We are now 4 solid months into America’s reaction to COVID-19. Early on, the focus was on a national response to a pandemic that affected New York and Washington State most acutely; ventliators, masks, and all sorts of personal protective equipment were in short supply (or so we were told), and it was the Federal government’s job to get the states these vitally important supplies. Many people clamored for a national lockdown order to keep the virus from spreading; never mind that a) the Federal government does not have that power, and b) the same people clamoring for heavy-handed action from Washington, D.C. were the same people who constantly told us that the current occupant is just waiting for his chance to become a dictator.
The national order never came, and the reason why leads us to our first term; if you read the linked article above, you saw David call it “federalism at work.” The word “federalsim” can be a bit confusing, as we use Federal government and national government (or U.S. government) synonymously; however, “federalism” is the opposite of a centralized government. Federalism pushes as much responsibility and power as possible to the lowest level possible, the idea being that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is best done by people in close proximity to one another. Our Federal government gets that name because it is a federation of the “several states” (to use the term from the Constitution) designed to deal with national-level issues.
How does federalism help us with our pandemic response? Easy - the states are in control of their responses, and can ask for help from the Federal government if they need it. We have seen this as the various states have begun their reopening procedures. Some have been aggressive, and ended up having to pull back; other states have been as aggressive, and have not seen as many issues. Some states are opening more cautiously - and, again, some are fine, but some are seeing cases spike in spite of that. Taken in isolation, this demonstrates that there is no one right answer for the nation at large. As we head into fall, states, cities, and school districts are trying to decide what school will look like; the one thing we can say for certain is that there will not be 50-state uniformity in these plans.
Back in the 1930s, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis voiced a concept that is now paraphrased “The states are laboratories of democracy.” The term “laboratory” is interesting, in light of the pandemic; they’re now serving as laboratories for more than just democracy! Different states will try different things, with different results. As a nation, our job will be to determine if successes could replicated at a larger scale; not everything that works in one place will work everywhere, and as programs grow, their efficiency often wanes. Federalism gives us a structure where we can have these public policy debates, realizing that we do not have to come up with a national answer. (I realize that I’m writing this in an election year; it can be tough to find candidates who say “Here’s what I’m going to stop having the Federal government do ‘for’ you,” but you can find them if you try.)
The other principle I want to highlight is known as subsidiarity. That link will give you lots of history behind the word as a civil, political, and social concept; but, the quick version is the idea that issues are best handled at the lowest level possible, and the level that handles it is also responsible for it. Subsidiarity begins with self, and works outward to family / home, church / school, city / county / state, etc. A piece of trash on your kitchen floor is likely not a county issue; a missing guardrail on a dangerous curve is likely not something for your church to fix; and funding prisons is not likely the sole responsibility of your family. If you’re thinking that it sounds a lot like federalism, you’d be right; federalism is subsidiarity in government.
Properly applying subsidiarity allows us to see positive changes in our communities. Politicians are going to politic; we can’t control that. However, we can make sure that we are not becoming careless spreaders of disease. We, along with our families, can make food, do chores, or otherwise care for someone who needs it. Our churches and civic organizations are a great level for community-oriented help, and often serve as a way to get people who need help with those who can provide it. As each organization’s focus gets wider, they are going to be the most productive if they can stay focused at that level. If they are having to do things that require more detail, they will be bogged down; if they are responsible for things above their level, they will not be able to do their actual mission.
A lot of the political anger overs masks vs. no masks, supplies, support, etc. can be seen as a failure of subsidiarity. Paul Harvey, the oustanding radio announcer, wrote “Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have” (though this has widely been misattributed to Thomas Jefferson). The Federal government is the not the appropriate level for opening and closing decisions; that is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are precisely that - guidelines. Wyoming is going to have different needs than Florida; and, within Wyoming, Laramie and Cheyenne may need a different focus than Moorcroft or Hyattville. Pushing these decisions up too high is asking for those decisions to be poor and/or insufficient.
