The pursuit of liberty too often contradicts the pursuit of life in the United States
Christianity was built for this end-of-the-world moment
Last week, I offered you a treatise on the fact that Christianity is specifically designed with end-of-the-world circumstances in mind. That our faith is poised to tackle apocalyptic problems and not only withstand them, but to speak truth in the midst of them, and finally be liberated from them. Our faith is one that confronts death and preserves life. This is Christianity. This is what happened on that fateful Friday on Golgotha. And it is a wonderful thing to consider during Lent. This Lent in particular, is a spiritual quarantine that meets a physical one. So, no we do not live in easy times, but we are developed to thrive through them.
And I have to say that our church has thrived through them. Our online Sunday meetings are well-attended with eager enthusiasm, people are sharing in our common fund radically, and new people are meeting Jesus. It is a beautiful thing to have the apocalyptic theology that we have in our faith be expressed in reality. God is with us. And we need more Christian faithfulness now more than ever.
But the U.S. was built as if the world was never going to end
And so while Christianity is set up for the end-of-the-world, it seems to me like the United States is set up as if the world is never going to end. You can see this in carbon emissions, alone; the U.S. is not taking the threat of a climate catastrophe seriously (and yes, that’s another reason why I’m committed to what we’re doing in Circle of Hope, and you don’t to take my word for it, here’s a piece in the New Yorker about how we are doing that very thing). But again, it seems to me like the U.S., at large, hasn’t been taking this very seriously.
It’s hard for Americans to sacrifice their personal liberty, even in the face of death. A friend reminded me that the country was essentially founded on the notion of “give me liberty, or give me death.” (Thanks, David!) And if the crowds in Rittenhouse Square or the beaches in Malibu (or Santa Monica or Venice) (Thanks, Aaron!) say anything, many Americans are disregarding the wisdom of their leaders, and crying out “give me death.”
A reckless void in leadership
But of course, it’s not just up to individuals and their own moral compasses or discernment. I expect our leaders to take this problem very seriously. But I don’t think they are, at least at a national level, and sadly, even the Christians among them. Trump is threatening to “reopen” the economy in 15 days, for example. Here, Jeet Heer writes that he is ready to have the virus take its toll on the people for the sake of the wealthy. The governor of Mississippi is asking us to pray, instead of doing any action (and every Christian knows that you can’t sacrifice prayer for action or action for prayer—Jesus calls that “filtering out a gnat and swallowing a camel”). Even the famously Christian Hobby Lobby suggested that God told its CEO to keep the stores open. Headlines like this expose the unholy alliance between American Christian Evangelicals and the American civil religion. And it will be deadly, I am afraid. Many of our leaders are failing to take this crisis seriously, and so no surprisingly, their followers aren’t either.
The tone for the future is ominous
So far, the U.S. has been hit very hard with the coronavirus, and the governor of Pennsylvania has issued a stay-at-home order for the counties in Pennsylvania hit hard, and many governors and mayors have done the same thing. The situation is getting dire and the U.S. Surgeon General warns that it is going to get worse this week. So far, we haven’t succeeded at flattening the curve, and with more widely available testing, the numbers will balloon. (It is worth noting that the aforementioned stay-at-home order has recently been put into effect, so it’s hard to know how effective it will be.)
And so in Circle of Hope we’ve made the bold, decisive decision to stay isolated, but connected. And our church is up for the demand. We have serious people who know that the best way they can serve and love our neighbors is by isolating. It is very counter-intuitive for a church like ours who is known for its compassionate actions first. It’s hard to think of being bunkered in and hunkered down as “action.” But the most compassionate thing we can do now is stay at home. You only need to look at the numbers of death in Italy to know it is elemental that we flatten the curve.
We are free to serve because we are bonded to the Suffering Servant
But I do not think Americans are used to their liberties being violated because a violation of our freedom may as well be death. And so to ask people to stay in for the greater good just isn’t in the grammar of the American ethos. What is life if it not free?
Christians have a different God, though. We are not enslaved to the powers of the world, but rather we are servants of God, who willingly bond ourselves to God for the greater good. And so our seeming obedience and compliance to the state is simply incidental. We aren’t obeying the law, but we share in the wisdom of our lawmakers when we decide to model the safest behavior. We aren’t doing so for ourselves, but rather for our neighbors.
May this quarantine teach us to wait, when we just can’t
If you want to serve, but you are not a medical professional, stay at home. This is hard for eager Christians who want to do the right thing. It is hard for clergy and pastors who want to be in the action. It’s hard not to want to be everyone’s savior when we’ve been blessed with the gift of salvation, but I took a word from Kiley Bense that comforted me this week in her New York Times op-ed, as she was inspired by the Philadelphia sisters during the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 epidemic:
While most people have no reason to fear the coronavirus, we have a responsibility as a society to protect and care for those who do have reason to fear it. The sisters’ quiet, determined selflessness is what is needed now, and what we will need more of in the weeks and months to come, not only from doctors and nurses but also from ordinary people, who will be asked to alter their daily lives in ways both large and small, giving up comfortable routine for the sake of the vulnerable, and helping to patch over the constellation of individual holes in our ragged social safety net.
One hundred years on, the work of the sisters provides us a model to follow and aspire to in this uncommon time: one that presses us to look for ways to support our neighbors rather than shrinking from them, to acknowledge our fears but to find courage in the strength of our communities, and ultimately to put others before self.
Kiley gets to the heart of the problem we’re in. We want to help, and we want to act. And we want to be free to do so and free to live our lives. We want the economy to flourish and we want people to be provided for. We want everything. But we can’t have it all. We need to wait. We need to stay home. This plague will pass, but we can’t ignore it and expect it to go away. Nor can we rush it along. Our medical professionals are working very hard. New York-Presbyterian is full. They are running out of masks. The Chief of Surgery paints a grim picture in this letter. Spouses can’t join their partners who are delivering their children. Life is different and it goes against our Western instincts. It is a hard season.
But we do have an opportunity here. For the first time that I’ve seen, I’m seeing people respond en masse to a catastrophe. And though not everyone is as disciplined, we are getting there. And it is amazing because even though thousands are dying, we are responding to a germ, which is often thought of as abstract. And so if we can respond to seemingly abstract things with material urgency, then that does bode very well for our response to our invisible God who also has material consequence. Our economic form has been put on hold in favor of life. And so whenever someone tells you that we can’t change, point to this pandemic of evidence that we can. When someone tells you that we can’t respond to the climate catastrophe with urgency, remember 2020 when we did!
But it is Lent, and we are changing our behavior. I pray that this effort to slow everything down will filter into our lives and change us forever. May our impulse to act instead of reflect be tamped down. May we be humble in the faith of evil and let those more talented than us lead us. May we sacrifice our liberty for the sake of life.
Pray with me.
Deliver from this evil, Lord. Damn this virus. Give us the patience to allow it pass, and give us the resolve to wait until it does. And change us for the better. May we all leave this plague more like you, self-emptied, but full of hope. Lord, hear our prayer.