When Lent started on Ash Wednesday, most people probably didn’t plan on giving up church for Lent.
Hence the headline, described by others as the “Lentiest Lent Ever.” The difference, however, is that Easter, the day when Christians celebrate the Resurrection, will be a day not different from other recent days, to borrow from the Jewish Passover.
So, some good news first. After receiving a letter from The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), and the Wisconsin Family Council in support of WILL’s efforts, Governor Tony Evers clarified his “safer at home” order so accommodations are made for religious observances, including for Good Friday and Easter.
From Evers press release, the following is allowed:
- Parking lots with congregants staying in cars, avoiding person-to-person contact;
- Streaming online; and
- Having small gatherings (fewer than 10 people in each room) with multiple services.
Of course, that will not make everyone happy, and it shouldn’t. It’s very frustrating to me to see the government having the belief it has the power to shut down religious observances, regardless of the reason. We have a First Amendment right to the “free exercise” of religion, and it’s been under assault by various secular authorities and institutions well before the Coronavirus outbreak.
On the other hand, we also know that if we did not ban large gatherings even in churches, the social distancing required to end the Coronavirus would not be observed. David French wrote in The Dispatch about a church that failed to protect its members:
On March 7, a Christian school not far from my home held a fundraiser, an event full of faithful believers gathered for a virtuous purpose. One person in attendance had COVID-19. Now two dozen people at that event have tested positive, including a dear friend of mine. His wife is symptomatic. Several children are also symptomatic. The faith of these Christian believers was no shield against viral infection.
In an ideal world, Evers would be able to exempt religious institutions entirely from the ban on gatherings while religious leaders would act responsibly and enforce the ban anyway. But as a person of faith, I understand we do not live in an ideal world.
The tension between the state’s need to protect its citizens and our religious liberty is personal to me, especially at this time of year. In 1992, I converted to the Catholic faith. This still surprises my wife because of my very skeptical nature. But my faith, and my relationship with God, has been an important part of my life since then and I always look forward to Easter as a time of renewal.
It’s also a family matter. Not just because of the Easter Bunny and Easter egg hunts that my children have outgrown. My wife sings in the church choir and we also look forward to attending Tenebrae on Good Friday, a favorite activity for my daughter, too. Not being able to hear my wife’s choir on Easter Sunday and not being able to attend Tenebrae is extremely disappointing.
But I was also reminded recently of how my father-in-law was stuck at home at the end of his life with Parkinson’s disease. Unable to attend Mass in person, he continued to watch Mass at home and received a monthly visit from a priest. His faith at the end of life was undiminished by his inability to go to church.
It’s a reminder that faith is more than ceremony, more than holidays, more than just being in a church. It’s about our relationship with God. His Son told us that the most important commandment is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” The second is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
If we love our neighbors, then we’ll love God even while being separate from our churches for one Easter during a Coronavirus pandemic.
Wigderson is entitled to his opinion. (He and I are opposites in the sense that I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and now am, shall we say, Catholic in a different sense, whereas he converted to the faith.) The logical extension of his opinion, however, seems to be that if faith “is more than being in a church,” then church isn’t necessary for faith. The logical consequence of that is that people who haven’t been going to church because they have been barred from church by government edict (a gross violation of our First Amendment rights) will stop going to church, period.
There has been a debate throughout the Christian church since Fr. Martin Luther started questioning Rome about faith and works. Faith is required before anything else. Once you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior (Jesus Christ’s first Commandment), to be a Christian requires other things of Christians, including following Jesus’ second Commandment), which requires helping others, living a godly life, repenting from sin when you don’t, and, yes, worshiping with others in a faith community. Being a Christian means more is expected of you.
It is one thing to be, like Wigderson’s father-in-law, unable to attend church, or to have church attendance not advised, because any kind of public contact is not advised. Any Christian who would criticize such a person would be guilty of violating the second of the Great Commandments. It is different to decide you’re using governmental edicts as an excuse to stop going, after which you’ve going to use other excuses to not return to church. The latter is what I am afraid is going to happen. That has already happened in other countries where the majority of people are not religious.
