Religious Freedom and the Flight from Responsibility

Guy S. Saffold, Associate Professor of Leadership, Director of Doctor of Ministry Program, Executive Director of ACTS Seminaries, Emeritus.

As orders were issued to avoid large gatherings and practice social distancing, a small but vocal number of Christian pastors protested, claiming that social distancing restrictions are an attack on their religious freedom. Some have gone even further and openly defied the directives, holding large services anyway. “God has commanded us to meet together,” they say, “and freedom to worship is a sacred right.”

One pastor, when challenged that some of his parishioners might come to a service, catch Covid-19 and die, replied that “death is a welcome friend to Christian people.” His  people were prepared to die in the fight “against tyranny. . . . like free people fighting for their convictions.”[1] Theologically, how the characterization of death as a welcome friend squares with the Apostle Paul’s characterization of death as “the last enemy” is conveniently forgotten .[2]   More practically, one wonders whether his people are really so bold in the face of death or just ignorant of the actual danger.

Another pastor who openly defied stay at home orders and said he would continue to preach “unless I’m in jail or the hospital” had his prediction proverb true. Not long after he died in hospital of Covid-19[3] His wife is also infected and the status of other members of his congregation awaits the results of tests.

While it cannot be denied that religious freedom is a critical human right, Christian leaders who take this approach are tragically and culpably wrong. There is no attack on religious freedom. Religious observance has not been targeted. The various stay at home orders have been temporary restrictions only and applied reasonably equally to all kinds of large gatherings. The issue has been public health and safety during a global pandemic.

But they are wrong for a much more important reason. Their actions display a callous disregard not only for the lives of other members of their congregation but also for people in their local communities who are likely to become infected as a direct result of such gatherings. Numerous examples of large outbreaks triggered by religious gatherings have been observed around the world. To refuse simple measures intended to preserve lives and prevent untold suffering is astonishingly reckless. Don’t they realize that insisting on their right to religious freedom is equivalent to insisting on a right to expose others to infection with a deadly disease?

What does genuine Christian leadership require in circumstances like these? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks offers a trenchant observation. “If leadership is the solution,” he asks, “what is the problem? On this the Torah could not be more specific. It is a failure of responsibility.”[4]

The core problem is incredible irresponsibility. These pastors have failed to accept their God-ordered responsibility to care for others, sometimes with tragic results. Attempting to justify this shocking irresponsibility by perverting the principle of religious freedom and portraying death as a friend rather than an enemy only compounds their guilt.

You can find the origin of this twisted, irresponsible reasoning in Scripture. After Adam sinned in the garden, God asked him what he had done. In what is surely the most stunning example of blame shifting ever recorded. In a single sentence Adam faults first his wife and, just in case that should not be a sufficient justification, blames the Creator himself:  “The woman you gave me” was the source of the problem.[5] In absolving himself of blame he flees responsibility for his actions and forfeits his role as a leader in the creation. Later, as the first couple is exiled from the garden, Eve walks down the road knowing only one thing with certainty: “If push comes to shove, her husband will sell her out.”

This irresponsibility is transmitted to their offspring. After Cain murders his brother, God confronts him. “Where is Abel your brother?” God asks. His feckless reply is, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Adam’s denial of personal responsibility comes to full fruit in Cain’s denial of moral responsibility. He denies any obligation to care for a fellow human being. God cuts cleanly through Cain’s obfuscation. “The voice of your brother’s blood is calling to me from the ground.”[6] You can try to run from responsibility, God says, but it won’t wash and you cannot run from its consequences.

A desperate flight from responsibility has corrupted human society ever since. We hear echoes of this sad condition in the words of these theologically confused pastors. “Don’t blame me,” they say, “the government caused the problem with its illegal declaration.” Faced with the possibility that their actions might bring death to others, they deny responsibility for consequences, attempting to cover over their irresponsibility with an appeal to hazy notions of religious freedom and the threadbare excuse that Christians don’t fear death. Whether that is even true of the members of their congregation is doubtful, but it certainly leaves entirely out of view other members of the local community who may be sickened and die because of this irresponsibility.

The only specification in Scripture for the size of gatherings is the minimal, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.”[7] There is no commandment that defends a need to gather in megachurch dimensions nor could it be demonstrated from the history of the church.

What we see happening in these unfortunate cases is a shocking failure to apprehend the overarching biblical moral ethic: concern and care for the welfare of others. One of the most faithful acts of human responsibility is to adhere to God’s command to love our neighbor as we do ourselves.[8]

Sociologist Rodney Stark has documented the very different course cut by Christians during the great plagues of the third and fourth century.

As for action, Christians met the obligation to care for the sick rather than desert them, and thereby saved enormous numbers of lives! . . . What went on during the epidemics was only an intensification of what went on every day among Christians… Indeed, the impact of Christian mercy was so evident that in the fourth century when the emperor Julian attempted to restore paganism, he exhorted the pagan priesthood to compete with the Christian charities.[9]

The emperor did not commend them for their stand on religious freedom but rather on their mercy and care for others. “By this,” Jesus said, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This love naturally seeks to care for others.

In their loud and angry defense of their rights, these pastors have utterly forsaken their responsibility to God, their flock, and the larger society. Like Adam they attempt to cover their guilt by deflecting responsibility, but the attempt is hollow, and the judgment of Scripture cannot be denied: “The voice of your brother’s blood is calling to me from the ground.”[10]

Notes

[1] Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge Lousiana was arrested April 8 for defying the Governor’s executive order banning large gatherings (https://www.rawstory.com/2020/04/death-is-a-welcomed-friend-pastor-calls-on-christians-to-defy-coronavirus-lockdown-even-if-it-kills-them).

[2] I Corinthian 15:26.

[3] https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/virginia-bishop-gerald-glenn-coronavirus-dead_n_5e955c7dc5b6cc788eae79bc?ri18n=true

[4] Jonathan Sacks, Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2015), 3.

[5] Genesis 3:12.

[6] Genesis 4:9-10.

[7] Matthew 18:20.

[8] Matthew 23:39.

[9] This account and more can be found in Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 114-119.

[10] John 13:35

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