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Covid Christians As Rich Young Rulers

Our coronavirus response is often driven by fear of poverty, not faith in Christ

Today is Orthodox Good Friday. As is my tradition, I am staying away from the blog today. I wrote this on Thursday night, and scheduled it to post on Friday. Please be patient about comments. I will approve comments at some point during the day on Friday, just so they don’t get out of hand by the time business as usual resumes on Saturday, but mostly, I will not be adhering to the regular schedule.

I was as moved by these two Pandemic Diary entries I received yesterday as I have been by anything readers have written me over the years. The first comes from Ohio:

One thing the crisis has done is crystallized a sense of alienation from the religion I grew up in and am still, ostensibly, a member of. I grew up in a conservative Catholic household–six kids, homeschooled, dad is mentioned briefly as one of the victims in Michael Rose’s “Goodbye, Good Men,” the works. I go to church every Sunday, pray every day, my wife is a convert, etc. I’m friends with a lot of conservative Catholics.
The coronavirus has made me realize that, in order to be a “conservative Catholic” is good standing, you really have to deny a lot of things that are actually true. My conservative friends’ Facebook feeds are full of conspiracy theories positing that the general idea is that the whole thing is overblown, this is just the flu, and the shutdowns are just a power grab. Needless to say, this is all based on clearly flawed or nonexistent evidence. The idea seems to be that everyone has the right to their opinion, and that it’s possible to find facts supporting almost any opinion, so it’s up to you to pick which opinion you like best.
I know not all conservative Christians are like this, but a very high percentage are, and those tend to be the most vocal. Realistically, if you’re joining a group of conservative Catholics, you’ll either have to be (or pretend to be) a fervent Trump supporter, deny global warming and most likely evolution as well, and view anything coming from the “mainstream media” (defined as any source that isn’t explicitly conservative) with extreme skepticism.
This isn’t just conservative Christians, and I’ve definitely seen most of our political groups get more extreme over the last decade or so, but I would argue that conservatives might be among the worst. Last night, I literally saw someone (intelligent and educated) arguing that she wouldn’t get a coronavirus vaccine because it’s HER CHOICE. That’s not even the craziest thing I saw yesterday; someone else was saying that coronavirus was easily treatable with essential oils.
It might sound like I’m “ashamed” of my coreligionists, and I sort of am. But the larger problem is that I feel profoundly alienated from them; it’s hard to feel allied with people who deny reality, and more than that, make their invented reality the cornerstone of their lives. I’m also inclined to think that a movement based on conspiracies and pseudoscience isn’t likely to last too long.

The second, from Colorado:

I’m writing to you from Littleton, Colorado. I have been a reader of your blog for years and have rooted you on when it comes to the Benedict Option and your correct diagnosis of the impact of the woke left on Christian Institutions. However the last month or so I have bristled at you and your writings covering the virus. I consider myself rational, my college major was biology, my wife is a physician assistant and my brother a doctor, yet I’ve found myself rebelling at everything that is standing in the way of things returning to normal.

My faith, which should be sustaining me is in tatters. I’ve lived a very comfortable suburban life and have become accustomed to making plans and having a pretty good idea of how things would go. I’ve always thought Christ would be sufficient, and if push came to shove I’d be able to persevere. This interruption and the possibility of economic ruin, has made me realize how weak my faith is. I crave comfort and certainty. I’m being asked to consider the possibility that I may have to sacrifice everything and trust Christ fully. Like the rich young ruler, this virus is making me consider if I could leave everything and only follow Christ. I’m failing and rather than repentance, my heart is hard and my neck is stiff. I’m finding myself unconcerned with the human toll as long as we can return to normal. I’m not doing well.

This, my friends, is what apocalypse does: it reveals. The Ohio reader, like many of us, are seeing things in the church that were hidden from us before, and it leaves us cold. The Colorado reader is seeing things in himself that he didn’t realize existed, and it is breaking him. I have already tonight been praying for both of these men, and they will be on my mind and in my prayers on Good Friday. I agree with the Ohio reader, and though I am not where the Colorado reader is, I know myself well enough to know that deep down, the Rich Young Ruler lives inside me too, and eventually in this crisis, I am likely to meet him under duress.

