Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? —Isaiah 58:5-7
As the novel coronavirus and the related Covid-19 disease continue apace in the United States and around the world, and as more and more churches suspend in-person services, Christians are left asking questions about what is right to do. Some feel canceling services and closing ministry operations are to deny people access to beneficial spiritual exercises, fellowship they enjoy, and services they need. Others think closing houses of worship is a capitulation to mass panic and therefore is the antithesis of faith. A few seem to want to defy any directives coming from government authorities or even experts in public health. I believe the Bible, the model of Jesus, and common rules of Christian community speak to these questions.
Our response(s) to this crisis include moral, ethical, and even theological dimensions. In fact, this is a good moment for serious and prayerful reflection on these aspects to our shared spiritual and communal lives as family, neighbors, fellow citizens and human beings. What we are living through—and in some cases marking deaths through—is big—and the implications of it are even bigger. This is not a freak snowstorm—not even a blizzard. This a plague. Plagues in the past have re-shaped human existence, human culture, and human societies. This one may be no different.
So, what are our obligations in a moment like this? I’d like to explore a few here:
Our supreme obligation is to one another—with one caveat. The commandment that controls here is the second of Jesus’ two greatest: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)
Love, here, is offered in the filial sense. Love drives us to care about others, to work for their welfare, to see to their needs, and, when required, to sacrifice our own well-being for theirs. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In the most extreme of situations, love can require self-sacrifice—in figurative and literal ways.
There is a caveat, though: Love, to be healthy, must be calibrated to the concern and value we show ourselves. A pandemic is a time when we must balance care for ourselves with the care for others. Complete self-abnegation would mean surrendering oneself to the contagion, thereby strengthening it, rather than assisting victims of it. Remaining as healthy and strong as possible is necessary in order to be of greatest help to others. So, taking precautions, following the best and most informed advice, and keeping oneself away from unnecessary risk is, itself, an important ethical obligation.
Out of one’s strength, we are then to turn toward others. The so-called “Golden Rule” is a good one to follow here: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) In the same way you’ve treated yourself—seeing to your most basic human needs, attending to your health, staying in safe zones, arranging your business affairs, attending to your spiritual needs, seeking out meaningful interaction with others, etc., are all the things you should monitor in the people close to you or who cross your path. You can’t ever take care of everybody, but if you look after a few, and I do the same, when the majority of us are doing this, the majority of people will have the companionship and help they need.
Another passage that speaks to the moment we’re in is Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” The first clause is essential to understanding and applying the second. This is not a time to be self-centered; that is, it’s not a time to seek advantage for ourselves over others. That is not to say we must necessarily degrade or devalue ourselves, as I’ve commented on already. Sure, there may be a moment when care for a loved one, or a particularly vulnerable person, or anyone in danger may require us to place our own welfare second to theirs, in most cases this will not be true. What we must do always—and especially in an emergency like the one we are now facing, is be sure that we don’t seek to benefit from another’s suffering. That’s the point here. When necessary, we must be willing to put aside our own ambitions, comforts, self-congratulations, and self-promotion, and use that time, energy, and resources for the benefit of others.
I’ve heard a lot of people around me complain about closures of restaurants, entertainment venues, and even churches—because they mean inconvenience, discomfort, or even emotional, social and spiritual deprivation. Sure, these may not always be the best or perfect solutions to the problem we are facing, but in most cases the action is taken to protect workers, patrons, and members from being exposed to this potentially deadly virus. At the very least, such closures reduce anxieties experienced by others—and at best they save lives.
Of course, the other side to the preventative measures we and others take are the unintended and corollary consequences experienced by others. Table servers, hair stylists, tattoo artists, trainers, couriers, cleaners and other hourly workers will be out of work and face severe financial and other hardships. The uninsured may be afraid to seek medical care for fear of taking on menacing debt. These people will need other forms of help from those of us who will remain more-or-less economically stable during this crisis. Financially supporting food banks, community clinics, and humanitarian outreach programs may be the best way to ensure a social safety net stays in place for desperate people. Paying someone’s rent, cell phone bill, or grocery run, employing somebody, paying a cleaning service even if their people can’t come to your house or place of business, are creative solutions we can all consider.
One more obligation we might all keep at the forefront is our obligation to stay present with one another by simply reaching out—safely—to the people in our universe whom we value, who need us, or who are alone or otherwise vulnerable. A quick call, text or video connection can be the difference between despair and joy. A run to the grocery store for the sick, elderly, disabled or single parent—with the package left outside their door—could be a life-saver.
Separation can be an opportunity for all of us to learn afresh how necessary and important human companionship is to all of us. When this crisis has passed, perhaps we will all have a greater appreciation for the privilege of in-person camaraderie.
Our namesake, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote of this in one of his best-known works, Life Together:
“It is by the grace of God that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.”
[March 16, 2020]