FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC: WHY ARE WE SITTING HERE? by Metropolitan Alexander of Nigeria

Some of our readers have asked for the source of this article. Metropolitan Alexander submitted it to Orthodoxy in Dialogue himself for consideration after he saw Metropolitan Petros’ article introducing St. Mark’s Academy. They are not the first bishops to work directly with Orthodoxy in Dialogue. When we reprint articles from elsewhere we always link to the original source.
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Metropolitan Alexander (Gianniris) of Nigeria

I have to be honest. These two months of lockdown in the diocese, in response to the measures brought in by the Nigerian government, really tired me out—just the same as everyone else, every other Christian, every other member of the clergy. But what wearied me most, and continues to weary, trouble, and, I dare say, frighten me, is what surfaced in churchgoing people during this time. Conspiracy theories, fantasies, panic, hysteria, and phobias. Condemnation, rejection, threats, and who knows what else, of and against every peaceful and wise voice attempting to calm down and encourage those weaker than themselves. Patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, priests, theologians, university professors, ordinary reasonable people—all perfunctorily hauled in front of the firing squad by the long-known Maenads of the Church, both clergy and laymen. 

And what is most frightening of all is that everything that one has recently read on many Orthodox websites, both Greek and non-Greek, contains the same arguments, the same theology, as everything that is posted and claimed on Protestant, and especially Pentecostal, websites. International Christian Fundamentalism at work! Covid-19, by the grace of God and through the efforts of scientists, will sooner or later be overcome.

But as for the virus of fundamentalism, how will that be defeated?

Issues that had been carefully hidden under the carpet for years were brought to the surface by this pandemic. It grieves me that the Orthodox Church often shows itself to be naïve, inward-looking, incapable of grasping the messages of the times, or, to put it better, to live in the present time. Instead, it seems “detached from life and reality, it creates its own fantasy world, its own language, its own self-evident certainties, incommunicable uncertainties.”  It does not realize “how dangerous it is for someone to speak and to express themselves in their closed space, ‘in a world of their own.'”

The question with which all the Churches have been concerned during this period is the manner of administering Communion to the faithful, and that question alone.  And once again we have anathemas, condemnations, articles, accusations, and the fierce bullying of all those who dare to express opposing opinions to those of the “true “Orthodox…. From the comfort of their sofa and desk anyone and everyone thinks that they can tune in to what’s happening, understand the pastoral needs and specific character of every local Church, the struggle and concerns of every pastor (whether bishop or priest) who tries, in a responsible and genuine manner, to do the best he can for his flock. A great theological discussion has opened up in the Orthodox Church, and I believe that it will not be brought to a close easily in the post-Covid era.

Everything that I have said above, as well as the question of what must and can be done, the doubts and hesitation, everything with which I have struggled in my mind for so many days, seems to find an answer in a simple and, perhaps for many, insignificant story, depicted in the Fourth Book of Kingdoms (2 Kings). Samaria had for a long time lain under siege by the Syrians, and the situation in the city was tragic. For the first time in its history, the citizens within the walls had run out of food and water. The heads of animals were being sold to the wealthy at a high price, while poor mothers were confronted by the dilemma of which of their children would be eaten first! Outside the walls, rather than attacking, the enemy waited patiently for those inside the walls to die, because Israel had lost all its inner riches and strength, it had lost its energy and, above all, because it had lost its will to deal with the real problems with which it was threatened. Instead of this, they were going about their daily life waiting for God’s salvific intervention.

In all this, nobody noticed or paid any attention to four lepers standing at the gates of the city. If weak, marginalized, and rejected by the system, yet and despite this, these four lepers thought about how to deal with the situation and how to react.

One of them said, “It is pointless to go into the city because there we will surely die.” The second said, “Why are we sitting here? It is pointless to remain at the gates of the city. What good will this waiting do?” The third said, “Then we have but one choice.  To go to the camp of the Syrians and to give ourselves up, because there either we will escape and be saved or we will die.” 

A difficult decision indeed for any Israelite. They have to decide to abandon their old city and the chosen ones of God. They have to decide to walk in new lands. They have to decide if they wish to come into contact with idolatrous influences. The writer of Kings describes how the lepers walked forward in the dark. Then a wondrous event took place. God preceded their arrival with a loud noise, so loud that the enemy believed that the Israelites’ allies were coming to their aid. They fled their camp in panic, leaving behind their tents with all their belongings, and the tables laid. And when the lepers reached the place, they found not an enemy camp but, on the contrary, gifts, a blessing in the midst of the desert. Realizing the historic responsibility placed on their shoulders, they said, “We cannot remain here, we must return to the city.” 

And so, by the action of these lepers, the whole city, the whole community, was saved and renewed, and it became once more important throughout the world.

Throughout its historical course, the Church has often found itself besieged, as it continues to do so today. It is surrounded by the new needs of society, of which it forms a part. The Church finds itself at the “gates” once again! Just as with the lepers in the story, we are faced by three possibilities. We can go back to the city, to stay within the walls. We can stay where we are, at the gates, which is very convenient, acting as mere observers of present and future events. Or, finally, we can venture something new, provided that we have the will and resilience to go forward in the dark and uncertainty. To go forward as the nomads do, the first to go forth to places where others cannot and do not dare to go. As the late Professor Nikos Matsoukas said, “The Orthodox Church is the Church of exodus. The Church’s teaching, life, sufferings, faith in the Resurrection, and its patient struggles show that the nature of the Church is to find itself in a continual state of exodus throughout the dramatic course of history.”

Those who dare to come out of the walls are the real leaders of the ecclesiastical community. It is they who do not try to make the present viable but who struggle to make the future possible and real. Let us realize that, as spiritual leaders of a certain community, a diocese or parish, we owe no debt to yesterday or today, but to tomorrow, to the vision of a dynamic, living, inclusive Church, that is sensitive to the human condition, that also learns to live in the margins, so that it can embrace also those weakest in faith and those who are most vulnerable.

It is time to dare to come out of the walls of the city, turning away from the inwardness of the community, going forth to untrodden places, and carving out new paths, without fear of the Laestrygonians and the Cyclops of the moment.  This is the challenge and invitation of the Most-Holy Spirit.

Let us not forget the wise words of Professor Chrysostomos Stamoulis:

We are not afraid because we come from the bold, the daring side of history.

See the Coronavirus / Faith in a Time of Pandemic section in our Archives 2020.

Metropolitan Alexander (Gianniris), ruling hierarch of Nigeria since 1997, serves under the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Pastoral and Social Theology of the University of Thessalonica, former editor of the bilingual magazine Orthodox Approach and producer of radio programming for the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, and a former member of the South African Institute of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 

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