As the country “opens up,” what does the Lord require us to do?

By BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler

Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March and our lives were disrupted in lasting ways, the impact on religious exercise has centered on stay-at-home directives and bans on mass gatherings. Now, as city and state governments across the country are beginning to “open up,” the conversation is shifting to how that can be done responsibly without increasing the risk to communities, particularly vulnerable populations. Religious leaders are showing community leadership, but they are also finding themselves in the midst of a battle of extreme reactions to the crisis.

Without responsible national (and, in some cases, state) resources to rely on, religious leaders are making the best decisions they can with limited information. Religious denominations are providing guidance to their churches about whether and how to resume in-person gatherings.

“Religious leaders try their best” doesn’t make for a good headline in our clickbait media culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our already-limited ability to discuss matters of faith and public life in a civil way has been further degraded by this crisis. The binary “culture war” framing of church vs. state has leapt to the forefront in debates about religious expression and COVID-19. I am saddened by the false choice some have set up between safe governance and religious liberty.

At one extreme, some argue that social distancing efforts or restrictions on public gatherings threaten religious liberty, so churches should open in defiance of local orders. In response, some claim that any desire to return to worship is reckless, so people of faith should just “wait it out” and suspend all in-person gatherings until a vaccine is available. The first of these responses is irresponsible, and the second is unrealistic. People of faith need not choose between these extremes.

We have never had a moment like this in our lifetimes. We are all learning as we go and figuring this out together. With great humility, I offer another framework for religious leaders and congregants to consider as they make difficult decisions about how to proceed. It’s a very old text — one that has guided Jews and Christians for many centuries and that has been an important touchstone for me throughout my life. God “has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Justice, particularly of the biblical sort that Micah prophesies, is a complicated concept. Doing justice challenges the status quo power structure and seeks equality in a decidedly unequal society. It is less about “my right” to do something and more about “our responsibility” to provide for our neighbors.

As Peter Marty wrote beautifully for Christian Century this week, “If I see my life primarily as a prepackaged set of guaranteed rights owed me, instead of as a gift of God, what motivation is there to feel deep obligation toward society’s most vulnerable?” I commend his entire essay as an exegesis on the concept of justice for this crisis.

The absolutist language of “rights” also fails to comport with a nuanced understanding of religious liberty’s complexities. Suspending in-person religious services is a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, yet the government retains the power to do so when protecting health and safety. Government cannot — and should not — single out religion for special disfavor by treating secular gatherings more favorably than religious gatherings. As long as governments are applying bans on public gatherings neutrally, religious groups shouldn’t play a persecution card.

To love kindness, or “mercy” in some translations, is to tend to the needs of both our own congregations and our surrounding communities. When religious services resume, they won’t look the same. Congregations that are taking care of their communities will follow health guidelines with regard to social distancing. Early examples show this could mean no choir, no communion, and no congregational singing. Instead, we’ll likely sit at least six feet apart and hum quietly behind our masks. Many members of our congregations will not feel comfortable returning even with these protections in place. Clergy members will carry the immense burden of fearing the worst — that their services could result in a local outbreak of the disease — and may opt to continue at-home worship services for the foreseeable future.

Luckily, religious leaders have many examples to look to as they implement a merciful response. The Episcopal Church offered guidance to its bishops and canons as they provided direction for their dioceses. The heads of seven Black Christian denominations, whose communities have been shaken by the deadly combination of COVID-19 and systemic racism, have urged caution in not resuming church services too quickly. My fellow white Christians should not promote one-dimensional conversations about a “right to worship” without considering the disproportionate impact that a rush to reopen will have on communities of color and other vulnerable populations — whether in their congregations or in their immediate area.

We are all walking humbly, as the coronavirus has reminded us of our shared mortality. Despite our trappings of control, we have been brought to our knees by what the virus has wreaked on our world: a tragic and mounting death toll, an unpredictable disease that can spread without symptoms, the crippling of our economy and the dire impact it continues to take on millions of people’s lives and livelihoods. As we walk in this humbled posture, we also acknowledge how little we know about COVID-19 and its long-term effects on human health. May that humility inspire grace in us in how we approach one another and the decisions we make for ourselves and our community.

We need not choose radical extremes in conversations about religion in the era of COVID-19. We can honor our constitutional commitment to religious liberty as we honor an ethos of community care, good governance and public health. This will involve hard conversations and hard decisions, and we are bound to make mistakes on the way. But we must reject false choices and instead engage in these conversations and efforts to build community. Our shared life together depends on it.

Amanda Tyler is the executive director of BJC. For more, listen to episode 14 of the Respecting Religion podcast series: Finding the right response to reopening (released May 21, 2020).

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