How will COVID-19 change the world?

Last week I wrote a piece noting 7 (possible) trends for Churches that are emerging through the COVID-19 pandemic. In this piece, I am thinking more broadly about culture and society, rather than specifically about Churches. In regard to the future of Christianity in Australia post-COVID-19, I am circumspect, trusting the Sovereignty of God and the power of His Gospel, but also noting limitations of people’s ability or willingness to change.

Without the Holy Spirit sanctifying minds and hearts, we are even less likely to choose positive change. Of course, I believe in God’s common grace that he pours out onto the world and which is received by believers and unbelievers alike. Where human progress and good achieved, we should be thankful for the evidence of this grace. As political analysts, economists, and social academics, begin to theorise about ‘what next’, what should we be thinking? Will the world change or not?

For the sake of avoiding a public stoning or being held up as a prophet of sorts, let me be clear: I don’t know what Australia will look like in 2021, let alone in July 2020. There are more variables at play here than in predicting what the weather will be like in Melbourne on any given day.

For example, no one knows what this virus will do next. Will it dissipate with time or with a change of season? Will it morph into new and more deadly strains? Indeed, there is a growing suggestion that we may not transition into a post-COVID-19 world, but rather, we may have to learn to live with COVID-19.

It is also unclear what Governments are aiming to achieve. Two months ago the objective was to flatten the curve so that our health system wouldn’t be overwhelmed. This didn’t mean more people wouldn’t catch COVID-19 but that we would slow the spread. However, toward the end of April, the rhetoric began to change, suggesting that we might eradicate COVID-19 from Australia. From my humble perspective, surely this requires either 1. long term social restrictions (including keeping national border closer indefinitely), or 2. reaching herd immunity, or 3. finding a vaccine. Depending on which immunologist or epidemiologist we listen to, a vaccine may be available as early as late this year, others suggest sometime 2021/2022, while other experts are more circumspect and are raising the possibility that an effective vaccine may never be found. It is important for Governments to be transparent with the people about what their objectives are as they look to the future.

There are two obvious conclusions that we can draw thus far. First, even the experts have little idea where we will be in 6 months time,  in terms of fighting the disease, social health, and global and local economics. Second, built into this pandemic, including responses made by Governments across the world, are some long term changes to society.

COVID-19

 

The new will be like the old

Predicting the future is a dangerous task and usually ends with inflations, conflations and misinterpretations. Looking forward is however an important step for making decisions today. We want to avoid crazy conspiracy theories like the plague, but are there indications of what tomorrow may look like?

As a Christian, I believe in listening to the experts. Scientists, economists, and psychologists are important voices to be listened to in this crisis, along with our political representatives. No one is suggesting they won’t make mistakes or that their agendas are pure as snow, but it is nonsense to ignore professional advice. As a Christian, I am also guided by Scripture, which sets our expectations for life and teaches us how to live in the midst of life’s myriad seasons.  For example, in Jesus’ famous apocalyptic sermon in Matthew ch.24, he describes life in the world between his first and second comings. He says,

“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”

If you think that these words are like the world today, as well as the world 6 months ago or 20 years ago and 200 years ago, you would be correct. Wars and natural disasters are not signs of the imminent return of Christ, but a description of the pattern of life that will be experienced until He returns. That means, events like a pandemic are not fuel for conspiracy theories and they are unlikely to be the great catalyst that fundamentally changes the world. This is an extraordinary time for us living through COVID-19 but it is not so out of place in the broad sweep of history. Such events have happened before and will reappear in the future. Whether it is disease or economic disaster or armed conflict, these things remind us that we live in a fallen world, filled with uncertainty and sin and death.

It is worth noting that in his apocalyptic sermon, Jesus tells us not to be alarmed by such events. God hasn’t been taken by surprise. He hasn’t let go of his Sovereign hand over the universe.

 

The new will also be different.

I suspect many people would like to see a return to the old normal; it is familiar and safe. Others are preaching that this is the time for radically reorienting society. For example, Leader of the Australian Labor Party Anthony Albanese this week announced a “Vision Statement on Australia Beyond the Coronavirus”. He has said that this is a ‘once in a life time opportunity’ to redefine and redirect Australian society. Which will it be? A return to normal or will a radically different Australia energy from COVID-19?

