The author of Hebrews tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but to draw near to each other as we desire together the future coming of Christ. Of course, any union of close friends is a desired good, particularly in times of suffering, and how much more so should the union of Christ’s church be a desirable thing to us?
This, so far as I can tell, is the best way of expressing the argument Rusty Reno made last week at First Things when he called for churches to remain open during the pandemic.
Then in a recent editorial at Vox Ezra Klein lamented the ways in which strict social distancing and shelter-in-place orders would exacerbate the crisis of loneliness that is already present in this country.
That, so far as I can tell, is the best way of expressing the argument Reno made in his second piece on the pandemic in which he suggested that we should be mindful of the softer costs of a widespread social shutdown.
And, finally, Christianity has long taught that there are worse things in this world than death. If you can gain immortality in exchange for virtue, Christianity teaches us that that’s a bad trade. Jesus himself says as much in the Gospels, of course, asking what it would profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul. The shutting of the Garden of Eden implies this point as well. Genesis 3 closes with the sober recognition that the worst thing that could happen would be for humanity to escape the sting of death apart from the gifts of repentance and atonement for their sin. God bars us from the tree of life as an act of mercy—and we are only invited to partake of it again in the Lord’s Supper, when Jesus, whose body hangs from a tree and is given to us that we might live, offers that fruit to us.
And that, so far as I can tell, is the best way of expressing Reno’s argument in his third and most recent COVID piece.
That such dramatic steel manning is necessary is a problem, of course. In each piece, and particularly in the third, Reno adopts a deeply unhelpful posture of tough guy machismo that understandably alienates many. Moreover, the third piece in particular is horribly sloppy and was the rhetorical equivalent of slapping a ‘kick me’ sign on one’s own back—and, of course, Twitter was happy to oblige.
Yet one of my hopes for Mere O is that it could help us learn to ask better questions—and I think all three of Reno’s posts, put in their best possible light, can do that. So let’s posit that the above summaries are the best version of each argument. They’re all still wrong. Let’s talk through why.
Should churches stay open?
With regard to keeping churches open, there are two problems.
First, Reno assumes that we cannot receive spiritual care apart from the public worship of God’s people. Certainly the ordinary means by which God cares for us spiritually is through the calling together of his people. But ultimately each of us receives and responds to the call to repent and believe the Gospel individually. And we can be ministered to through meditation upon the truth of God’s promises. Thus in extraordinary circumstances, such as a pandemic, we need to recognize that while closing churches is an extreme step, it is not a step that removes all possibility of receiving spiritual care, as Reno seems to imply at points in the piece.
Second, the sixth commandment tells us not to murder. In their explanation of that commandment, the Westminster divines explain it this way:
Q135: What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
A135: The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.
So part of observing this commandment is endeavoring to preserve the life of ourselves and others. Under the conditions of a pandemic, practicing social distancing and even sheltering in place is a way that we can observe this commandment.
These two arguments need to work together. If it were true that we are severed from the means of spiritual care when the public worship of God’s people is canceled under extraordinary circumstances, then we could not appeal to the sixth commandment in this way because we are not promoting the good of neighbor by denying them access to the means of spiritual care. Moreover, if this time of social distancing lasts more than 2-3 months, it would not be wrong for churches to consult with medical professionals and their congregants to see if it might be possible to arrange small ten-person public gatherings at the church to allow for corporate singing and the administration of the Lord’s Supper.
That being said, there is no reason to insist on endangering public health by continuing to have larger public worship services during this time. Churches should be closed right now as we figure out how much the virus has already spread and take steps to slow that spread as much as possible.
The Social Costs of Isolation
Likewise, Reno is not wrong to note that there will be a variety of consequences of our social shutdown and that these consequences are likely to be devastating. The only problem is that the consequences of not shutting down are almost certainly going to be worse, as we are seeing now in Italy.
If we do not shut down and simply carry on as usual, the death toll from COVID-19 directly is likely to number in the millions. But we shouldn’t worry only about the deaths directly caused by COVID. A stressed medical system that is focusing all of its energies on COVID (and is still failing to meet the need) will also be unable to handle other medical emergencies. So other people with treatable illnesses will become more sick or die as a result of receiving insufficient care that, under normal circumstances, would be more readily available.