The fact is, so many of us Americans — I count myself in this number — are terrified of being poor. I’m not talking about being afraid of losing luxuries. I have had times in my life when I had no luxuries, and I have had Champagne and French oysters times in my life. The Champagne and oysters times are better, but really, I have never known hard times. The world my parents grew up in — the rural South, in the Great Depression — may as well have been deepest Uzbekistan. The most frightening thing about poverty to me is not the material asceticism, which really isn’t that scary to me. It’s the feeling of loss of control. If there’s one thing we modern Americans — liberals and conservatives, secular and religious — cannot stand, it’s the thought that we aren’t in control of our lives. It is our collective idol, especially for the middle class. Again, let me make clear to you that I’m talking to myself too.

Being poor is never easy, God knows, but as I reflect on my late father’s stories of Great Depression poverty, I realize that they had something then that we don’t today. They could count on a level of social order and solidarity that is largely absent today. I often think of this observation from Robert D. Kaplan’s much-discussed 1994 Atlantic article titled “The Coming Anarchy.” He contrasts the chaos and violence of the poor of West Africa with the order of the poor of Turkey:

Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims. Slums—in the sociological sense—do not exist in Turkish cities. The mortar between people and family groups is stronger here than in Africa. Resurgent Islam and Turkic cultural identity have produced a civilization with natural muscle tone. Turks, history’s perennial nomads, take disruption in stride.

We Americans clearly do not take disruption in stride. Look at us now. For us middle-class Christians, what has been uncovered is our inability to cope with the possibility of sacrifice. It scares us to death. Many of us are prepared to believe anything rather than accept the radical sacrifices that fighting this pandemic calls for — and this is what the Ohio letter-writer is getting at.

No, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t question the authorities’ decision-making. I concede that maintaining a high degree of lockdown, as we are supposedly doing now, is not going to be possible for the length of time we will probably need for scientists to come up with a vaccine. I further concede that if I were one of the 22 million Americans who lost their job this past month, I would probably be a lot more prone to radical thoughts too. Again, I am not as susceptible to Rich Young Ruler Syndrome as the Colorado reader is, but I’d be a self-deceiving fool to say that I’m immune to it.

What has helped me think more clearly here is my experiences in this past year reading about those Christians who suffered under communism, and meeting with a number of them. I won’t go into all that again; if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know some of these stories, and in any case, you’ll read more when my next book comes out this fall. I want to remind you that these men and women suffered far more under communism than any of us are likely to suffer in this pandemic. They lost their jobs, their status, their liberty — and some even went to prison, and endured torture. We Americans who are freaking out and believing conspiracy theories, and in all kinds of magical thinking, because we’re scared that the virus is going to make us poor — my Lord, we wouldn’t have lasted two days under communism. We would have been just like the majority of people in those countries: conformists, out of fear.

And not just fear of the secret police taking us away in the middle of the night. There is the more normal kind of fear, including loss of status and privileges. It’s also the kind of fear that compelled a lot of Catholics to deny that some priests were sexually abusing children, and that bishops were covering it up. It was a massive threat to their faith to face that horrible reality than to deal with it straightforwardly, and to trust in God through it. Eventually, reality broke through, and the problem could no longer be denied. Anyone who has lived through a situation in their family, place of work, or other community, in which the majority were prepared to believe just about anything as long as they could maintain their belief that the world they thought they were living in was real will understand how this works.

Hear me: I am not saying that anybody who questions the lockdown is a denialist. I genuinely believe that we are going to have to have a serious conversation about how to roll back some of these restrictions in a responsible way. That is going to mean determining how much death we are willing to accept. The MIT model warns us, as other epidemiologists have, that loosening restrictions too soon is going to mean a “catastrophic” increase in mortality. In Singapore, early restrictions flattened the curve, but now, having backed off too soon, they’re in trouble again. In the US, a CDC expert says that our official Covid death rate is probably far too low because our testing is so poor, and a lot of people are probably dying in their homes. We have to also face the possibility that the virus will mutate, greatly complicating vaccine development.

