RoundTable # 5: IEAB facing the COVID-19 crisis: theological and liturgical notes — Webinar Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil May 2020

Webinar — IEAB May 2020

Paulo Ueti[i]

Karibia — Come closer … photo by Paulo Ueti, Nairobi

“I believe in the resurrection of the body …”

First of all, I would like to thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to share this table with people so wise and compassionate. I am Paulo Ueti, theologian and Bible Scholar, member of this Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil, congregating in the Anglican Diocese of Brasília, where I live part of the year. I work for the Global Anglican Communion Office in UK, serving part of my time as Anglican Alliance’s Theological Advisor and Director for Latin America and another part as Assistant Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, especially attentive to our presence in the Hispanic, Lusophone and Francophone world. In my diocese, I have served for some years as a member of the Commission of Ministries. I am also member of CEBI — Ecumenical Centre for Biblical Studies, the Brazilian Association for Biblical Research — ABIB and the United States Society of Biblical Literature. I collaborate in our global office with the other departments and I was in the group for preparing Bible studies and homilies for the next Lambeth Conference.

My collaboration is to offer some thoughts to reflect on theological issues regarding the impacts of COVID-19. I will stay in the field of theology; I will leave the liturgy to those with more expertise in that field.

I want to start by addressing the obvious in our context. The bodies of our people and the environment in Brazil and in the world “groan and suffer” pain and violence inflicted by the religion of capital, its gods and ideo-theologies. In Brazil, you don’t need many details, we live in dark times of neglect, lies, blindness, false messiahs, fear, hatred and divisions. All of this is scandalous (stumbling block) and calls us to prayer and action as the body of Christ that is called to reveal the Kingdom and inaugurate a new time [kairos].

The experience of everyday life, the recognition that this experience “speaks” and listening to God from it are founding factors of our theology and Christian spirituality that leads us to the discipleship of Jesus, the Christ, the suffering servant. Discipleship that can only be prophetic or it is not true discipleship.

At this Easter time, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, the evangelical story about the Road/Walk to Emmaus (Lk 24.13–35) has a deep resonance. While the disciples, Cleophas and perhaps his wife Mary, walked to Emmaus on that first Easter evening, their hearts were filled with uncertainty, they were disappointed and traumatised by the experience of Jesus’ murder and the restless hope in the reports by some women, that Jesus was alive.

We too are experiencing a time of great uncertainty, fearful of the impacts of this pandemic that sweeps the world and horrified by its catastrophic consequences, especially on the majority of the population where many live at high risk and many are extremely vulnerable. And yet, as a paschal people, we are people of words and actions of healing and truth, we carry the hope of our faith that God is with us all, even in the dark shadows of this journey. There is light inside the tunnel, not just at the end of it. With John of the Cross, we can say that faith is an experience in the dark. As we walk this painful path, Jesus comes beside us and we know that one day, when this pandemic ends, we will be able to get together again to break bread, with our hearts burning, like that couple on the road to Emmaus. Sometime after that, even with the doors locked, because they were afraid of the Jews, in fact afraid of suffering the same fate as Jesus, he himself enters and offers his presence, his peace (John 20.26). Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8.38–39).

I was invited to share with you because of my global experience through my service in the Anglican Alliance. It was created in 2011 out of the recommendation of the Bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.[iii] The Anglican Alliance brings together the churches and agencies of the Anglican Communion to work collectively in service to the most vulnerable people in our world. Its specific role is to connect, inspire and strengthen the capacity of Episcopal and Anglican churches and agencies in the areas of sustainable development, humanitarian aid and advocacy, sharing skills and collaborating on common goals.

Since the beginning, the Anglican Alliance has been building relationships across the Communion. We have five regional facilitators and a regional director, who have developed extensive connections within their regions, and we work based on the Five Marks of Mission[iv] with other departments in the Office such as Gender Justice, Theological Education, Environmental, Women, Health, Family, Indigenous and Youth Networks, as well as with other Episcopal/Anglican development agencies.