These stresses create a number of knockdown effects on the economy, on families, on government, and on down the line. I know that congress is not popular right now, but consider the fact that 27% of the Senate is over age 70. If the virus spread through the Senate, it is likely that several senators could die, especially when you factor in that another 39% of the Senate is 60-69. Taken together, 2/3 of the United States Senate is in the high risk category for the illness. So, by the way, are our current president and both remaining candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Other graying industries would also be slammed. Now is perhaps a good time to point out that the average age of the American farmer is 57.5—so agriculture could get rocked if we do not take drastic steps to contain COVID-19.
The underlying problem here is that there are no good outcomes at this point. Pandemics are a uniquely devastating threat to human society. Moreover, our society is, in many ways, uniquely vulnerable to the threats of a pandemic. So there are no good choices here. But the least bad choice, it seems to me, is taking drastic steps to protect public health. If we can avoid the worst-case scenarios with COVID-19 then we can arguably borrow against the future, especially given the low interest rates. But if we have the worst-case scenarios with COVID-19 we will also still have economic and social devastation as well.
The Dominion of Death
Reno’s final piece is the strangest, most overheated, and, sadly, the most important. Beneath all the bluster and many howlers scattered throughout (“The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of ‘saving lives'”!) there is an important point here: There are worse things than dying.
This is a human truth. If we can gain immortality and lose virtue, we lose. Because of our understanding of the life to come, Christians, however, are uniquely positioned to testify to this truth. And this, I think, is where Reno’s attack goes astray in a significant way.
It is one thing to say that Christians ought to be willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to lay hold of some greater good, such as saving the life of a vulnerable person or a family member or friend. I do not think anyone is angry about this Italian priest’s act of mercy, for example:
Fr. Giuseppe Berardelli, a 72-year-old priest who gave a respirator (that his parishioners had purchased for him), to a younger patient (whom he did not know), has died from #coronavirus.
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) March 24, 2020
(EDIT: Dang it y’all.)
A pandemic furnishes Christians with a unique opportunity to testify to the hope of the resurrection and the beauty of a live of love poured out for others. But this does not mean that we ought to endorse societal recklessness that will endanger the lives of virtually everyone and particularly the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. I have never doubted that my parents would willingly lay down their life for mine if it came to that for whatever reason. I would do the same for my children. But it does not follow from that point that we should, therefore, live action role play Heroic Martyr by recklessly endangering the lives of our neighbors in some odd attempt to prove our belief that there are things more valuable than preserving one’s life.
Relatedly, Reno’s own recounting of the Spanish Flu pandemic is highly simplistic. Contrary to his account of the pandemic, many cities did adopt strict social distancing and shelter-in-place rules to deal with the pandemic. And you know what? The ones that did fared far better than the ones that didn’t.
Years ago my dad came across the old Monty Python and the Holy Grail clip in which the two guards continually fail to understand the most basic instructions from their king. He said it reminded him of trying to give fairly basic, banal instructions to some folks that worked with him who would then, somehow, still miss his point.
You can see it here:
There is a certain sense in which Reno’s increasingly belligerent response to the pandemic reminds me a great deal of these guards. While this is a complex situation and there are no good outcomes, there are a few things that could be happening right now that would obviously be beneficial:
- Most American cities should adopt shelter in place policies to slow the spread of the virus.
- The government should take dramatic action to, essentially, pay people to follow the shelter in place order. This means checks for individual Americans and also some form of relief for American businesses.
- The American government should also work in concert with relevant American medical device businesses to dramatically ramp up the production of COVID-19 tests and to increase production of needed medical supplies, such as masks, respirators, and ventilators.
These are all limited steps that seem eminently reasonable given the magnitude of the problem. Grasping that point should not be difficult. Moreover, to insist on these steps is not to insist that the spiritual care provided by Christian congregations is trivial or unnecessary. It is not to say that the related social consequences or economic ramifications of such actions are trivial. It is not to capitulate to the moral sentimentalism of our day or to betray the basic Christian insight that death is not the worst thing that can befall us. It is, merely, to attempt to exercise prudence and sound judgment when confronted with a tragic, difficult situation. Reno’s stubborn refusal to recognize this fairly basic point hurts Reno’s credibility as a thinker and also hurts First Things’ reputation as a journal.
That being said, the points Reno is raising are not necessarily wrong in principle, but merely wrong in their particular application to this particular case. Being able to understand why they are wrong is important, for it forces us to make judgments and exercise prudence, which, after all, are the necessary acts of citizens in a republic. And these are skills which must be practiced if they are to be acquired and perfected. It will not do to simply dunk on the bad takes that slide across our social feeds.