Will We Bury the Bodies?

Right now we are in the midst of another global epidemic – this one from a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Nobody knows how far this COVID-19 disease will spread, or how bad it will be, but it has arrived now in our community here in Washington and has already caused some deaths. Most likely it will be similar to other epidemics we’ve experienced in recent decades, and it will be a cause for legitimate concern, will peak, will wain, and in the end will probably cause less deaths than the Flu this winter. But right now we don’t know, and it is in that space of unknowing that fear breads.

As I write this, though I have not seen it myself, I am told that there has been a run on the grocery stores, hardware stores, warehouse stores, etc. People are stocking up and hoarding food, hand sanitizers, surgical masks, and apparently toilet paper (I admit I don’t get that last one: “It might be the end of the world! You know what we really need in order to survive? Toilet paper!). The stock market has fallen about 10%. I wouldn’t be surprised, as has happened in past times of crisis, that we will also hear that gun sales have spiked this week and that generators are sold out. There is a sense of “Every man for himself!” that seems to be spreading through the nation. As a pastor I wonder: what should a Christian response to this crisis look like?

This is not the first time that the world has faced an epidemic and it won’t be the last. In fact, this may turn into a “pandemic” before it is all over. We are, after all, much more connected globally than at any other time in the world’s history. Lately I have been reading through Jerry Sittser’s book Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. In it, he describes how the response of Christians to a plague in the Roman Empire in AD 250 had a big impact on their witness to the love of Jesus Christ (146). Scholars estimate that up to one fifth of the population of the Roman Empire died during this plague! It was so bad, that people began leaving bodies and dying people littering the streets. One biographer from the time wrote “All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also” (Sittser 147). But while many were fleeing and hunkering down and looking after only themselves, the Christian response was different. They began to wash, wrap, and bury the bodies.

Not only did these early Christians take care of the dead, but they also took care of the sick. While they had no understating of germs and viruses like we do today, they knew that if they cared for the sick, then they were likely to get sick too, and perhaps even die themselves. They also knew, that if cared for, some of the sick would survive. Their theology developed to be something like this: If we Christians step in and care for a sick and dying person, we may be able to take their sickness from them, prevent death, and take their place in sickness and in death as Jesus has taken ours. Some miracles of healing did happen – the Spirit was at work – but the larger miracle was in the way the Christian Church became knows as the one community that would care for and love those who had nowhere else to turn – even if it was a risk to their own life and comfort. So I wonder… do we still carry this same faith and witness today?

I’m certainly not suggesting that we Christians need to begin rushing to put ourselves in harms way of this disease. We live in a different world with different ways of caring for and managing an epidemic. However, I do know that our response should be to give rather than to hoard, to live in hope rather than fear, to seek the welfare of others ahead of our own, and to be people of courage, hospitality, faith, and love. Rather than hunker down and bar the doors, we are called to reach out in the love of Jesus Christ.

“…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

2 Timothy 1:7

Send Her Back?

Today I heard something that shook me to my core. It was an audio clip of people at Presdent Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina chanting “send her back!” in reference to Congressional Representive Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. I am naïve. I never thought I would hear something like this in our country in my lifetime.  

I am a pastor, I am a white man, and I cannot stay silent. Some will dismiss what I write now as a political attack from someone on the left directed at the President because he is a conservative. This seems to be a fashionable way in our time to avoid truly listening to others and it happens from all sides of the political spectrum. But what I write now is not meant to be directed at the President, nor is it meant to be directed at the people at the rally, nor even Americans at large. It is, however, meant to be for those who consider themselves to be my sisters and brothers in Christ. I have been charged with caring for them and proclaiming God’s Word to them, and therefore I must speak at this moment for those who will listen. 

“Send her back!” 

Why her? Send her where? 

Representative Omar is an immigrant to this county, she is a Muslim, and she is an outspoken critic of many of the policies of the current administration, including its stance towards Israel and the Palestinian territories. She immigrated to the United States with her father when she was a child (her mother died when she was two). Her family was fleeing war in Somalia, they lived in refugee camps for many years before coming to the U.S. where they were granted asylum, and where they eventually became naturalized citizens. Now Ilhan Omar has been elected by the people of her state to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. And while her positions and her approach have been distasteful to many, this alone would not be enough to get a crowd standing in front of the President of the United States to scream “send her back” while the President stood there silently. It is also not simply because she was not born here (in fact, the President’s current wife was not born in the U.S.). The reason that Rep. Omar is being targeted is because of two reasons: her skin color, and her religion. And this is why hearing this chant, coming from a crowd of white people, many of whom would undoubtedly identify as Christians, is profoundly disturbing to me. 