This isn’t to say that the Federal government does not have a role to play; through laws and programs, it has stockpiles of emergency supplies, and it has the ability to shift a large amount of money around (relatively) quickly. This can help those who need it; yet, even then, our culture is such that those who don’t need the help will raise a stink about those who do need it actually getting it. We also saw that Paycheck Protection Program funds went to many entities that are most certainly not small businesses; this, too, can be seen as a failure of subsidiarity, as these companies represented themselves as (at least) a level below what they actually were.
There really is no grand conclusion here. Just as no government can blink and make a million tests appear, I cannot sit here behind my keyboard and prescribe how all this gets better. What I can do, though, is encourage each of us to embrace and employ the principles of federalism and subsidiarity as our best chance of getting the best results for the largest number of people. Insisting on a centralized response is insisting on a lackluster, inept response - no matter who is in the White House.
p.s. This was planned to be the 3rd installment of this series from the time I wrote part 1, which I expected to have done within 2 weeks. But, given the emphasis of that post, the timing of this just proves the assertion I made in that first post - we are not in control.
When orders started coming out to avoid groups larger than 250, then 50, then 10, many organizations were affected. The NBA season ended almost immediately, NCAA’s March Madness tournament was canceled, Major League Baseball has yet to have opening day, concerts have been canceled, and theaters have sat empty for a month. Churches are also place where regular meetings of more than 10 people occur, and they were affected as well. And, while sport and concert tickets can be refunded, and movie release dates pushed back, very few churches have chosen to go completely idle during this time.
Some people may just accept it. Others, though, may wonder why, and some people may completely not understand. If you can rewatch your favorite series on Netflix, why not rewatch or relisten to your favorite sermon? Nearly everyone owns at least one Bible, and even if not, Bible Gateway is free! Just read the Bible for yourself! In this installment, we’ll look at the concept of “church during a pandemic” from the Christian worldview, and see why its practitioners feel it is essential.
Scripture Commands and Exemplefies It
The best-known verse cited as a reason to gather regularly is Hebrews 10:25, presented here in context with verse 24:
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
We also see it in the example of the early church, meeting together every day!
46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
This is far from exhaustive (remember the “bite-sized” nature of these posts), but from these origins, believers have regularly met together. And, while I’m not aware of a church that has the full Sunday morning treatment every day of the week, there are churches that have activities nearly every day. These activities help believers obey this command and follow the example of those who came before us.
An interesting companion study of Scripture is to study times where Christians did not meet together, or where they adjusted their techniques due to government persecution. That would push this way longer than I’ve planned to write, but there are examples of people separating themselves for sickness, and of abandoning the temple for smaller gatherings in homes. I know of no orthodox Christians who have continued their normal services during these times.
Christians Need It
Notice that, in the above two passages, there was more than just a command or an example - there was a recognized or promised benefit. In Hebrews, believers meet together to stir up each other towards love and good works, and in Acts, they had glad and generous hearts. Meeting together with other believers was commanded because God knew that we, as Christians, would need those benefits. In one of his earliest recorded letters, Paul is discussing various spiritual gifts, and this is what he says as he concludes that discussion:
26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
Christians can get these benefits virtually, and many have been. Prior to this, we would have scoffed at Zoom Sunday School classes; now, we are grateful for the tools that allow us to stay connected. I can’t remember who I first heard say “the Internet is a terrible place to go to church” (and they were right), but in a pinch, it’s been a great way to continue in fellowship with other believers. (Once this all goes away, these go back to being true; in-person is still preferable. There are many benefits these tools don’t provide.)
We All Need Hope
This is a dark time for many people. They have lost jobs and have no idea where money is coming from next week. They have lost loved ones, and weren’t even able to see them for the last weeks of their lives. They are depressed, the normal routine of a life they enjoyed exchanged for a house that feels like a jail. These are not people who need to “suck it up” and get over it – these are people with real, genuine hurts, and the world offers them very little in the way of comfort or hope.