One of the theological pillars of the Anglican Alliance is the statement that we are the Body of Christ. If one member suffers, all others suffer, if one member rejoices, everyone rejoices. We believe that the community is a sacrament of the Risen Christ. And together with Christian Aid, one of our partners, we believe that there is life before death too. And that is why these bodies desecrated and violated by capital and greed are sacred and need to be defended in the best way that we can.

In situations like this, we realise how theology or theologies are present in our daily lives influencing, ordering and controlling private and public life.

Some questions occurred immediately:

1. “what did we do to deserve this?”,

2. “why is this happening?”,

3. “where is God?”,

Other common statements we have heard:

1. “this is God’s punishment”

2. “it is an action of God to cleanse the world”,

3. “it is God’s will”.

In my opinion, these are questions and statements that come naturally, without thinking too much, as an immediate reaction to what is happening to us and the world in general. In order to find other questions and produce more positive statements, an effort is needed, intentional theological thinking is necessary. It is urgent to exercise curiosity and the ability to imagine possibilities, both, characteristics of ours that have been ignored and even repressed since we were children. These two behaviours, because they are dangerous to the established system, are systematically left out of our lives and our relationships. I think that is why Jesus, in one of His speeches in the Gospel of Matthew, says that only those who are like children will access the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 18.3). Children are curious and imaginative. They are bold and transgressive. They are strategists and have a natural tactical sense.

One of the first theological questions then for me is theology itself or theologies, it is a call to go more deeply into our thinking and acting to produce and reproduce theologies that align themselves with Jesus, His life, His speeches, feelings that were translated into actions challenging the political, economic and religious order that oppress people, in caring actions, sharing resources, and speaking words that heal, integrate, empower and save.

And for us, Christian people, theologies are intrinsically connected to bodies, to the materiality of life, its immanence and transcendence. Because God became a body and dwelt among us and we saw [experienced] His glory [His presence — the shekiná] (cf Jn 1.14). This is a very important theological underpinning within the Anglican tradition, the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, the poor friend and fellow traveller.

Rubem Alves reminds us of the main interest of theology:

I say that this is the only question that matters to theology: which word has the power to make love with the flesh? What is the word that rises from the dead”[v]

So, in these times of these words, pronounced by the president of Brazil when confronted with the deaths caused by COVID, “So what?”, “I am not a gravedigger” or “I cannot work miracles”, theology urges us to develop and/or revisit words and actions that show care, love, affection, concern, and commitment to establishing healing and liberating relationships. Theologies start from the bottom, with life, asking “How are you?” or “What are you talking about along the way” (Lk 24.13–35), or watching nature’s cry caused by the systematic rape it has been suffering for millennia.

And when we ask “How are you”? or “What are you talking about along the way”, we need to remain in the journey to hear the answer. If some reasons it cannot happen, be alert to the signs of death, violence, neglect and exclusion.

A second theological question is about inequality, a by-product of the internal logic of the capitalist and neoliberal systems that concentrate income and power in the hands and pockets of a few people. As Christians, we are called to struggle for and uphold equality, by sharing of resources and living a sustainable lifestyle, “though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body” (cf. 1Cor 10.17)

One of the central elements of Christian worship is the celebration of the Last Supper, or Eucharist, or communion, when we are invited to celebrate this world of sharing and commitment to the life we ​​produce, live and reproduce and also to be called to experience, produce and reproduce that kingdom of sharing, justice and equity.

One of the first accounts on the Eucharist, a supper in the Corinthian community, Paul urges those gathered in the house (Church) when they come together to celebrate, to remember the life, murder and resurrection of Jesus. We must be alert to it not being a simple drama, empty performance and a rite of repetition of gestures and words, so we can enter into the full spirit and movement of Jesus. When Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me” … (Lk 22.19–20) what is the “this”. What is it that is to be done? Short-sighted people (who do not wear appropriate glasses) unfamiliar with fairness and justice, would interpret it simply as repeating the architecture and the words of that moment with the disciples at the so-called “Last Supper”. People less myopic (or who wear prescription glasses) and are more attentive to Jesus, would understand that it was “to live as Jesus lived, speak as Jesus spoke, feel what Jesus felt, transgress as Jesus transgressed, challenge social norms and create new ones as Jesus did , to speak the truth to the constituted power that kills and lies to stay there, to meditate to gain strength as Jesus did so many times, to love unconditionally without asking, because He promises forgiveness to all people and not only those with sincere regret and live faith to Him are converted.[vi]