 

Here are 5 aspects of life that are likely to change due to COVID-19.

1. Socialising

While many people are eager to return to face to face relationships, others are reluctant about entering someone’s home let alone offering a hug or handshake. It is quite possible for two opposing trends to coexist and I suspect we’ll see both these attitudes running juxtaposed.

Given the 3 Stage plan to recovery that the Federal Government announced (and note that Stage 3 is far from what we can describe as normal) any return to usual socialising will take longer than many wish. We are not talking weeks or even months, but perhaps a couple of years. This will take a toll on people’s wellbeing, and it will seriously aggravate mental health issues. On May 15th the Federal Government have recognised this and so announced a $48 million Mental Health package to help with this endemic emerging in our suburbs and streets.

Human being are social beings. We need interpersonal contact and relationship for our mental health and for community strength. We should be patient and understanding with friends who are slow to take up invitations to meet in person. We also need to encourage a return to in-person relationships.

There is a cost attached to letting people congregate together and there is a cost for keeping people apart.

 

2. Unprecedented Government spending and debt.

State and Federal Governments are spending and handing out staggerings sums of money. In the space of two months, $100s billions have been committed to keeping the economy afloat during the pandemic. The forced closures of businesses and schools and communities have required Governments to step in with financial assistance, but it all comes at a cost.

There are already voices calling for some of these initiatives to remain permanently, including paid child care and the job seeker allowance (which has been doubled temporarily). This leads to deeper questions about how we want society to be structured and the role of Government.

The day is coming when we will have to pay off this debt, either with higher taxes or with austerity measures, or a combination of both. We are blindsiding ourselves if we don’t appreciate that this is likely to have long term and significant impact on employment levels, housing affordability, investments, household spending, and the viability of many thousands of businesses, community groups, sporting clubs, and churches.

 

3. Our dependence on China must change.

China isn’t an ally, she is a trading partner and a geopolitical competitor. The rise of China has been a gift to Australia and also a danger. There are enormous trade and economic benefits from the relationship, but have we been ignoring the costs?

I think the Australian Government is right to be asking serious questions of China’s role in the Corona Virus pandemic and to demand transparency. China’s evasiveness throughout the pandemic has once again demonstrated that this Communist State should not be trusted. Let me be emphatic, I am not talking about Chinese people, but the Government of China, which is a totalitarian and oppressive regime with a long record of dishonesty and human rights abuse.

China’s role in covering up the true extent of the Corona Virus and their influence over the World Health Organisation (WHO) is far from the worst of it. 1 million Uyghurs remain locked away in ‘education’ camps in northwestern China, Christian Churches are continually oppressed and Christians arrested, and there is China’s growing interference in Hong Kong and their military expansion in the South China Sea.

For the most part, Australia has, alongside many countries, tried to benefit from and also feed a China hungry for economic and political expansion.

You don’t placate a bully, you stand up to them.

I first came across Peter Jennings in an interview with John Anderson last year. Peter Jennings is the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In a recent article, he warns against China’s bullish tactics and their interference in the accurate transmission of information and application of international standards,

“As Beijing hardens its position on what it considers to be acceptable applications of the One China policy it is reacting badly to international judgments that Taiwan very effectively suppressed the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to the punitive measures we saw in Wuhan.

This week China’s ambassador to New Zealand sharply rebuked Wellington for backing a growing international call to make Taiwan an observer at the WHA meeting. The foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said New Zealand should “immediately stop making wrong statements on Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship”.

China’s ever more strident and stringent demands for countries to publicly acquiesce to Beijing’s political agenda is seemingly having the opposite reaction.”

Latika Bourke reported last Friday that Australia’s dependence on China places us in a vulnerable position. For example,

“An international study of essential supply lines has found that Australia relies on China for critical medical technology more than any other ‘Five Eyes’ nation.”

China’s behaviour is also creating unusual alliances. In what is a remarkable statement, The Australian Worker’s Union last week joined forces with Australia’s conservative Federal Government in calling China to account,

“Free trade must be fair.