We have seen this before in our history. We have seen this before in world history. This form of racism is ugly, it is sinful, and if not resisted it will become a cancer that will destroy lives and corrupt the message of the Gospel. Darkness is never so obvious as when it follows brilliant light. The “send back” call chanted by a crowd standing before the President of the United States is especially disturbing when directed at a woman who represents all that many Christians in this country have long fought for: a sanctuary for the refugee, a place of freedom of worship, a country where marginalized voices are heard and represented.

I am grateful to be part of a Christian denomination that that is “confessional.” This means that we have written confessions of faith (statements of what we believe) as a part of our constitution. When we ordain elders (pastors and lay leaders) they must agree to be guided and instructed by these confessions. We have a confession written by Christians in Germany during the rise of Hitler, we have a confession written during the height of race tensions in the 1960’s (The Confession of 1967), and we have a recently added confession written by the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa in response to Apartheid (The Confession of Belhar). All of these confessions seek to profess the faith of the Church and the authority of scripture in the face of competing values, and all of them have something to say to us now.

From the Confession of Belhar (emphasis mine):

We believe…
• That Christ’s work of reconciliation is made
manifest in the church as the community of
believers who have been reconciled with God
and with one another;
• that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation
for the church of Jesus Christ; that
through the working of God’s Spirit it is a
binding force, yet simultaneously a reality
which must be earnestly pursued and sought:
one which the people of God must continually
be built up to attain;
• that this unity must become visible so that the
world may believe that separation, enmity and
hatred between people and groups is sin
which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly
that anything which threatens this
unity may have no place in the church and
must be resisted;
Therefore, we reject any ideology
• which would legitimate forms of injustice and
any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such
an ideology in the name of the gospel.

Notice the strong language of “sin” used to describe “enmity and hatred between people and groups.” If you read these confessions in our Book of Confessionsyou will also see the scripture references to go along with them. In this case it is the prayer of Jesus in John 17 for the unity of future disciples and Paul’s prayer for the unity of the church in Ephesians 4 (among other references). But one could make the argument that this confession and these scriptures are directed at the church, not to those outside of it (someone of a different religion). But in both the confessions and scripture the call to be unified with each other in Christ is only the start, the next step is living out the unity in the world. The Belhar confession goes on to say…

“We believe… 
• that the church must therefore stand by people
in any form of suffering and need, which implies,
among other things, that the church
must witness against and strive against any
form of injustice, so that justice may roll
down like waters, and righteousness like an
ever-flowing stream;
• that the church as the possession of God must
stand where the Lord stands, namely against
injustice and with the wronged;
• that in following Christ the church must witness
against all the powerful and privileged
who selfishly seek their own interests and thus
control and harm others.”

It is unjust for those of us in a place of privilege and power to use that position for our own purposes against others simply because they believe something different than we do or because they look differently than we do or because they were born on the other side of a national border. Even as I write this last sentence, I feel as if I am writing an argumentative essay for a high school history class studying segregation in the United States. I can’t believe that it needs to be said today, but it does. My brothers and sisters in Christ, if our desire to maintain a position of privilege in this country, and our desire to keep things comfortable for ourselves, comes before our calling to be a people of God, welcoming the stranger and the alien, and caring for the widow and the orphan, then we have indeed “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25).

The Gospel truth on this matter is expressed well in the Confession of 1967:

God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, he overcomes the barriers between brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.

I have just spent most of my morning thinking about and writing these words. I doubt that many, if any will read them to the end. It may be, in fact, that they are only for me, and that is well and good. A just criticism would be to ask me: “Why now? Why this?” It is true, that in recent years that has been a lot of conflict and anguish over the issue of race and prejudice in our nation.  I often feel compelled to speak, but rarely know the best way to do it. But there was something today that was a tipping point for me. Perhaps it was simply hearing the rising, angry chant of “Send her back!” over the radio in response to the words of our president that brought a picture into my head that was simply too close to some of those disturbing images I have seen over the years of crowds before fascist leaders. There is certainly more to be said, but for now, at least I have spoken.