Paul told the Corinthians “there are so many weak and sick among you and many died” (1Cor 11.30), because the wealthier people who had arrived earlier did not wait for the poorer; those with less privileges were not taken into account, as they could not arrive in time for the meal. When the food runs out at a meeting for instance and there are still people in line, waiting, the responsibility does not lie with the kitchen workers or even the organisers , but with those who took their food first, not thinking of the other people who would follow after them and also need to eat.

The Lord’s Supper is a prophecy about facing inequality, neglect and injustice. It is the reminder that in public economic policy and social norms “there must be no poor among you” (Dt 15.4) and that if there is, “one of your brothers in one of your cities … do not harden your heart, or close your hand against that poor brother of yours, but be open handed to him them, and lend him lending him enough for his needs.” (Dt 15.7–8)

Our theologies exist to challenge those systems that cause poverty and suffering for the majority of the world’s population. What we say about God, religion and the Bible must take Jesus’ agenda: so that all people, and that means ALL people, have life (John 10.10), have Jesus joy in it and that it be in them fully (John 15:11). We must chant more and more forcefully the song of Mary so that liberation happens and the power of the few is overcome (Lk 1.56ff).

A third theological question that arises for me is about the Community. Christianity is fundamentally about loving God by loving your neighbour, making yourself close to those in need, accepting that we, too, need another’s presence. The Community is the House of God, the first sacrament of the Risen One in our midst. It is the place of horizontality, where nobody is greater than anyone else — what a challenge that is today (Mt 18.1–4); a place of safety, care and transparency for all people (Mt 18.5–11); a place of celebration — the feast goes on, my Bishop would say, because we did not remain in the one place, we go out to find what was lost and when we find it we celebrate together (Mt 18.12:14); a place of “not leaving anyone behind” and believing in them, of connecting and walking together (Mt 18.15:18 ), a place where our praise and liturgy make it all happen because we are the body of God in this world (Mt 18.19:20), a place of unconditional forgiveness of ourselves and of others (Mt 18.21–35).

Naturally, physical presence, hugging, touching, looking, sighing and body language can never be replaced. For us Latin people this is ontological. But, in these pandemic times where we have to exercise love for all people by remaining physically distant from them, for those who can, it challenges our Christian doctrine and our traditional theological perspectives. Who knows, it is an excellent opportunity to “go into deeper waters” (Luke 5.4) to do theologies outside the established norm and tradition and to reinvent oneself, exercising ways to remain faithful to the faith of the real presence of Jesus, the Risen One, in the community thinking new ways of being a community. We are already on the way, this is already happening, there is no going back.

The idea, and reality, of a global village is not new.

The Global Village is the concept coined by Canadian sociologist Herbert Marshall McLuhan to explain the idea that technological advancement tends to shorten distances, recreating the social situation that occurs in a village on the planet. By electronic means, people would be reconnecting in a globalised world. The concept was first proposed in the 1962 paper “Gutenberg’s Galaxy” (later expanded in “The Means of Communication as an Extension of Man”, 1964). In this context, McLuhan spoke mainly of television.[vii]

This concept applies perfectly in our reality due to the advancement of technology. Unfortunately, the reality of the “global village” is an unequal world which is only experienced by a privileged group of people who have access to technology. But this virtual community does exist, and we need to reframe and extend our concept of community faith to include it. A few years ago, churches and traditional groups criticised certain Pentecostal and Roman Catholic Charismatic groups for exercising this freedom to reframe the concept of community and the way to live the sacraments by transporting them to the virtual world of television, radio and Internet broadcasts. Now we are all in that environment. It’s good that we can always change our minds and adapt our practices.

A fourth theological question to consider, in my opinion, is to revisit the IMAGO DEI, which we are all, and we must mean all, share the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26), not only in form, but also in content. The incarnation of God in Jesus gives us confirmation of what we already knew before, when we assumed the tradition our Jewish brothers and sisters left to us in the the First Testament.

