“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:4 (ESV)
“Liberty” has been central to identity in the USA for centuries, from Patrick Henry’s famous “give me liberty, or give me death” to our national anthem celebrating “the land of the free.” Religious liberty, or more precisely the constitutional protection of the “free exercise” of religion, is also a treasured part of our national identity. However, excessive promotion of any single idea risks idolatry.
Recent months have seen reactions to and protests against sensible actions meant to protect the health of our nation, and against appropriate actions to protect the vulnerable in our midst from the COVID pandemic. Despite growing scientific clarity over the benefits of masks as both protection (protecting the wearer from contracting COVID) and source control (preventing the wearer from spreading COVID), there are those who continue to portray masking as a sign of oppression and the refusal to wear a mask as a statement of freedom.
Likewise, it has become increasingly clear that physical distancing and minimizing the size of social gatherings are important to reducing the spread of COVID, yet there are those who have resisted recommendations for religious gatherings to make any adjustments. Some churches have declared it a matter of conscience or an expression of religious liberty to forge ahead with worship as usual, and some have even portrayed religious objection to public health directives as a matter of resistance to persecution.
For the sake of those around us, and for the sake of our witness, it is imperative that we be honest about what is happening, and the way we are responding. Clearly, there are times we should follow Peter’s example in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” However, we need also to recall that Paul exhorts us to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). Too many times in this tumultuous year, we have seen Romans 13:1 employed by those who do not approve of the actions of others, while Peter’s example is followed in the face of something we do not like.
All who follow Jesus are called to emulate his example and to minister to others in his name, and it is true we may be persecuted for this. For the integrity of our witness, we need to be clear on what persecution is and what is simply bearing faithful witness.
Calls to use sensible public health measures to stop the spread of COVID are not persecution, they are simply measures to protect our society and those around us. If we cast any infringement on our religious life as persecution, we do a disservice to the Gospel, and to those around us.
While the ethos of the USA emphasizes liberty, the New Testament promotes a different ethic. Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2 to “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” should guide our response to COVID. The governing authorities who are recommending masks and physical distancing are not persecuting the religious liberty of Christians, they are exercising their role to order society.
In this moment, the USA and the global community are facing a terrible pandemic. In this moment, those who follow Jesus face a choice. Will we emphasize “rights” at the expense of the health of others? Or will we recognize that discipleship in this moment entails both working with the “governing authorities” in their efforts to care for the public health, and basing our discipleship on caring for the “interests of others”?