What I’m calling out is what Ohio reader is calling out: Christians who are committing themselves to conspiratorial interpretations of what’s happening, and to denying science if the science tells them to do something that they do not want to do. (The Washington Post reports that this is a phenomenon of the populist right, egged on by Fox News and talk radio.) A Catholic reader in the Midwest sent me some material being passed out by a lay religious leader in his parish who does not believe all these lockdowns are necessary, and who is calling for resistance. The feeling there is that if you do believe that the lockdowns are necessary, then you are a fraidy-cat. The Pentecostal pastor in Baton Rouge, Tony Spell, has been saying flat-out that people who are afraid to come to church because they fear getting the disease are cowardly Christians. Yesterday in Baton Rouge it emerged that one of his congregants has died from the virus, according to the coroner, but Tony Spell calls it fake news. One of Spell’s lawyers is in the hospital now with the virus, and told reporters that he feels bad if he passed it on to anyone. That whole church is one big synod of magical thinkers. The CREC — the Presbyterian denomination that includes controversial pastor Douglas Wilson — has announced:

Those individuals and their families, pastors, leaders and physicians, are the ones to make the best decisions about how they should live during the spread of this disease. If this were a great plague, a direct threat to the health and lives of all of our congregants, as many of us initially thought it was, we would be glad to continue to comply with reasonable measures to mitigate the spread. However, it is now clear that it is not the plague and we are not prepared to continue to comply with extreme mitigation efforts. Our desire is to be obedient to the civil magistrate. However, we must also do what we believe God expects of us, what is best for our people and our communities, and what our consciences dictate. For our American members, The U.S. Constitution rightly affords us these rights of speech and assembly because they extend to us from God, Himself. The citizens of the United States and our congregants are already beginning to strongly feel the need to get back to regular living. While we do not currently have a date after which we will no longer comply with the extreme restrictions, we believe the time is now at hand for our leaders to stand down from the extreme isolation efforts, and the date after which we will no longer comply, is soon approaching, in days or weeks, not months.

They “strongly feel” that it’s time to get back to regular living, so they’re preparing to defy scientists and government leaders. Because of “rights.”

Honestly, I cannot grasp this. Do they believe that this virus is a political entity that they can take to court, and petition the court to tell it to go away, because it is violating their God-given and Constitutional rights?

Mother Teresa, speaking about abortion, said, “It is a poverty  to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” Along those lines, we might say, “It is a poverty to decide that old people, those with weak immune systems, obese people, and others must die so that you may live as you wish.”

Yes, we know that economic pain brings with it more deaths from suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Shouldn’t members of churches be less susceptible to these pathologies? Are these Christians really worried about those far from the life of the church, who don’t have the fellowship and the internal moral and spiritual strength to endure great hardship — or are they worried that they themselves will have to abandon, like the Colorado readers, their “very comfortable suburban lives,” and the sense of control they have over them? Are all the potential deaths from Covid-19 a price worth paying to keep the suburbs humming along?

I think of the woman the Ohio man heard from, who said that she would stand on her “right” not to take the covid vaccine. And the one who said she was going to try to fight it with essential oils. Anything, it seems, not to face the harsh realities this virus brings to us.

Christians of the early church were known for caring for the ill in plague times, and not running away from them. It seems that a lot of conservative Christians today prefer to run away from the plague — or at least to act as if they could run away from the plague — rather than do the hard work of figuring out how to bear together the sacrifices necessary to defeat it. This is not the way Christians are supposed to behave. This is Rich Young Ruler stuff.

The historian of the ancient world Tom Holland writes about how the early Christians distinguished themselves in the Roman Empire by caring for the plague sick. Excerpts:

First, at the end of the second century, and then again in the middle of the third, bowls of wrath were poured out on the Roman empire. Of the second pandemic, a historian would subsequently record that “there was almost no province of Rome, no city, no house, which was not attacked and emptied by this general pestilence”.