God made us bodies. God became a body. He became incarnate.

Body: image of God.

Body: our destiny, God’s destiny.

That’s nice.

Eternal divine solidarity with human flesh.

Nothing more worthy.

The body is not destined to rise to the spirit.

It is the Spirit who chooses to make itself visible, in the body.

And the body of God, Jesus Christ, expands, swells, taking the entire universe: “present everywhere, even within the smallest leaf, in each of the created things, inside and outside, around and inside of its veins, below and above, behind and ahead … “(Luther).

It is right there, in the body, that God and man meet”[viii]

This theological discourse states that all bodies are made in the image and likeness of God and so all bodies are precious, dear and desired by God. God became a Body, not only created one. We are taught, by the rite of baptism and the Eucharist and by theology, that being a person is something divine. Our finitude, limits, sickness, weakness, fear and sin are not impediments to God’s grace and salvation because of Jesus’ faith (Rom 6–8; Eph 2. 1–22); to say the opposite would, in my view, be blasphemy, a sin against the Holy Spirit.

It is part of the divinity breathed into humanity and in all of creation to welcome our light and shadow fully. The human body is not only the expression of our limitations, the shell/shape, the place of sin, as we have been taught for so many centuries. The human body is also the place of God, of the mystery, of the divinity that chooses this method and that place, the body and all bodies, healthy and sick, those that are embedded in social norms and those that are not, to be said — God in Jesus is a blessing — a good and beautiful word against all prejudices, definitions and eugenics. Against all the interdicts around bodies, sexualities, desires, limits, and diseases which are forbidden to even be pronounced, Jesus speaks words that disconcert. We are set out of our comfort zone.

This theology of the body is necessary because thousands of people are led to believe that their bodies are imperfect and not worthy of the presence of God, that their acts of deviation, what we call sin, turn them away from God or cause God to turn away from them, I would advocate this as blasphemy, anathema who says that. The pandemic reveals, once again the dark and violent characteristics existing in our being, as people are stigmatised, and endure violence due to testing positive for COVID or for working directly to fight it. Any theology of retribution abuses people psychologically and religiously, if not financially and materially, making them believe that suffering is God’s punishment for some sin or wrong act in life, again serves to exploit the most vulnerable population and enrich false prophets and messiahs without scruples or affection for the life of humanity.

A fifth theological question is our Christian responsibility. We are living in an apocalypse. This word causes us fear, because it evokes images of destruction and the end of the world. But that word and that literature in our tradition wants to lift the veil, to reveal what was once covered up. Apocalypse means revelation. Remove the veil. Understand better, acquire critical and analytical sense. This requires curiosity and daring to go further, to ask questions, to question what we see and receive.

This pandemic has revealed a lot to us, things which were already there, but sometimes invisible, overlooked or ignored. It underlined how undemocratic our world is. We are experiencing this situation from different perspectives. We do know that the best measure to contain contagion levels is to “stay home”. But many people cannot stay at home, for many people staying at home is not safe and many do not have a home to stay in. Another measure is to wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap. Many people do not have soap to do this, others do not even have access to water. It has revealed how insecure life is for many, and how suddenly something can paralyze the world.

But the pandemic has also revealed many positive things. It reveals our ability to look at people in need and find Jesus, hungry, naked, thirsty, sick and imprisoned. It has revealed our ability to be close to others using different means. It has revealed our immense capacity for solidarity. We have resources that we can share; we do not have to depend on external aid. It has revealed how professionals in our congregations can freely offer their time to help those who do not normally have access to them. It has revealed to the world how unprepared, inhuman and perverse this government that was elected in our country is.

Like Jesus in John 9, this pandemic has forced us to look on the street, beyond our field of vision, and to see people who are normally invisible, such as the LGBTIQ+ population, indigenous peoples, older people.

