Every new day delivers yet another story of healthy people with no underlying conditions dying from the coronavirus. Heart-wrenching stories like that of a healthy New Jersey man in his 30s who died of the coronavirus are stark reminders to take lingering stay-at-home orders seriously. People who have recovered from the virus and people who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus are issuing public pleas that people stay home in order to spare themselves, their loved ones, and the public-at-large from the ravages of the virus.
Yet not all are ready to heed those pleas.
The governor of my own state, Greg Abbott of Texas, issued a statewide stay-at-home order weeks after other cities and states had already taken such decisive action. Abbot’s order states that all but essential services are to be held to this order. Interestingly, Abbott’s order deemed religious services, among others, as essential. Many were relieved, feeling that the restrictions were a welcome and necessary step to stop the spread of the virus and save lives; others, including some religious leaders, argue that the restrictions challenge the religious liberties of religious institutions which they also claim are essential.
These religious leaders are voicing their opposition to stay-at-home orders, despite the fact that the current global pandemic is unprecedented in global history. This reality has seemed to elude religious leaders like Tampa, Florida pastor who was arrested for defying Hillsborough County’s order that restricts gatherings to ten people or less. The pastor, Rodney Howard Browne, joined Abbott’s chorus, claiming that churches should be qualified as “essential services.” Browne also made claims that the church’s right to peaceful assembly and to free speech was being violated. This is not unlike the claims made by the Reverend Jeff Hood (a Texas pastor and theologian) who recently wrote a piece claiming that the religious liberties of Christians are being violated by the chorus of local and federal government voices across the nation issuing stay-at-home orders.
Hood and Browne not only find themselves making the same arguments. They and Christians like them are also falling prey to some of American Christianity’s shortcomings; namely, the hubris and victimhood of some expressions of Christianity that imagine the government lies in wait to rip Christians of their faith and to deem religious institutions like churches as “non-essential.”
The notion that American Christians comprise a horribly persecuted class, even prior to the restrictions born as a consequence to this global pandemic we are all now facing is surfacing once again. But the reality is that pre-pandemic Christianity in America has held a lot of systemic privilege (and white expressions of American Christianity, in particular, hold that privilege). Christianity’s status under a pandemic remains the same: there is no persecution.
Federal and local governments are trying to navigate ways of governing that can slow and eventually stop the spread of the coronavirus. Individual freedoms take a backseat to the safety and lives of others during a global pandemic. These orders to stay at home did not emerge from a non-existent need or the absence of a problem. This is culturally indicative of American culture in general — an inclination to protect the individual and to think in individualistic terms.
As Christians, we have to set aside our discomfort and, for the love and sake of our neighbor, allow our individual freedoms — even our religious freedoms — to take a backseat to the stay-at-home orders that will save lives. Christianity, like many of the world’s religions, is very embodied. It passes the peace, it gives of the bread and cup. Christians, like many religious adherents, worship close to one another; they hug, they cry together, they hold hands, they pray together. Everything is so embodied and all of that has been upended.
Pastors have had to find creative ways to make that happen through a technological lens. It isn’t ideal. In fact, many are grieving because their church, their synagogue, their mosque, their temple, etc., are indeed essential for them. But not all people view religious institutions as essential and Christians need to be alright with that, especially when America offers them access to such a privileged place.
Even more, Christianity in the midst of a global pandemic needs to remove its myopic lens to see that those who are really victims in this pandemic are our essential workers such as our medical personnel, hospital janitorial staff, delivery drivers, first responders, delivery drivers and the countless immigrants who have little to no protection from the virus we are all fleeing. Those are voices whose rights are being violated. May it be the religious who ally with them by doing the work of the church within the restrictions given us to save lives. It isn’t about us, after all, it’s about all of God’s humanity and creation.