Updated: Feb 3
With the omicron variant stirring things up in new ways, we face the discouraging prospect of moving back into more restrictions as Year Two of the Coronavirus plods on into what may well be Year Three. Many people who have been quietly compliant, including many Christians, are now murmuring against the constraints and against the powers that be who impose them. Skepticism, even cynicism, beckons—about public health officials formerly accorded respect, about politicians formerly accorded cooperation, even about pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals formerly accorded admiration and gratitude.
What is a person, a citizen, and a Christian to make of what’s happened, what’s happening, and what’s to happen? Here are a few thoughts.
We should expect more ambiguity, ambivalence, and even contradiction from our experts. The science regarding COVID-19 has been complex from the beginning, with some facts taken for granted by everyone, other information seemingly reliable giving way to very different data, and many questions still not satisfactorily answered. That’s how science often works in real time.
For scientists to “flip-flop” may be a sign of stupidity. But it’s more likely a sign of humble recognition of an earlier understanding giving way to a later one as both information and interpretation improve. (Would we want scientists to stubbornly refuse to change their minds in the light of better evidence and ideas?)
Waiting until there is a firm consensus makes sense—if we can afford to wait. But if there are other considerations, such as public health mandates affecting livelihoods and life together, then the rational choice is to go with the expert consensus, however fallible and even fractured it might be. The alternative is the madness of everyone deciding for himself or herself.
We should expect more stumbling from our politicians. First, most politicians didn’t get into the offices they hold because they proved themselves to be astute at handling unprecedented crises. They were elected because they were good at fundraising, influence-peddling, deal-brokering, and speech-making, precisely none of which skills are helpful in handling a pandemic. So guess what? They’re not very good at handling a pandemic.
Second, who would be good at handling a pandemic? Every policy consideration is complicated in the extreme: schooling and day care, businesses large and small, transportation both personal and commercial, healthcare economics, the balance of civil liberties and public health worries, and more.
Third, politics in the real world is always awkward, always stumbling, always under- or over-reacting and never hitting the sweet spot of graceful competence. It is always an unfathomable ocean of crosscurrents, a bewildering matrix of conflicting agenda, mixed motives, contrasting interests, various forms of power, stupidity, and venality. What, seriously, do we expect of politicians and political systems that can barely keep the roads paved, the schools open, the hospitals supplied, and the borders safe at the best of times?
We should beware overreach from the powerful. Crises prompt elites to do more than they should, both because they can and because they often feel they must. The last couple of decades have seen Canadian courts, legislatures, universities, professional colleges, and other powerful institutions acknowledge civil rights, and particularly religious rights, as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms only to then set them aside in the name of some putative greater public good.
Yes, many Christians in Canada, as is true of our American cousins, whine about the loss of Christian prerogatives in our post-Christian societies. But many also rightly warn about an entrenched, growing, and unapologetic secularism that demonstrably discriminates against religious individuals and groups, abrogating conscience rights for physicians, nurses, and pharmacists in bioethical zones while making it steadily harder for Christian schools and charities to fulfill their distinctive missions. Everyone and everything, it seems, must conform to the ethical norms of the consensus of post-Christian Canadian progressives.
Christians rightly, therefore, protest against pandemic policies that treat churches as optional and bars as essential, and the freedom to meet for worship as less important than the freedom to watch a hockey game. This trend was well underway before the advent of COVID-19, and the greater powers wielded by the elite have only extended it.
We should respond as citizens. Given full recognition of those worrisome trends, Christians in North America nonetheless often sound like disenfranchised cynics who must resort to civil disobedience or even violence to preserve their rights. But this exciting anarchism is dangerous nonsense while we do, in fact, hold the franchise. We can still vote. We can still engage in electoral politics at every level. We can still join and influence political parties. We can still use social and other media to air our views and suggestions. We can still, in the aggregate, spend millions of dollars to promote whatever we want to promote.
I am well aware of how much is stacked against us. But history is altered by groups far smaller than those brandishing 51% or more of the popular vote. The Canadian Commonwealth Federation under Baptist pastor Tommy Douglas never stood a chance of winning a federal election, but many of their signature policies were adopted by the parties that did govern. So who really won?
I am well aware that the current national parties have made it very difficult especially for orthodox Catholics and evangelical Protestants to join and run for office under any of their banners touting any of their platforms. But that resistance may abate, especially if more such Christians join these parties and press for an openness to diversity they used to manifest.
Meanwhile, Christians can and should contribute to organizations that monitor and influence federal and provincial decisions on a wide range of issues, particular Cardus and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. If we don’t like what we’re seeing in Canadian politics, we should be putting our money where our social media are and supporting Christians who have a track record of getting good things actually accomplished.
