We are living through a plague. ‘Plague’ is my favorite term for this sickness. Calling the virus SARS-CoV-2 or the disease COVID-19 is too technical and sterile, and it also gives off a false air of control by means of westerners’ truest religion today—science. I’m not a doctor nor an epidemiologist and I have no desire to imitate their language on the topic. The ‘Chinese virus’ seems a little broad and though the ‘Wuhan virus’ would be a fitting moniker these terms are currently caught up in the political games of racism claims, by which those who love such games are seeking a type of normalcy I don’t wish to participate and would rather condemn by ignoring. Yes, ‘plague’ fits the moment well. It is clear enough to be ominous about the pervasiveness of a sickness accompanied by such death, and yet vague enough to evoke the unnerving reality that humanity knows very little about this plague and has even less power to control it.
So how do we live through this? Doctors, knowing for millennia that sickness spreads between people, say that sick people should be isolated from the healthy. When plagues erupt this knowledge is usually enhanced by government declarations to quarantine and separate. This is more often than not met with mass fear that leads to people to either self-isolate or try to escape the area. This ancient road has been traversed rather quickly by the modern world over the last month. The plague seems to be everywhere in the world, a characteristic not of the virus inherently but given to it by our globalized and mobile world, so there is nowhere to run. The doctors and governments throughout much of the world have called on the whole world’s population to take isolating measures in order to get a grip on the plague and to take back some control from this sickness. This is a ‘war’, they say.
This is where the religious leaders come into play. While some actually have authority to consult with government leaders about how to best care for those in their communities of faith, many are just overly loud figures via media sources. Immediately, for such religious leaders, the mandate by doctors and governments revealed to them a clear and proper theology that Christianity should support their powerful social demands. Oftentimes, ironically enough, these voices are some of the quickest to decry the evils and ineptitudes of American governmental systems, but when their fear is not able to drive them to safe escape from this ubiquitous plague the next best thing is to side with governmental power and go to ‘war’! Such ‘flight or fight’ response easily indicates an undercurrent of fear that is whisking someone away.
These religious leaders’ moral outline is basically this: 1) the plague kills people, 2) God wants everyone to live because he loves them, 3) if a Christian might spread the plague then they are killing people and that isn’t loving, so 4) if you are a Christian who loves people stay home as long as the doctors and governments demand. Therefore, Christian love for others during this plague is framed as staying at home and leaving other people alone.
This sounds like a pretty good idea since it uses Christian language. Christian ideas concocted and separated from people’s real lives often sound good but fail to work out in reality. Who in the world has the ability to just stay at home? There are mortgages, rents, and bills to be paid. Food and cloths have to be bought for our families. All of this requires that we go to work! My wife and I are grateful that our current jobs have been able to work with the government’s demands to stay home, but this would not have been true in the near past. A number of people I know have already lost their jobs. What is more, it is rather clear that the poorest of American society will be heavily affected by the government’s measures. Doctors, government officials, and religious leaders call out in chorus, “Stay home! Don’t kill others! Love others! Trust us!”
Of course, to this kind of clarion call there is only one proper answer; provide for one’s own family by going to work even in the face of such demands. While the American economy might be robust enough to offer some money to families for a short time, but it will take time to reach the poor and the damage will have already begun. Without work the poor must turn to debt in order to survive, whether as credit cards or payday-type loans, and this becomes a form of economic slavery resulting in long-term damage to these families. The long lasting effects of this slavery are not only socio-economic, but bears fruit in the various forms of violence, substance abuse, alcoholism, suicide, trauma, and more.
On account of this reality, which humanity has always had to negotiate when it comes to plagues and (real) wars, the poor will not have a choice to stay home much longer than the couple of weeks the Trump administration has called for in their “15 Day Plan”. Stopgap “stimulus” checks and higher unemployment insurance will not reach these families fast enough, and there is no reason for the poor to believe the government truly intends to care for their families in the long-run. Here is where the morals of the clamoring leaders seem to fall short. Those who are poor have a moral obligation, foremost, to their spouse and children to provide food, clothing, and shelter, even in the midst of a plague and even with the possibility of spreading the sickness.
But Christian Morality Demands We Must Stay Home
Some will say, “This is not loving, Justin. Does this not place the individual above community?” I hope that my writing so far would decry that idea, but I will explain a bit more. Americans think of community as an ethereal concept of people in general. This is not community. This is just the common western theory of society. Community is bounded. I am bound to my wife and she is bound to me. I have rights and responsibilities to her, for her, and even over and under her. Not as some ‘soul’ that I’ve connected to, but as two embodied persons who now have become one body (Gen 2:22-25; 1 Cor 7:3-4; Eph 5:23, 28), which as her husband I must care for through provision. A part of our bounded one-ness is God’s creating of children through us that we are expected to raise up in the faith as well (Mal 2:14-15). The bounds of Christian community obligates us to our extended family (1 Tim 5:8) and our family of faith (Rom 12:9-13, 13:8-10; Heb 13:1-3; Jm 1:27). Christian morality demands that I am personally responsible for these—family and fellow Christians—primarily in this world.
