp in his criticism of “moderates” who refused to stand up against the persecution and injustices committed by state and government against the Black community. But he believed truth crushed to the earth would rise again. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) was a German pastor and Nazi resistor. He was murdered by the Nazis on 9 April, 1945 at Flössenburg camp for his stand against Hitler and The Third Reich. He lamented how easily the church adjusted itself with power and nationalism. 

“Christianity has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should . . . take a much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.” London, 402-3

Bonhoeffer saw the church capitulate, yet continued to urge it towards its true calling of justice. “There is no peace unless justice and truth are preserved. A peace that violates justice and truth is no peace,” he wrote in The Church is Dead.


Speaking Truth to Power

The UK Church must speak truth to power, especially as the reality of the Government’s failings become ever more apparent with new evidence emerging.

On 13 March the World Health Organisation (WHO) Executive Director Michael Ryan said that the key to any virus containment is for countries to act fast to stop the train of transmission. He said you need to “go after the virus,” “be the first mover,” “the virus will get you if you don’t act quickly.” So large scale testing, tracing, and containment. That’s how you beat it. Everything our Government has failed to do. The UK death rate from this virus is one of the worst in the world, and it didn’t need to be this way.

South Korea had their first ten COVID-19 deaths on 25 Feb. Mass testing had started there three days earlier. The first ten deaths in the UK happened by 13 March. The day before the Government had stopped all testing and contact tracing in the community when 459 cases had been confirmed. By 23 March, when lockdown started, confirmed cases had risen to 6726, yet within communities the figure was much much higher.

On Sunday 19 April, at the daily press briefing, deputy CMO Dr Jenny Harries told us “the link between testing and deaths is not clear”. The evidence suggests otherwise. The advantage of speed of action is clear. South Korea’s test and trace policy brought their epidemic under control within three weeks, with just 244 deaths. Greece imposed a national lockdown before their first death and has had only 136 deaths. The UK stopped testing in the community too early, and the delay between the reporting of the first ten deaths and national lockdown was 10 days. These delays allowed the epidemic to explode.

On 3 February Boris Johnson delivered a speech in Greenwich to business and industry leaders where he warned “that new diseases such as Coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation” and claimed that “humanity needs some government somewhere . . . some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”

There was little doubt he was referring to the UK. “And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role,” the Prime Minister concluded.


Superman Rhetoric

This speech helps to shed some light upon the Government’s response to COVID-19. It is no secret that Dominic Cummings is a big fan of Nietzsche, and the reference here to Superman should not be lost: Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” (Superman) was his human ideal; humans are not equal within Nietzschean thought. Johnson’s speech gives us the first glimpse into the Government’s herd immunity policy for pure economic gain. 

In January the UK Government saw the unfolding global crisis as a minimal threat to the UK. In February the Government regarded COVID-19 as a “nasty flu,” and by the beginning of March it was a problem that could be solved by washing our hands.

As the weeks unfold the phrase “herd immunity” was more widely used in interviews with the media, to much criticism

Failure to test, trace, and isolate, insufficient supply of PPE, a failure to grasp the seriousness of the growing crisis, one of the worst death rates in the world, a push for herd immunity, and the scandal of deaths within care homes; the Government has failed its citizens.

The dominant voice of power can “numb” us, creating apathy, shrinking our imagination, removing the voice of the powerless. It is a narrative of British exceptionalism and nationalism, a refusal to allow truth to rise. Yet thousands continue to die unnecessarily, and the Church has a responsibility to scream at the injustice of it all.

The call to love our neighbour demands that we do not cross over the road to avoid controversy, but that we meet the scandal of oppression and injustice directly. Truth matters, and the UK Church has a responsibility to speak it in times such as this.

Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain.


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