Did it mark, then, the breaking of the cities of the world foretold by St John? Many Christians believed so. Fatefully, however, it was not as worshippers of a God of wrath that they would come to be viewed by many of their fellow citizens, but as worshippers of a God of love: for it was observed by many in plague-ravaged cities how, “heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ”. Obedient to the commands of their Saviour, who had told them that to care for the least of their brothers and sisters was to care for him, and confident in the promise of eternal life, large numbers of them were able to stand firm against dread of the plague, and tend to those afflicted by it.

The compassion they showed to the sick – and not just to the Christian sick – was widely noted, and would have enduring consequences. Emerging from the terrible years of plague, the Church found itself steeled in its sense of mission. For the first time in history, an institution existed that believed itself called to provide compassion and medical care to every level of society.

The revolutionary implications of this, in a world where it had always been taken for granted that doctors were yet another perk of the rich, could hardly be overstated. The sick, rather than disgusting and repelling Christians, provided them with something they saw as infinitely precious: an opportunity to demonstrate their love of Christ.

Jesus himself, asked by a centurion to heal his servant of a mortal illness, had marvelled that a Roman should place such confidence in him – and duly healed the officer’s servant. By the beginning of the fourth century, not even their bitterest enemies could deny Christians success when it came to tending the sick. In Armenia, the Zoroastrian priests who marked down the Krestayne as purveyors of witchcraft were at the same time paying them a compliment. When the Armenian king became the first ruler to proclaim his realm a Christian land in 301, his conversion followed the success of a Christian holy man in curing him of insanity – and specifically of the conviction that he was a wild boar.

Then, just over a decade later, an even greater ruler was brought to Christ. Constantine embraced Christianity, not out of any concern for the unfortunate, but out of the far more traditional desire for a divine patron who would bring him victory in battle; but this did not mean, once the successful establishment of his regime had served to legitimate Christianity, that Christians among the ranks of the Roman elite turned a blind eye to their responsibility towards the sick.

Quite the opposite: “Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect.” So urged Gregory, an aristocrat from Cappadocia who in 372, 60 years after Constantine’s conversion, became the bishop of a small town named Nyssa. “Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; they have taken upon them the person of our Saviour. For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person.”

Read it all — it’s amazing.

What about us Christians? So many of us are running around acting like the coronavirus sick are a threat to our settled lives and our livelihoods, and that we should be willing to allow a number of them to die so we can live as we were. Rush Limbaugh delivered this week a monologue saying that the Democrats want the economy to remain closed so they can hurt Donald Trump and the GOP. As if this virus gave a damn about American politics!

Why is Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk radio hosts treated by so many conservative Christians as a greater authority on how Christians ought to behave in the plague than Christian pastors and bishops? Than scientists?

I would simply ask all of us to interrogate ourselves, like the Colorado reader, and ask whether or not our passions about the virus and fighting it are driven not by rational considerations, but by fear of poverty, and fear of our lives being too disrupted for too long. Are we the Rich Young Ruler — the man who told Jesus he wanted to follow Him, and to whom Jesus said, “Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come with me” — and the rich young man went away sad, because he couldn’t do that?

Is that us?

We’re going to be opening up some things in the months to come. What are we prepared to do for all those who get sick and die because of it? Are we prepared for the possibility that among that number will be our mothers, fathers, family members, friends, fellow church members, and such like? It’s one thing to say that you yourself are prepared to die, but that’s not how the virus works. You can be carrying the virus and not feel sick yet, but still infect others. It’s not just about you.

And it’s not just about politics, cultural and otherwise.  You can no more wish the reality of this virus away with bold declarations than a man can declare himself to be a woman with strong words and passions.

UPDATE: My wife texts me this from Facebook. She asked me to take the name of the poster off, because she’s not sure how public his FB account is. He is an Orthodox priest:

My wife is on the phone now, so I can’t ask her what that final line was. But I read the original, and I think it says, “I am struggling and that’s okay.” Or something to that effect.

In other Orthodox Good Friday news, this thing is happening, this thing that doesn’t happen:



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