Australia must stand up to China and protect our national sovereignty and local jobs.

The Chinese Government is threatening massive trade tariffs on Australian barley, beef and other products in response to our demands for a COVID-19 investigation and action taken against the illegal dumping of products by China.

Dumping of imported goods, by selling products like steel and aluminium below cost, is a trade violation which aims to destroy Australia’s industries and make us more reliant on foreign supply.

We have the right to stop cheap, low quality steel and aluminium from reaching our shores, jeopardising tens of thousands of Australian jobs. Every other country does this.

Threatening crippling tariffs against Australia’s world leading agriculture industry is a bullying tactic.

The AWU is calling on Scott Morrison and the Federal Government to stand up to China’s bullying, protect Australian sovereignty and jobs, and declare its intentions to work with nations that support fair, free trade.”

When it comes to China, we are not witnessing the awakening of a sleeping giant panda, but a dragon. In December 2019 Niall Ferguson argued that a new Cold War had begun.

“Something [else] changed in 2019. What had started out as a trade war — a tit for tat over tariffs while the two sides argued about the American trade deficit and Chinese intellectual property theft — rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.

In short order, the United States and China found themselves engaged in a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei in 5G network telecommunications and an ideological confrontation in response to the abuses of Uighur Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as a classic superpower competition for primacy in science and technology. The threat also loomed of a currency war over the exchange rate for the Chinese yuan, which the People’s Bank of China has allowed to weaken against the dollar…”

If a new cold war hasn’t descended, it should be clear by the falling autumn leaves and the dropping temperature that winter is coming. These next few years will be pivotal in determining how cold or how hot this economic and geopolitical standoff will become.

 

4. Time to rebuild traditional models of University

University education in Australia is huge. Never before has there been such a large menu of courses to choose from and so many students and so much money to be made. Education is Australia’s 3rd largest export industry, worth $10s of billions annually.

In 2017, there were almost 800,000 international students enrolled in education programs in Australia, including 350,000 studying in universities. With the arrival of COVID-19, huge numbers of students are unable to travel to Australia and many others have been forced to leave and return to their home country.

According to Peter Hurley of the Mitchell Institute,

“The university sector faces cumulative losses of up to A$19 billion over the next three years due to lost international student revenue.

Modelling from the Mitchell Institute shows the next big hit will come mid-year when $2 billion in annual tuition fees is wiped from the sector as international students are unable to travel to Australia to start their courses for second semester.

Such losses are not just a university problem. ABS data show for every $1 lost in university tuition fees, there is another $1.15 lost in the broader economy due to international student spending.

This means the Australian economy could lose more than $40 billion by 2023 because of reduced numbers of higher education international students.”

This should not be taken as a negative word toward international students. Far from it, my personal encounters with students from China, Malaysia, Brazil, and Uganda, and from across the world, has been incredibly positive. In many respects, I am glad that they have an opportunity to study here and I have valued the friendships I have formed with many students. Indeed some of these students make Australia their home, and they are welcomed and vital members of the community. The issue isn’t international students, it’s the model of education that looks more like a $ sign than actual education.

A related issue is the indulgence of our higher learning institutions to provide courses and degrees that lead to nowhere. The breadth of inane and dead-end tertiary courses is truly ridiculous.

For example, my eldest child is reaching the stage in high school where students are exploring what type of vocation interests them and therefore what university course they should consider undertaking. As part of this conversation, we have spoken with several people who work in a field that he’s interested in and who teach this area in our universities. The overwhelming feedback that we received was that it is nearly impossible to make a career in this area and to even get a job. Apparently, only two graduates for every 80 end up successfully working in this industry.

Could the massive loss in income force our tertiary institutions to recalibrate and return to traditional models of education and research? Might our universities rid themselves of the shackles of profit-making and rediscover learning? Instead of offering useless degrees that cost students $10,000s and with no job at the end, can we rewrite the young people’s ‘success manual’ and create pathways from school into careers without the ‘middle man’?

5. The social engineering project of authoritarian secularism.

This includes the latest chapters in the sexual revolution, identity politics, and religious freedom issues.

