Think about what you were doing three months ago today (Tuesday, Dec. 24). Most were preparing to gather with friends and relatives to eat Christmas dinners and exchange gifts. Did you know then that the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention was collecting samples of a new virus that had inflicted “pneumonia of an unknown cause” on a cluster of patients in Wuhan, China?
Fast forward three months and the world has gone on lockdown. Some believe the reaction is over the top. Others believe it is not yet enough. Some crave moment-by-moment updates. Others crave a moment of quiet and the chance to think about something other than the wall-to-wall virus coverage.
Everybody is filled with fear. While some are worried about contracting the virus, others are worried about our government’s and our society’s reaction to the virus. What will be the long-term effects on Wall Street and Main Street? How might bad players exploit today’s emergency measures in tomorrow’s world? These concerns, and a thousand more, clutter our minds.
Try as I might, I cannot escape the pandemic either. Whether I speak of it directly, or not at all, my words will be read through the prism of our present situation. So, let’s talk about it, but not by dealing with the myriad concerns. Let this column identify and encourage some of the blessings that are emerging from the crisis.
As a churchman, I cannot help but notice the extraordinary care that both state and federal authorities have shown in protecting the free exercise clause of the first amendment. By their very nature, churches are places where people gather, touch and eat together.
From the very start, epidemiological experts have seen the dangers inherent in church life. Immediately, church leaders were on their guard. Recommendations against gatherings greater than 250 persons were seen by some as secular powers shutting down churches. As that number dropped to 100, 50 and 10 alarmists sounded their alarms.
But those fears have yet to be realized in Wyoming. Even when Governor Gordon issued the most sweeping directive to date—closing movie houses, coffee shops and a host of communal gathering places—churches were conspicuously absent from the list. This is remarkable. And Governor Gordon should be commended for his restraint.
Churches, for their part, are not treating this as a license for irresponsibility. Many have voluntarily closed their doors. Those that have not are nevertheless taking proactive steps to follow the recommendations of the CDC and Wyoming’s Department of Health. This is exactly as it should be. We are seeing that free citizens are quite capable of exercising self-restraint for the good of all without need of government coercion.
That brings us to the second positive lesson of our current crisis. Not only churches, but schools, clubs and sports teams have needed to wrestle over the question of when to cease gathering. The very fact that this is a question at all has forced us into a deeper reflection on our communal existence as bodily creatures.
We live in a world that has, for decades, been rushing headlong into a virtual world that replaces all meaningful human contact with disembodied communication. We have all watched with sadness as people, addicted to screen time, willingly neglect the people sitting across the table in favor of some avatar on their smart phone. Now, suddenly, our forced bodily separation gives us a golden opportunity to relearn why togetherness is important at all.
As schools, churches and board rooms replace the warmth of human contact with two dimensional screens and electronic voices, we are filled with a longing for what we took for granted and tossed aside. When all this is over, let us not forget these lessons. Rather, let us force the virtual world back into its servant role. Technology meant to assist humanity should not be allowed to dominate and replace it.
Human reality is bodily, that is physical, at its core, and it is connected at its core. This is the third positive lesson from the COVID-19 crisis. Stop to think about the drastic measures that governments around the world are putting in place. All of them are aimed at controlling human behavior in order to lessen harm to the human race. No government agencies care what you think. They only care what you do.
The coronavirus itself infects indiscriminately. Rather than behaving according to the identity politics that divide us into a thousand warring factions, it behaves as though we all share one common humanity. There are clear, objective behaviors that can slow its spread. Ignoring the science will increase a person’s risk of contracting the virus.
More than that, your response to the pandemic has implications not only for your personal safety, but for your entire household, church, neighborhood, state and nation. When I leave the house, I am acutely aware that my carelessness could be the cause that introduces the virus to my entire family.
Sins against the CDC recommendations are neither private nor can they remain secret. Infection with the virus is a matter of public interest. Investigating from whom it was contracted is neither a shaming tactic nor idle curiosity. It is a matter of the physical safety of all humankind.
The COVID-19 outbreak has caused a parallel outbreak of common sense. With one voice, we are encouraging one another to take every healthful precaution. All recognize that attention to good practices benefits both the individual and society as a whole.
This is precisely what our society used to understand about all careless and unhealthy behaviors. We called them sins and encouraged one another to avoid them. This was not some mean-spirited criticism. We understood this as love for the person sinning, as well as care for the community as a whole.
The current pandemic offers us a real opportunity to relearn some fundamental lessons of human community. Not only can these lessons resist the COVID-19 virus, but they can serve to resist other viral thoughts that have infected our life together.
It is vital, however, to remember that infection with a virus should not make anyone less valuable to society — or less loved. When a person becomes infected — whether by COVID-19 or by something else — our focus is not on blame and condemnation. Rather, we focus on care and healing.
This is the last great blessing that the global pandemic is giving to our world. In a world where infection is in the air, the accusing finger of blame has no place. Anyone can succumb. Anyone can be infected. We must take precautions, to be sure. But we recognize that we are all in this together. That keeps us humble and attentive to the neighbor in need — especially those who are ill.
Three months ago, hardly any of us suspected that our world would be turned upside down. But, take comfort. God knew it. He knew not only of the ills, but also of the positive benefits that could come from the lessons of the pandemic.
Let’s make the most of our time. Internalize the lessons of today while trusting God with the blessings of tomorrow. “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV).
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.