Four Reasons to not call COVID-19 the "Chinese" or "Wuhan" virus.
In response to those who insist on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese-virus, Eugene Cho, the incoming President of Bread for the World, an evangelical organization that lives out the Bible’s commission to care for the poor, recently tweeted:
This is not acceptable. Calling it the “Chinese virus” only instigates blame, racism, and hatred against Asians—here and abroad. We need leadership that speaks clearly against racism; Leadership that brings the nation and world together. Not further divides.
The most obvious reason is that the virus already has a name that is widely accepted and recognized around the world. It’s not as though we need to come up with something to call it so that people will know what we are talking about. We use names to identify things, and since this disease is easily identified by its official name, those who insist on calling it the “Chinese” virus must have some other purpose for doing so. I fear that it is usually a thinly veiled effort to make a political point, to infuse our shared struggle with racist division, or to align oneself with a political movement rather than an effort to identify the illness.
Let us consider the ideals inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. The inscription is taken from the The New Colossus, a poem by Emma Lazarus, in which she personifies America as:“A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles.”
It’s especially interesting to note the context in which the poem was written. Lazarus penned the poem in 1884, one year after the Chinese Exclusion act of 1883.
Lazarus’s vision of America resonated with Ronald Reagan, a president once adored by the very constituency that now insists on blaming China for this virus. In a speech given on the eve of his first election he said: “I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining city on a hill, as were those long ago settlers … These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still a shining city on a hill.”
This wasn’t just a passing theme in his bid for election; Reagan came back to this ideal in his farewell speech to the nation, saying: "I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
Calling COVID-19 the “Chinese” virus stigmatizes the very people being welcomed by Lazarus and Reagan. I love the America that embodies their vision.
These aren’t just patriotic ideals; they were, in Lazarus’ case, Jewish, and in my case, Christian, ideals. They are values that reflect the teaching of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus.
Using “Chinese” to identify COVID-19 isn’t unChristian in the sense that anyone who has used this phrase can’t be a Christian, but in the sense that it doesn’t comport to the teachings and example of Jesus. It doesn’t line up with the vision he proposed for life in the Kingdom of Heaven; nor with the manner in which he called his people to live. The issue isn’t can I use this term; the issue is should I use this term—does using it reflect the heart of Jesus?
The term “shining city on a hill” isn’t merely a patriotic or political phrase, it’s a reference to the words of Jesus, who in his most important sermon said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Clarifying what it means to be a shining city on a hill, Christ added, “In the same way [that a city on a hill casts a welcoming light], let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” The point that Jesus is making is that by doing good deeds we help people find their way into the Kingdom of Heaven. The heavenly city in Christ’s mind is a place where strangers are greeted as family, and where even our enemies are loved (Matthew 5:43-47).
It’s unhelpful to the Gospel
COVID-19 is an opportunity for Christians to exemplify selfless love and to attract people to the gospel message of Jesus Christ: a message of selfless love, forgiveness, and redemption. We need to rid our language and behavior of racism such as this and anything that makes it more difficult for people to come to Christ, as well as anything that makes it more difficult for us to come to Christ.
I think that the current situation with COVID-19 offers Christians a wonderful opportunity to point a frightened world to Jesus Christ, and to offer them his comfort. I urge followers of Christ not to use language that may defeat this purpose. Let us aspire to the words of the Psalmist who wrote, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
* A version of this post was published by Red Letter Christians