Socio-political agendas that existed prior to COVID-19 will remain afterwards. The sexual revolution may have been forced into hibernation for the time being (at the very least the media is currently distracted by other issues), but as life returns to some sense of normalcy, we can expect these social threads to be taken up once again.

There is a question mark over how successful or popular these agendas will be once we have adjusted to COVID-19. Will a few months of breathing space help us to regain our senses and to starve these already vacuous ideologies of their droplets of oxygen? Perhaps, but then again,  a survey of the 20th Century demonstrates that two World Wars, the Nuclear threat, and Vietnam, didn’t subtract from the evolving abandonment sex’s natural paradigm. The sexual revolution with its demand for moral allegiance is far from over. However, like the French Revolution, this is a movement that eats its own. Feminists, lesbians, gays, are being publicly cancelled as they don’t pay full homage to the latest theories on gender and sex. I anticipate that the West will continue to dismantle itself in the attempt to follow Romans 1:18-32 word for word. The rest of the world will look on and laugh at our foolishness.

 

Conclusion

Evidence suggests that COVID-19 will change the world, but it is not yet possible to see the extent to which these new normals will impact the average Aussie. Old attitudes and dreams will continue but newly laid roads will redirect our paths. The rush for a return to the old normal will be strong and understandable but there are socio-economic factors and geopolitical manoeuvrings that will likely stifle this revival.

Even as we are surprised and even shocked by some of the changes, none of this takes God by surprise. I am reminded of the Lord Jesus’ declaration, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

Life in this world sometimes appears like sailing with a gentle breeze and at other times, the sea is rough and turbulent and we are knocked about and fear for life itself. There is however one old message that will stand the test of time. The One who stilled the storm rose from the dead and His word of life has outlasted the greatest cultural changes of history. His Gospel is cosmic in scope and personal in efficacious power.

At Mentone Baptist Church today I gave an exposition on Colossians 1:15-23, and I think it’s a worthy place on which to conclude these reflections on COVID-19,

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”

Pray for China

The Chinese Government has recently reasserted Sinicization, the project aimed at conforming Christianity into the likeness of Communist China.

Over the past 70 years, China has born witness to one of the greatest movements the world has ever seen. At the close of the Second World War and with the rise of Communism, Western missionaries were removed from China and many left wondering what would happen to the fledgling Churches left behind in that extraordinary land.

Communism has little time for religion, as has been demonstrated in 100 years of socialist run States. Belief in God is deemed to be a threat to social harmony and to those who have power over the people.

As the bamboo curtain descended in the 1950s, God did not turn away from the Chinese people, but behind the scenes, he began an amazing work which has led to so many people becoming Christian, no one can count the number. Estimates range between 40 and 80 million followers of Jesus Christ in China today—possibly more Christians than in any other nation on earth.

It is somewhat ironic that the most ‘Christian’ nation is one with a communist Government with a capitalist facade!

 

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Over the past 20 years, China has gradually opened its doors to the world outside, and in some Provinces, religious toleration is greater than in others. As the bamboo curtain rose a little, Anglo-European Christians discovered that God does not need Western Christianity in order to grow the Gospel elsewhere. The Holy Spirit does not travel through western missionaries into indigenous groups but rather, the Spirit is God’s gift given directly to all who come to faith in the risen Christ. This is not to denigrate centuries of European witness to the Gospel, for we should be thankful for the fact that men and women traveled to China, and many died in order to give the Gospel to that great land. Today there are still many non-Chinese men and women who are serving in a variety of ways inside China, to love the people and show people the reality and good news of Jesus.

Once again, Chinese Christians are facing persecution. The Government is clamping down on Christianity with new intent and severity. According to a report in the ABC, the crackdown includes:

  • removing Bibles from online stores
  • removing Christian objects from buildings
  • closing hundreds of churches
  • and forcing Christian icons to include or be accompanied by images of Mao Zedong.

The last of these measures reminds me of Daniel ch.3 where King Nebuchadnezzar exercised religious toleration by requiring all of his subjects to submit to a statue in his image. Who doesn’t like to think of the cross with an image of Mao Zedong standing over it!