Advocacy is still a viable option for Christians in Canada, while anarchic opting-out seems literally irresponsible for citizens. Jesus paid taxes to, and the apostles advocated day-to-day compliance with, the Roman Empire.
Christians nowadays who write off their civic responsibilities as North Americans because they feel a bit beleaguered are dishonouring their counterparts in, say, North Korea or Iran while neglecting their duty to use what power God has retained for us to maximize all the public good we can.
And let’s be clear about a related political point that seems implicitly to be questioned more and more nowadays. Participating in a democracy means that everyone gets to speak up and everyone gets to decide together. It doesn’t mean that everyone can and should do whatever he or she wants when other people’s welfare is at stake. Living together means, among other things, living together. We must give due regard for what it takes to keep living together—including, often, some people getting their way while others don’t because a single course of action must be taken. Democracy means you can keep arguing. But it doesn’t mean you can do as you please.
We should love our neighbours, and especially fellow Christians. Far too many frustrated Christians are sounding off nowadays about their rights, their problems, and their fears. But what about our neighbours?
The New Testament’s main teaching about liberty isn’t focused on the new freedom Christians enjoy in Christ nor the basic freedom human beings were given at creation by God. Most of what the New Testament says about liberty is to use it to defer to those still figuring things out, still wrestling with difficult questions of cultural compromise. Paul in particular is a fierce opponent of legalism, but he urges Christians to freely give up their freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols if doing so will offend and confuse those who are trying hard to purify their lives of worldliness and maintain Christian fidelity.
What would our churches look and sound like today if instead of denouncing each other over masks and vaccinations—all in the name of lofty principles, of course, rather than mere personal inconvenience or irritation—we sought earnestly to honour each other’s attempts to live rightly and please God as best we can?
Would we protest and placard churches who require masking and vaccination, or openly deride those who don’t? Or would we honour each other’s attempts, fumbling as they often will be, to do what is right in a context in which the smartest, most capable people are proving all too fallible?
Is self-assertion the Way of the Cross, or self-sacrifice? Are we saying, in word and deed, “I love you, I honour you, and I want the best for you” or are we saying, “Empty-head!” and damning each other as fools, thus damning ourselves as arrogant judges who will be judged accordingly?
Masking and vaccination and social distancing and all the rest of the public health controversies are not trivial. But I keep hearing the Apostle’s voice: “Do not let your choice harm someone for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15; cf. I Cor. 8:11).
Moreover, the implications here are not only in regard to fellowship with Christians, but also about witness to the world. I live in an apartment building filled with people older than I. Regardless of what I think of the efficacy of wearing a mask, what would I be saying to them about my regard for their welfare if I walk into our elevator unmasked? Regardless of what I think of the efficacy of getting vaccinated, what am I saying to my community about my regard for their welfare if I insist on entering public places unvaccinated?
What ought to be my priorities? What matters most?
We should focus on what we can affect and effect. Most of us have little or nothing interesting to say about great matters of public policy. Who cares what you think about the latest government mandates? Who should care what I think about the latest travel regulations?
Meanwhile, however, everyone seems to be languishing for lack of love. We badly need to step up our game in friendship and familyhood.
We need to be taking much more initiative to get in touch and stay in touch. We need to spend much more time, much more often, much more regularly, and much more predictably to foster flourishing relationships.
We need more conversation that is searching and serious: “How are you really? What was the best thing that happened this past week? What was the worst? What did you do to relax? What did you do to create? What was the most inspirational thought you had? What was the most daunting? And how are you with God?”
Most of us aren’t in a position to move any needle of public policy even a bit. But we can hugely alter someone else’s happiness, security, comfort, and hope by reaching out and staying in touch.
Loneliness is hurting ‘way more people today than is COVID-19. And each of us is completely equipped to deal with that grave issue of public health.
Furthermore, as weekly corporate worship in large congregations continues to be problematic, it’s past time for us to consider how important our big meetings truly are.
For obvious reasons, the earliest Christians attended precisely zero such meetings. They met in homes in which they devoted themselves “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). I wonder if, as the pandemic continues, God is calling us to focus on building such small community structures, as the early evangelicals also did. Later, God willing, we can add the joyous—but nonessential—blessings of large-scale assembly.
We should practice faith and hope. Our God reigns. Nothing is happening outside his knowledge, supervision, and direction toward the fulfilment of the divine plan for shalom. And as long as this has dragged on, in the light of the age to come, it will be over very soon.
So, brothers and sisters, trust God. Practice the ABC’s of our faith. Work to preserve and improve every key relationship in your life.
Pray all the time. Rejoice in what God has done, is doing, and will do. Focus on your calling, and leave the rest be.
Remember Jesus is ascended, reigning, and coming again. Meanwhile, drink deeply of the Spirit every morning and every night. Just fill today as well as you can. Tomorrow, a new tomorrow, is coming.