Do you ever have those moments when someone says or does something, and you have sort of an intuition that there’s something just a little “off” about what they said or did? The instinct that something is not quite right but you can’t really put it into words? That happens to me sometimes - okay a lot - and I often have to kind of mull it over for longer than I would like before something eventually occurs to cause a light bulb to come on in my feeble old noggin - something that illuminates just what it is that’s been bugging me. The light sort of started peeking through for me when I was reminded of this old scene from the James Garner comedy, Support Your Local Sheriff.
Garner plays the sheriff in a western town who has taken on the job on a purely temporary basis. By enforcing the law, something the locals weren’t accustomed to, he has provoked the inevitable confrontation with the neighborhood bullies who are headed into town for the big western showdown. In the scene I’m referring to, he is discussing his plans with his romantic interest. When she asks him what he intends to do, he tells her that he plans on saddling up and getting out of town. It’s one of those moments where someone says something that sounds “off”, in this case the character played by Garner.
Almost since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been things about the way we, in the Christian community, are thinking about these events that have just seemed off to me. I’m not saying that there exists some kind of lock-step uniformity of Christian thought. But there are some shared, general tendencies that I think anyone paying attention can perceive. There’s been something about our default reaction, and unquestioning obedience to secular authorities, that has carried a whiff of maybe being a bit too willing. A smidgen too eager perhaps.
But, I’ve told myself: “Self, who can argue with the need for safety?”
So I’ve kind of soldiered on while my subconscious keeps churning away, trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that’s bothering me.
I think this may be it: it feels like the instinctive reaction within the Christian community has mostly been to prioritize material well being above every other possible good.
By “material well being” I don’t mean money but, more broadly, I’m referring to our material existence and the desire to sustain it. The choices we’ve all been making over the last several months have amounted to a worldwide exercise in value judgments. We have been, essentially, very explicitly rank ordering the priorities of our public lives and, like James Garner, it’s starting to seem a little cowardly when I run through the order out loud.
Groceries are essential, but communion is not.
Liquor is essential, but public baptisms are not.
Home maintenance materials are essential, but an embodied Christian community...is not.
How, I ask myself, have we come to define maximizing our own physical safety and the safety of others as the zenith of Christian love? Don’t get me wrong, safety is fine up to a point. Human beings are valuable to be sure.
But are there not some things more valuable than our own lives?
Here’s a question I’ve been mulling over in my mind a lot lately: What visible manifestations of our faith should take priority over our physical safety? Maybe that’s the main question I’m really asking when you come right down to it. And, to be honest, the reality with Covid is that most people are facing very small incremental mortality risk. To avoid such incremental risks, have we meekly surrendered irreplaceable things we shouldn’t have? I wonder.
We Christians are part of an ancient faith that teaches immortality and the resurrection of the body, yet it feels as if we have been willing to give up much of our community witness to gain an incrementally improved mortality risk of about 3 tenths of 1 percent.
I don’t know that my instincts are right about this. I’m not telling anyone else what to do. I couldn’t even if I was inclined to, which I’m not. I’m also not talking about taking gratuitous risks. We shouldn’t risk our lives for nothing. But what about for something? I confess that I’m haunted by the words in the book of Revelation: “they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
I’m not suggesting that if we reclaim our visible witness that God will protect us from Covid. I think I’m more like the three young guys who were thrown into the furnace in Babylon: in the back of their minds, they kind of knew it was a possibility that God might not protect them from the oven, but they refused to bend anyway.
It might be a helpful exercise to have an open Christian discussion about the limits of physical safety as an animating principle for Christian behavior. Whatever we conclude about Covid, the social trends suggest that there is a growing likelihood that Christian persecution is coming our way. Having a clearer framework for thinking about what is worth risking ourselves for may be something we should be trying to articulate more explicitly.
I kind of wonder if part of the issue has to do with how we understand sickness and disease. There are exceptions of course, but most of the discussions among Christians that I’ve been around have grappled with the pandemic as a highly inconvenient biological event. By and large we haven’t thought of the virus as something sinister. We might think of the Chinese communists as vaguely sinister, but that’s as close as most of us come to framing our response to the virus in moral or spiritual terms.
The problem, I’m afraid, with this mode of thinking about events, is that it would have been foreign to most of, if not all, the writers of scripture. The worldview of the authors of the biblical text was infused with a sense that events taking place in our lives often reflect, and are impacted by, events taking place in the unseen world. If we don’t learn anything else from the book of Job, we should at least consider the possibility that more is afoot with Covid than the need for a vaccine.
John the apostle says that Jesus came “to destroy the works of Satan”. The synoptic gospels all start with the conflict between Satan and Jesus, followed by Jesus wandering through the Palestinian landscape healing the sick and choking out demons (the greek for “silencing” can also be translated “choke”). No one in the ancient near east thought that illness was always merely biological. Biology may have been the means, but quite often the enemy of God was behind it. They had read Job too often, I guess, not to perceive the spiritual dimension.
It’s pretty clear from the reaction Jesus received that the demons knew he was a threat. John says that Satan is even now at war “with those who keep God’s commandments, and hold to the testimony about Jesus.” There is, it turns out, more to the biblical perspective on spiritual conflict than the question of the moral purity of our inner thoughts.
If it wasn’t a virus that threatened us but it was the emperor of Rome, would we have folded up shop, or would we instead be meeting together with all the attendant material risks? Our spiritual forbears faced the possibility of having their heads lopped off, or of being served as living cat food merely for showing up at church. Nero would allegedly dip Christians in tar, impale them on a pole, and use them as human torches at his dinner parties after lighting them on fire.
And yet...they met. They showed up. They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.
None of this involves the question of wearing masks or taking reasonable precautions. Nor do I think we should ignore that mortality risk varies greatly between individuals. I’m not advocating that people with a comorbidity take suicidal risks. The question I’m really raising is whether those precautions should include withdrawal from some kind of embodied participation with a local fellowship of believers.
I’m really nagged by the possibility that Covid is not primarily a biological accident, and that we Christians might need to moderate our tendency to think about our response to it in primarily material terms. I’m just confessing and I’m not pointing the finger outward any more than I’m pointing it at myself. Covid just too perfectly interferes with the intimate fellowship of the body of Christ, and that too-perfect interference sets off all of my mental alarms.
It’s an interesting question whether, had they been able to access the technology we have, the early Christians, lurking in the catacombs, would have opted for Zoom or Webex instead. We’ll never really know the answer to that. But does anyone really believe, in the secret places of their own hearts, that Zoom meetings can serve as anything like an adequate substitute for hearing your brother in Christ confess his faith in song? Do we really think that, so long as we have Webex, we have no need to share the Lord’s Supper together, embodied in one another’s presence?
Is three tenths of one percent improved mortality risk worth the price the church is paying?
I confess that I’m increasingly harassed by doubts.