Jesus, though, offers hope to hurting people. He spent His entire earthly ministry “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” We, as the church, carry on His ministry today; but how can we offer hope if all we have is a greatest hits playlist? Hurting people need acceptance, a listening ear, and kind words; these pre-recorded messages may have truth, but struggling people “don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Jesus offers salvation, which addresses the root of all of our problems, and He offers hope and peace between here and Heaven; we are the ambassadors He’s trusted to share that message.
Churches also need to meet to mobilze help where it may be needed. Most churches have several members who struggle to get out and get the things they need when nothing is wrong; under these conditions, they simply can’t do it. Most churches also have able-bodied, healthy members who can care for those who are struggling. We cannot build up the body (physically or spiritually) if we do not know the needs.
So, that is why you see churches live-streaming, driving CDs around, renting FM transmitters to let people park at the church and attend from their cars – it is that important. And, I’ll wrap up with a bit of afflicting the comfortable – shouldn’t our “salt and light” be so self-evident that no one wonders why we’re still meeting?
As I enter week 5 of working from home, our nation is walking through its 2nd month – and the world is wrapping up its 3rd month – dealing with SARS-CoV-2 (AKA “novel coronavirus 2019,” the virus behind COVID-19). Responses to this virus are testing Americans’ worldviews like nothing else in our current lifetime. Things are moving fast, and scientists and doctors are learning how to fight a new disease on-the-fly, while the fatality rate continues to creep up, and is at 3%+ as of this writing. Authoring a definitive tome on the entire thing is outside my abilities (and time constraints), but I thought I would write about some individual aspects, and consider how each one meshes with my understanding of a proper Christian worldview.
This first one came to my mind as I wondered “what form of government is best at handling this?” As I’ve read about various efforts at prevention and management from around the world, the answer to which I arrived was “none of them.” To be fair, some countries have fared better than others; but, to also be fair, comparing countries is a pretty terrible way to understand this pandemic. Communist countries, socialist nations, democracies, and republics have all fallen victim to this disease, especially in their larger population centers. No nation has been able to prevent the initial spread of this virus into their borders.
This does not match the expectations many people are levying on those governments. The clamoring has been loud and long for tests and treatments, and many of these people seem to think that government can just have these things at the ready, long before a need for them arises. They have a view of government and science that simply does not jibe with reality. When doctors make harmless mistakes, or miss a diagnosis that they eventually catch, we sometimes joke that “that’s why it’s called medical practice.” But, in reality, that is exactly why the term exists. To be sure, there is established science and a body of medical knowledge that, were its practitioners to ignore, they would be considered negligent. However, there is always the possibility that a doctor is encountering something that is either unknown, or presenting differently than current wisdom or protocols suggest.
Even if the medical care was there, though, the Federal government is wholly inept at doing anything, on a large scale, quickly and correctly. This is not a knock on it per se, and deeper discussions of government, both good and bad, will appear in future installments. The biggest reason for this broad statement is simply its size; it is nearly impossible to get a large organization to do anything quickly, much less something as large as a national response to this crisis. Think of the RMS Titanic - there is a reason they couldn’t avoid the iceberg, even though they spotted it before they struck it.
So, how does the Christian worldview address this? Quite simply - “duh!” Of course we are not in control. This world is fallen, cursed with sin, and subject to all manners of calamities.* Job experienced a lot of calamities, and asked God a lot of questions. When God came to answer him, though, He asserted His sovereignty over this entire planet:
1 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
2 "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8 “Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb, 9 when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors, 11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”
We trust that God is continuing to work His will on this earth, whether through a pandemic or in spite of it; and, we also trust that He is big enough to protect us through it, and give us wisdom as we navigate these changing times. We also give thanks that God’s size does not affect Him the way it does our human institutions.
* As I finish writing this, I’ve learned that my high school alma mater was devastated by a tornado overnight; be praying for Grace Baptist Church and Academy, and all of those throughout the southeast who lost something much more precious than a building.