As countries around the world deal with the growing coronavirus pandemic, some U.S. leaders have used rhetoric denounced by Baptists and others as racist. The rhetoric continues despite the World Health Organization recommending against names for illnesses that include a geographic or ethnic reference because it could spark discrimination and even hate crimes.
As of March 19, more than 244,000 people globally have been infected with the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, and more than 10,000 have died. The United States, the country with the sixth-highest number of infected persons, had more than 13,200 who have tested positive and more than 180 dead.
As the outbreak has grown in the U.S., some people have started using Asian labels to refer to the virus instead of coronavirus or COVID-19. President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to it as “Chinese Virus,” both in tweets and in public addresses from the White House. Even after criticism of the term as racist, Trump continues to use it. Media reports also noted a White House staffer called it “Kung Flu” while speaking to a Chinese American reporter.
Other national politicians have defended Trump’s ethnic labeling of the global virus, including the second-highest Republican in the U.S. Senate, John Cornyn of Texas.
“China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that,” Cornyn said. “These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people, and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the swine flu, and now the coronavirus.”
Despite the claims by the senator from Texas, where several towns host annual festivals to eat snakes, the 2012 MERS outbreak started in Saudi Arabia and the 2009 swine flu outbreak began in Mexico. Additionally, researchers have not yet determined the source of the coronavirus outbreak, and none of the outbreaks Cornyn mentioned are connected to dogs or snakes.
John Park, director of the D.Min. program and the Des Peres chair of congregational health at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, told Word&Way that “Chinese Virus” rhetoric “instigates racism” and acts of racist violence.
“We have already heard and seen instances of violence and hate crimes against Asians, especially Chinese,” said Park, who was born in South Korea. “Some of the Burmese living in Kansas City were also attacked recently.”
Park noted it’s particularly problematic for the U.S. president to use such language.
“The president of a nation should be inclusive and equitable, not divisive and selfish,” Park explained “He should speak words of conviction and compassion others want to emulate, and they should be a reflection of his character. The way he led his presidential campaign and the tactics he used, which were divisive, seem to be manifested again. The character of the president leaks out, unfortunately negatively.”
Park especially hopes Christians can set a better example by following the Golden Rule as “the least a human being should do for his or her fellow human being.”
“For Christians, we ought to love all members of humanity, who are God’s image-bearers, no matter what,” he added. “Moreover, Christians should not buy into everything they hear or read or watch. If not careful — if we’re not being transformed by the renewing of the mind, not testing everything we engage — we won’t be able to discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Similarly, Steven Harmon, associate professor of historical theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, noted in comments to Word&Way that there are already reports of “discrimination against and violence toward Asian Americans that may worsen when people lose jobs and loved ones.”
“Christians have an opportunity to bear witness to the way of Jesus Christ in contrast to the scapegoating of people who are no more responsible for the global COVID-19 pandemic than are the inhabitants of the Caribbean for hurricanes that strike the U.S. Atlantic coast,” he explained. “Followers of Jesus Christ should call this out whenever they hear or see this.”
“My wife is a minister to children, and she is always working to form children in the convictions that each of us is created in God’s image, that God loves each of us, and that God wants us each to love each other,” he added. “Calling COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’ or worse pejoratives does not embody those convictions.”
Harmon also mentioned his son as he worries about anti-Asian rhetoric and violence.
“As the parent of an Asian American child who can be harmed by such scapegoating,” he said, “I am especially concerned about this and hope my fellow Christians will follow Jesus by speaking out against scapegoating and by embodying themselves the convictions that each of us is created in God’s image, that God loves each of us, and that God wants us each to love each other.”
Aidsand Wright-Riggins, mayor of Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and co-executive director of the New Baptist Covenant, spoke in a March 18 New Baptist Covenant Facebook Live video to denounce the “Chinese Virus” rhetoric as “inane” and “dangerous.” Noting that “language has consequences,” he explained that “the language that we use” can end up “incarnating itself” much as Jesus the Word became flesh.
Wright-Riggins added that even while our society finds itself practicing “social distancing” to prevent the spread of coronavirus, “we need to find ways of bridging those distances — particularly for those who are most socially distance in our society.”