There has always been some tension between the values of the Christian Gospel and the American ideal of individual independence and personal freedom. But we have seen this in new ways since the COVID-19 pandemic began. We have heard of choirs ignoring scientific warnings and government advice by rehearsing and infecting others, of churches opening in spite of state or local mandates to stay at home. We have recently seen new footage of demonstrations by people advocating for lessening restrictions and referring to their “God given rights”. But is it simply individual rights that matters in our religious traditions?
There seems to be diverse opinions on how to apply religious principles to our present societal situation. I write to commend one in particular which I have derived from the teachings of Jesus and of St Paul over my 50 years of active parish ministry.
In each of the Gospels I see that Jesus is quite clear that he understands love to be a way of being and acting (rather than a feeling) that puts the good of others as minimally being of equal importance – and ideally of more importance – than our personal preferences, desires and wants. Paul echoes this emphasis often in his letters to the fledgling congregations. “Do not cause any one to stumble” he writes in the first letter to the Corinthians. I cannot imagine that either of them would give us as pass on various ways to prevent spreading contagion and possible death to other people.
We need to evaluate our decisions about recommended actions not on the scale of the inconvenience it causes us but rather what is the overall effect on our neighbors – using Jesus’ definition of neighbor as being ALL whose lives interact with ours – even those with whom we disagree or with whom we are at enmity.
With government, business owners and investors wanting to reopen our economy we now have the ability to freely choose what we will do, and how we will do it. With the COVID 19 case curve steady or in a mild decrease we may be tempted to relax and skip the ongoing recommendations. (Especially continuing to stay at home unless absolutely necessary, to wash our hands regularly, when going out to wear a face mask, keeping social distances, etc). In truth our present decisions, actions and response will determine the future of this pandemic not just in our area but across a very mobile nation and world.
We have rights but Jesus and other prophetic teachers remind us that with them comes great responsibility to use them for the common good. A Christian colleague of mine used to tell his congregation that JOY comes from the hierarchy of our love Jesus, Others, Yourself. .
Let us be JOYfully responsible in continuing to do what is needed to contain this contagion and the prevent illness and death of the most vulnerable. Jesus also told his followers “In as much as you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.”