One Pastor explained what has happened to his church,

“And then they [the authorities] came into the church saying that things inside should be removed.

“For example, the banner saying: ‘For God, so love the world’ and the scriptures were torn down, and all things related to the Bible and faith had to be cleared out.”

Papal Collusion

All this would be bad enough, but news this week is highlighting collusion with the Chinese Government by the Vatican.

While President Xi Jinping is beginning to sound like King Nebuchadnezzar, Pope Francis is appearing as one of his astrologers who betrays Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Writing for the New York Times, Ian Johnson has suggested that recent negotiations between the Chinese Government and the Vatican are designed to further stamp out underground Churches. In other words, to reduce even further any little autonomy and freedom Christian Churches might have had in China.

“Beijing’s goal in the agreement, however, appears to be the same as with the church demolitions: greater control over the rapid spread of Christianity, which gained a permanent presence in China in the 16th century.”

The deal will allow the Vatican to have greater say in appointing future Bishops in China (but not full control), and this was contingent upon Pope Francis formally recognising seven Catholics Bishops who have already been appointed by the Chinese Government.

According to Johnson,

“The ruling Communist Party sees the compromise with the Vatican as a step toward eliminating the underground churches where Chinese Catholics who refuse to recognize the party’s authority have worshiped for generations. With the pope now recognizing all bishops and clergy members in the official Catholic churches approved and controlled by the party, the underground church may have no reason to exist.

The move is part of a broader push by the government to clamp down on all aspects of society since Xi Jinping took power as the party’s leader in 2012.”

The founder of ChinAid, a Christian human rights organisation, Bob Fu, has responded to the deal,

“While we understand the eagerness of Vatican for seeking more legitimacy in the eye of the Chinese Communist Party, this reported deal is nothing but a betrayal of both the millions of suffering persecuted Christians in China and the global Catholic Church.” 

In other words, Pope Francis has struck a deal with the devil, one which will essentially hand over millions of Chinese Christians (especially Protestant Churches) into the unforgiving hands of the Government. According to all accounts, the Chinese Government is using the Vatican as a tool to increase pressure on underground Churches, either to close or to formally register and come under their authority and control.

Authoritarian Secularism

It is fair to say that many Christians in Australia are concerned with where things are heading in our own country. There are signs suggesting that new forms of authoritarian secularism are gaining momentum. The project to limit religious freedom and to control public Christianity has certainly gained ground in recent times. These moves need to be called out and pushed back for the sake of all Australians who believe in social pluralism and freedom of conscience, speech, and association. Do we really want to live in a country where the government or where self-appointed militia get to choose how Christian Christians can be or to police how Jewish Jews can be or how Hindu Hindus can be? 

Perhaps we should have one eye looking toward China, and ask ourselves, is that the kind of religious freedom we want to have here? We are a long way from the politico-religious scene of our northern neighbour, and yet it is not irrational to suggest that should some Australian political parties and notable social commentators have their way, we would be aiming toward an Australian Sinicization, conforming Christianity into the likeness of Australian humanistic secularism.

With a wonderful sense of divine irony, the future of Christianity in Australia, at least in part, lays with Chinese believers. As many Aussies of European descent turn their backs on God, preferring to worship plastic images of the self, large numbers of Chinese men and women, and of many from other ethnic descent, are becoming followers of Jesus Christ in Australia. It is exciting and encouraging. It’s as though the stupid identity politics and intersectionality ethics created by white middle-class university students, is being blown up before their very eyes.

The reason for writing this post is to raise further awareness of what is unfolding in China and to encourage Christians to pray.

When Paul shared his troubles with the Church in Corinth,  he mentioned the efficacy of the prayers offered for him by the Corinthians,

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” (1 Corinthians 1:8-11)

When we see terrible things in other parts of the world we respond with sadness,  concern,  and we may also carry a sense of helplessness, not knowing what to do.  As Christians, there is always one thing we can do, no matter where we are are in the world,  and that is, pray.

Prayer is not wasted breath to a nonexistent God, as our atheist friends might suggest. We pray to God our Father, who remains Sovereign over all nations even today, and who loves his people dearly, and who is committed to seeing his Gospel grow both here in Australia and in China.