“Pastor, what would you say to believers that during this pandemic feel that their civil liberties are more important than other’s safety?”

Q: Pastor, what would you say to believers that during this pandemic feel that their civil liberties are more important than other’s safety?—Anon

Hi, Anon! I really appreciate the question, but it’s not an easy one for me to answer and I’m not alone. As I began to pray about your question and meditate on a few passages of Scripture, I also sent your inquiry to a few pastoral friends. Many of their texts came back with the words: “Hmmm.”

Why does this question make me go “Hmmmm”? First, I don’t think this is an either/or situation: either you care about people’s safety or you care about civil liberties. I am greatly concerned at the deleterious polarization in our nation. May we as Christians beware of the many  false dichotomies placarded on Tweets and cable news channels:

  • Either you care about people or you care about the economy (but at some point the economy is people—at some point lives are livelihood);
  • Either you care about the right to free assembly or you care about people over 60 (but in the long run, don’t civil liberties guarantee the safety of all us, regardless of age?);
  • Either you care about saving as many lives as possible or you’re inconsistent in your pro-life ethic (but can a person with a cradle to grave commitment to life disagree over the means of saving lives?).

See what I mean?

But there’s another reason why this is a thing that makes you go “Hmmm.” The question is not a “straight line” issue. I’m gleaning this language from Jonathan Leeman’s book How the Nations Rage. With a “straight line issue” it is easy for us to go from “core biblical principles to political policy applications.” Is it okay to murder someone over 2 ply toilet paper in the Walmart aisle? No! What about 3 ply? No Christian need wrestle with this question because murder is always wrong. But to me, the question isn’t a straight line issue—it’s more of a jagged-line, because it is not easy to define what is the most loving in the long term:

  • When will the increased powers of the Fed and State end? (Government doesn’t like to give back power that it has acquired, just think Patriot Act);
  • Do the actual numbers of deaths justify the increased powers and restrictions? Can we trust the numbers?
  • Should we base our decisions solely on medical criteria? What other criteria must we take in?

A “jagged-line” issue is one in which it isn’t easy to draw a straight line from Biblical principle to application. For example, God tells us that government is His servant to bring about human flourishing and we should listen to it (Rom. 13), but what will we do if our Federal and State governments are in conflict about going back to work and back to free assembly? Which one will we submit to?

I see the issue of civil liberties and safety from Covid-19 as a “jagged-line issue” that is going to require us to love like crazy and think long and hard. Am I over-complicating this? I don’t think so.

In the short-term, social distancing is loving. This is why most Evangelical churches have moved to on-line services. We need to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of this pandemic, especially in the African-American community where higher rates of poverty combined with underlying medical conditions make this pandemic especially fatal. But in the long term, the shuttering of our economy and social distancing will result in alarmingly high rates of domestic violence and suicide. The longer this goes, the less it feels like love. In the long run, the civil liberties granted to us by God and guaranteed by our government, like freedom of assembly and free speech, keep our society safe and make it easier for us to worship God and tell people about Jesus. Imagine what it will mean for churches that gather in countries without these rights when church gatherings are labeled “transmitters” of this or future viruses. The church has and can thrive without these freedoms, but if they are ours to steward, should we so easily part with them?

Here’s what I think I know:

  • As Christ Followers, we are citizens of God’s Kingdom before we are citizens of the U.S. and of all the people’s on the earth the most free.;
  • God calls us to use our freedom to love like crazy:

“For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the entire law is fulfilled in the one statement: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:13-15);

  • If in the short-term, loving my neighbor means using my freedom to temporarily set aside my right to free assembly in order to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, then I will social distance and limit my contact with certain people. BUT if, in the coming days, it can be shown that our government does not intend to restore these liberties (liberties granted by God, not government), then love will compel us to peacefully resist.

Things that make you go Hmmm are not easy to answer and require great wisdom and love. I will wrap this question up with a quote from my mentor, “If you want to go deeper, I gave up all my rights to follow Christ and I have never been more free!”