Yes, our morality demands we refuse to escalate tensions and violence with enemies, and we are to even go as far as care for them if it is within our ability (Mt 5:43-44; Lk 6:35, 10:25-37). Also, yes, Christians are to have a relationship with the governments where they reside that is honoring, peaceful and tax paying, and prayerful (1 Pt 2:13-17; Rom 1-7; 1 Tim 2:1-3). This in no way means that we are bound to the society or city we live within in the same sacrificial ways that we are tied to our families and the community of faith. The call to do good works for the benefit of the city we live in isn’t even for the sake of that city primarily, but because it benefits our own community’s existence within it (Jer 29:7).
But they will say, “Justin, clearly you have no one who is in danger from this plague or you would not believe it is okay for people to return to work.” Again, this is not logically or particularly true. I come from the Ozarks where many start their nuclear families young and our concept of family is quite large. I grew up knowing my great-grandparents. My children have living memories of their great-great grandma and deeply love their great grandparents. Are a number of my family members at risk of dying in this plague? Of course.
Two weeks ago, just before the quarantines began to be declared, my boys and I went to my sister’s wedding. We stayed with my grandparents. My grandpa and I stayed up late talking about the situation. His answer was simple. He has dedicated his life to giving his family a better future than the generations before him. He could die from anything in this world—and nearly has a few times! Still, he refuses to let the fear of death stop him from being with those he loves or what is the point of living at all? For those who come from poorer backgrounds to move beyond mere struggle for existence as families takes generations of intentional self-sacrifice. While doctors, government officials, and religious leaders are trying to be sensible from their positions of power, given or assumed, they are simply asking us to throw away too much of the past and the future all for a fear of death.
But some will say to me, “Well, Justin, I have people in my life that I am not willing to lose in this plague!” That is an understandable fear of death, but I can only give you a gospel answer. There is a way to not be scared of death anymore and it is rests on the hope found in life through death, which is called resurrection, which is offered through King Jesus. American Christians need to learn the faith again. A faith based on a gospel way of life that many who are leaders in this world would deem radical and foolish.
While humanity has always struggled with the fear of death, American Christians have been duped by a particular kind of fear. I would say westerners in general, but Americans particularly, have come to believe humans have conquered death through medicine and science. This plague washes away such arrogance and through this plague Death has suddenly appeared before generations of Americans who have never had to truly watch his work like the humanity of time immemorial or even those who live in the developing world today. American Christians cannot ignore his overwhelming presence and seem dumbfounded and fearful that he cannot be held at bay with our powers of science!
The simple four-step plan to love others by staying at home that is being espoused by American religious leaders is predicated on the fact that God doesn’t want us to die. But there is plenty in the gospel and the New Testament letters that shows our God most certainly wants us to die that we might find real life. A quick read through of Paul’s theology about death in 2 Corinthians 4-6 sheds light on how unnerving the early Church’s ideas were. The call to pick up one’s cross daily is not a metaphor without a reality—or maybe we’ve just come to think it was a metaphor for us today. What if Jesus is telling us the truth that we cannot seek to save our lives and find the gospel life he offers (Mt 10:38-39, 16:25; Jn 12:25)?
[As a side note, I worry the underlying presence of this fear of death is what has led the American Church from being a missionary minded people that become willingly duped by academic conversations of colonialism or cultural superiority claims in order to rationalize our inaction.]
What then shall we do?
There is no simple answer to what Christians should do in a plague other than to practice loving others, but to do so in the priority of their bounded community as their primary moral obligation. Our jobs have graciously and actively sought ways for my wife and I to keep our jobs during this time while being at home. Our small nuclear family is separated by a great distance from the rest of our family in the Ozarks so we simply cannot take it on ourselves to go shopping for our grandparents or helping on the farm as we would hope to do in this time. Our church has shut down and seems to be content with their online broadcasts as sufficient for this time period. After all such considerations it becomes possible for my family to say we will comply with the governments demands to stay at home for a lengthy period.
This simply could not happen if not for our jobs allowing remote working during this plague. Had this even been last year, I would be out finding a job at the nearby Amazon warehouse since it is deemed “essential.” I just hope these doctors, government officials, and religious leaders know what they are asking of the poor. They are asking us to go into debt and ruin our families’ futures, and then go find an “essential” job because there is no financial choice.
The gospel conquers the fear of death by bringing life through death. Truly a gospel for the poor who must live and provide for their families and communities sacrificially no matter how much doctors, government officials, or religious leaders might balk at such an existence.
So, for those who must provide for their families come plague or no plague, come government restriction or allowance, or come financial help from someplace else or not, you are living the life that God calls you to when you provide for your family and those in your church. This risk, even of death, is worth the promised life together we eternally enjoy beginning today in the midst of a plague.