And now? There are still those whose response was: So, what? But for us Christian people, the answer to that “so what?” is to take up our responsibility as co-workers in God’s creation. It is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, inspired and rooted in the prophetic tradition, neither royal nor priestly, with respect to this theology, following His path of reimagining a world, a world where people are not left behind, where there are no invisible people, where there are no people with labels on their foreheads, where there are no people rejected for their sex, sexuality, skin colour, body shape, ideologies, place of work, etc. …

Our theology must serve to move forward, not to return to “normal”. The norm we live in does not fit. It is perverse, stratifying, violent and diabolical. The normal brought us here. Our theological speeches should help sustain movements to revisit our beliefs and our methods so that “His kingdom may come” and that God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

Our theologies must recognise and promote our call to be agents of change, to be agents of hope, to be agents of healing. Often healing need to happen not in people who have a disease or special need, but in those who look at them, accompany them and label them.

A sixth theological question is connected to the integrity of creation. Creation groans, as if in labour pains (Rom 8,22:23). I am a man and have no idea what this metaphor means in my male body. I can only imagine how this feels. This reading of Paul on life is very generous and helps people to recognise the connection we have with all creation (bond of love and responsibility — we came from the soil, we are ground-creatures) and to understand that groaning and pain are part of a process that will generate life and happiness.

Even as a man, I am able to hear the cries and moans that echo around the world. I also moan and cry. I am in solidarity with my brothers and sisters who are farmers and who can no longer predict/read the predict the seasons, to plan their work on the land. They are surprised by floods or droughts. The cycle of nature is no longer the same, it has changed. Glaciers are melting, the oceans are rising, and the global temperature is dangerously changing, life is at risk. Entire islands have already disappeared from the map, coastal cities are threatened by the advancing sea. Winters and summers are more extreme. Pollution is increasing every day. Forests are cornered, raped and threatened by the voracity of national and international corporations that seek only capital accumulation. Indigenous peoples and traditional communities are losing their land and their rights over mining and agribusiness. Economic and social inequalities are overwhelming and threatening human existence itself. The pandemic, positively, has given the earth time to breath and recover. This is a lesson to be learnt.

The growing impact of climate change, the uncertain and polarized political situation in many countries, with power in the hands of the world’s elite and multinational companies, make structural changes to reduce inequality a challenge. Even so, we believe that there are opportunities. Inequality is on the development agenda; violence against women and gender inequality are more present in the public debate than in recent decades and climate change and the urgent need to find alternative models of low carbon development must remain at the top of the global political agenda, regardless of geopolitical changes. The current regional and global context presents a difficult struggle to reduce inequality. The increasing effects of climate change, the increasing polarization and uncertainty in the political situation of many countries, the power in the hands of elites and multinational companies from all over the world, together with a reduced space in Latin America and the Caribbean where civil society can raise his voice are factors that make structural change a real challenge.[ix]

It is our job as theologians to prophetically revisit our way of approaching biblical texts and developing discourses based on them. Every reading (the way we approach the text), every proclamation (the way we give the text a voice when we read it aloud) and every interpretation (theologies, what we say about the text and our place of reading) is a political act , that is, it influences and “shapes” thoughts, images, behaviours, values.

For a long time, we have visited the text of Genesis 1 only as a founding text of our theologies of creation, looking at Genesis 2 as a complement to history or a text to be criticised for its patriarchal interpretation in relation to women. Choosing texts to interpret is a profoundly political and powerful act. It is essential to reclaim in our creation theologies that humanity is an integral part of it. We need more attention and work on the second account of the creation of Gen 2.4b-final, a text written and kept in memory by people exploited by the monarchy. In this text, unlike the first, we find a vocabulary and a theology of belonging to nature, there we are made from clay (fertile soil mixed with water), we are literally the “ground-creature”, product of the careful work of God (yes, God is portrayed as a worker, artisan) to give life to humanity from the mixture of fertile land and water. And He ordered us to “look after and cultivate the garden” (Gen 2.15). Even though Genesis 1 is still the best known, it is the task of theology that wants to produce life and connection to pay more attention to the second account than to the first.

This recognition that humanity is an integral part and maintains an interdependent relationship with creation as a whole is fundamental to structurally change the traditional view that nature is there to “serve us”, according to the text and many theologies spread from Gen 1.1–2.4a.