Wigderson engages in a bit of all-or-nothingism by rereporting French’s report of the church members now testing positive for the coronavirus. We do not know from what French wrote how many church members have died, if any, or become very ill, if any. The current data from this state’s Department of Health Services says:
- The test results of 8.4 percent of the people who have been tested for the coronavirus turn out positive.
- About 30 percent of those who tested positive have been hospitalized, and about 51 percent have not. (The rest are in the “unknown” category.)
- There have been 111 deaths, which is 0.3 percent of the 34,000 tested people, and 3.8 percent of those with positive tests. What we do not know is how many of those 111 people actually died because of the coronavirus, or died because of their preexisting health conditions, or died because their preexisting conditions were made worse by the coronavirus.
The point that people have strenuously refused to understand is that a positive coronavirus test is not a death sentence. In this state, and one assumes without different evidence in this country, somewhere between more than half and 70 percent of people who test positive are not sick enough to require hospitalization, and 96 percent of those who test positive do not die.
The timing of Evers’ “clarification” is most illuminating. County health departments had been saying that no church services are permitted, period, before Thursday. One church I’m aware of had planned, and then canceled, their planned service in a theater parking lot earlier this week. It is probably too late three days before Easter to remake plans for an Easter service. I’m sure the Freedom From Religion Foundation is most pleased.
For that matter, church authorities have been helping the anti-religion cause by knuckling under to authority, at least in Wisconsin. Churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee have been banned from holding services on Sundays, not because of the state edict, but because of a decision by the bishop. I assume that is the same in other Christian religions in the state. Despite what you may be reading, the uneven state of online access in this state means that some believers are shut out of being able to worship with others of their faith.
French quotes two Gospel passages …
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
… to say they …
… both represent different conceptions of risk that help me work through the distinctions between recklessness, courage, and cowardice. The first set of verses represents the second of the three great temptations of Jesus as outlined in the book of Matthew. Satan demanded that Christ perform an ostentatious display of power and faith—that he throw himself from a great height to demonstrate his invulnerability. Yet Christ refused, declaring that such a ridiculous and ostentatious act would put God to the test.
There exists within Christianity a temptation to performative acts that masquerade as fearlessness. In reality, this recklessness represents—as the early church father John Chrysostom called it—“display and vainglory.” Look how fearless we are, we declare, as we court risks that rational people should shun. In the context of a global pandemic followers of Christ can actually become a danger to their fellow citizens, rather than a source of help and hope.
Or, put another way, reckless Christians can transform themselves from angels of mercy to angels of death, and the rest of the world would be right to fear their presence.
But just as Christ rejected performative displays, he also rejected cowardice. He demands sacrifice even unto death. Yet taking up one’s cross in imitation of Christ means engaging in purposeful sacrifice. This is the risk of the doctor or the nurse who possesses the courage to continually expose himself or herself to deadly disease to care for the sick and dying. This is the risk of the faithful believer who sheds personal protection to care for the least of these so that they are not alone.
Wigderson and French draw, I believe, the wrong conclusion from these two passages. We Christians are supposed to believe that a better life awaits us after the death of our bodies. We’re not acting like we believe that. Christian church leaders are not supposed to be blindly accepting of civil authority when asserting that authority violates our First Amendment rights of freedom of religion, and yet too many of them are doing just that.
The nonreligious reader will believe none of this. So I will put this a different way for the nonbeliever: At some point, you are going to die. Every biological thing dies. Fate may end your life as soon as you are done reading this, or fate may grant you years of more life. But at some point, you are going to die. Living boldly gives you a better quality of life than cowering in fear hoping you will eke out a few more years of your existence.
The only thing we are counseled to fear in the Bible is God, which means not to be afraid of God, but to worship God. The admonition “fear not” is found, according to those who counted, 365 times.