New York Times op-ed: The Christian Response to the Coronavirus: Stay Home, by Esau McCaulley (Wheaton College):
When loving your neighbor means keeping your distance.
The church, the actual building that houses black bodies and souls, stands at the center of black life and culture. It is a fact hiding in plain sight that one of the first cooperative economic ventures former slaves undertook was the purchase and maintenance of churches. Without the cooperation of the church, many black colleges, universities and political organizations would not exist. To this day, American black Christians attend church at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.
It is not then surprising that when terrorists wanted to strike fear in the hearts of black believers, they burn and attack our churches. Despite the trauma, the church has remained a source of hope. The marches and sit-ins of the civil rights movement were often preceded by mass worship services.
But what happens when the church is a part of the danger?
With the novel coronavirus spreading rapidly, this is not simply a question for individual church members. The pandemic forces the church as an institution to consider its role during a time of crisis. Many religious communities are suspending their typical operations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has stopped services worldwide. The Catholic Church in Rome shuttered its doors temporarily. Much of Washington State has done the same. What should we think about this? Are Christians abandoning their responsibility to the sick and suffering?
Some Christians may be tempted to look back on their history of remaining physically present during times of distress. Starting around 250 A.D., A.D., a plague that at its height was said to kill 5,000 people a day ravaged the Roman empire. The Christians stood out in their service to the infirm. Because they believed that God was sovereign over death, they were willing to minister to the sick even at the cost of their lives. This witness won many to the Christian cause. Should we follow their example and gather to celebrate in word and ritual, in the sermon as well as the bread and the wine?
Doctors and nurses of faith can indeed draw upon this story today to inspire them to tend to those sickened by the pandemic. What about the rest of us? This remains certain in the ever-shifting narrative of Covid-19: the most effective ways of stopping the spread of the virus is by social distancing (avoiding large gatherings) and good personal hygiene (washing our hands). The data suggests that what the world needs now is not our physical presence, but our absence.
This does not seem like the stuff of legend. What did the church do in the year of our Lord 2020 when sickness swept our land? We met in smaller groups, washed our hands and prayed. Unglamorous as this is, it may be the shape of faithfulness in our time.
There is a lesson here for a diminished church. It is not that the church should go away forever, but that heroic virtue comes in small actions as much as in large ones. ... The church’s absence, its literal emptying, can function as a symbol of its trust in God’s ability to meet us regardless of the location. The church remains the church whether gathered or scattered. It might also indirectly remind us of the gift of gathering that we too often take for granted. ,,,
The Gospel of John recounts Jesus’ words to his disciples in the upper room before his death. During this final discourse, he tells them that it is better that he goes away so that the comforter (the Holy Spirit) would come. The point is that the loss of his physical presence through his death, resurrection and ascension would lead to an even deeper communion with God. It is possible that, strangely enough, the absence of the church will be a great testimony to the presence of God in our care for our neighbors.
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