Again, every reading (the way we approach the text), every proclamation (the way we give voice to the text when we read it aloud) and every interpretation (theologies, what we say about the text and our place of reading) is a political act , that is, it influences and “shapes” thoughts, images, behaviours, values.

That’s why I’d like to suggest we these have on our intentional discipleship and hermeneutical agenda.

· Community — Connection

Read the sacred texts and do theology to connect people, to strengthen the day and to deepen the bonds of brotherhood and fraternity. The Church has been given the power to unite, not just to release, to exclude people. Let’s read in community, create hermeneutic circles so that we can hear more clearly what God wants for the world and how we can work together. Avoid dualistic and positivist approaches. The community is our place of healing, salvation, redemption.

· Resilience — resistance

Read the sacred texts to develop more resilient communities to face environmental crises that have a devastating effect on the life of the planet. Do theologies WITH (not FOR) communities, making them discover their own abilities, skills and dreams to follow.

· Mission — marked by the path of prophecy

Read the sacred texts to act, to share the Mission of God in an intentionally transforming and loving way, modelled by Jesus Christ and His project of a world where all people and life on the planet can be a new creation.

· Integration — with ourselves = with God

Read the sacred texts to face the fragmentation and the deceptive dichotomies that have been taught to us in the past, so that we can seek unity, to be ONE as God is ONE, to be interdependent as the Trinity is.

· Influence to change the social norms that harm and the structures that dominate.

Read the sacred texts to awaken people to their connection with mother earth, the sacrament of God too, violated and crying out for help. We return to our first call to be like Jesus who confronted, in community, the political and legal systems, the social norms of exclusion and privilege and the meritocratic and imperialist religion that corrupted God’s project.

I conclude, again remembering strongly that we are the people of hope against all hope (Rom. 4.18). Let’s hope …

How beautiful …

How beautiful and infinite are Your names, Lord God.

You are called by name

of our deepest desires.

Plants, if they could pray,

would invoke in the images of their most beautiful flowers

and they would say that You have the softest fragrance.

For butterflies You would be a butterfly,

the most beautiful of all, the brightest colours,

and Your universe would be a garden …

Those who are cold call You Sun…

Those who live in deserts

they say Your name is Fountain of Waters.

The orphans say You have the face of a mother …

The poor invoke You as Bread and Hope.

God, name of our desires …

As many names as our hopes and desires are …

Poem. Dream. Mystery.[x]

[i] Theologian and Bible Scholar, member of the Anglican Diocese of Brasilia, Brazil (Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil), working for Anglican Alliance and Theological Education Department of the Anglican Communion Office, member of the Ecumenical Centre for Biblical Studies — CEBI/Brazil and Brazilian Association for Biblical Research — ABIB.

[ii] Alves, R. Creio na Ressurreição do Corpo. São Paulo, SP: Ed. Paulus, 2006. Page 51

[iii] The Lambeth Conference is one of the 4 Instruments of Communion in the Anglican Communion.

[iv] Marks of the Anglican Communion Mission: Proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom; Teach, baptize and nurture new believers; Respond to human needs with love; Seek the transformation of the unjust structures of society, challenge all types of violence, and seek peace and reconciliation; Strive to safeguard the integrity of Creation, sustain and renew the life of the earth

[v] Alves, R. Lições de Feitiçaria. São Paulo, SP: Loyola, 2000. Page 11

[vi] Common Prayer Book of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil. Porto Alegre, RS: Printed by Paulus, 2015. Page 68.

[vii] According to https://escolaeducacao.com.br/aldeia-global/ Accessed on 05/10/2020.

[viii] ALVES, R. Creio da Ressurreição do Corpo. Meditações. São Paulo: Paulus, 2006. Pages 51–52

[ix] ChristianAid. (21 de Marzo de 2019). Conic. Source: Conic: https://conic.org.br/portal/files/Spanish The_Scandal_of_Inequality_.pdf

[x] Alves, R. (org.). CultoArte: celebrando a vida — Advent / Christmas / Epiphany. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1999. Page 17

Bible Scholar, Anglican Alliance Facilitator, Researcher on Biblical Studies, living in Brasilia — Brazil most of the time, traveling a lot.