One of the things that few people seem to grasp is that we are trying to deal simultaneously with two very different but equally contagious phenomenon. The first is the coronavirus itself, obviously, and the second is the panicked over-reaction to it. If you think the virus is no problem at all, you need to have your head examined, and if you think there is no panic, then you should go try to buy some toilet paper.
During a time when such a contagion is spreading the way it is, it makes perfect sense to me why we would look askance at someone hacking and coughing in a crowded space. “Where is your public spirit, man?” would appear to be an appropriate thought for the hour. But when someone is freaking out on Facebook, spreading the contagion of the sum total of his fears, we cannot rebuke him for that different kind of coughing and hacking because he somehow believes that his coughing and hacking IS the manifestation of his public spirit. “Just trying to do my part . . . loving my neighbor . . . gkkkcrrrkkk.”
The virus is spread through personal contact, flat surfaces, doorknobs, and the like, while the fear is spread through desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. The trick is to get everyone to prepare appropriately without stampeding them, and to keep everyone calm without lulling them into a lackadaisical apathy. The one thing you cannot do is whip up your toddler twin boys in a tickling frenzy, and then try to put them to bed.
There are a number of points that have to be made, sort of in all directions. So I beg your pardon if it seems like I am running off in all directions.
I have seen a few troubling comments online where Christian leaders are saying that the civil government doesn’t have the right to cancel meetings of the church. They certainly don’t have the the right to do that if their objection is that you are preaching the crown rights of King Jesus. In such a case, continue to meet. But if the fire chief told all the good Christians to get out now because the roof of the sanctuary was on fire, this is something he has the right and obligation to do. And the elders should not tell the parishioners to stay put until the elders had voted on it.
Let us grant that we live in a time when the state is an overweening tyrant, and requires all kinds of things it ought not to be requiring. That should be said up front, and I agree that there are all sorts of circumstances where Christians and Christian churches need to defy our jitney jehovahs, and amen to all of it. But following the mandates of the civil authority on quarantines and the closing of public meetings and such during a time of epidemic is not one of them.
So to be clear, if the governor of Idaho shuts down all public meetings because of COVID-19, churches included, then Christ Church would comply. Even if it happened to be the wrong decision, or a decision with which I differed, we would still happily comply. This is one of things that is well within their realm of jurisdiction. It is their call to make. This is their job.
In ancient Israel, the authorities had the right to tear down someone’s house if it was afflicted with the creeping crud (Lev. 14:33-53). They had the right to make someone with a contagious disease into a permanent exile, having to live outside the camp (Lev. 13:45-46). This kind of thing, however unfortunate, is not a violation of anybody’s rights.
In historic Presbyterian polity (all rise!), the civil magistrate had no authority in sacred things (in sacris), but he had definite authority surrounding sacred things (circa sacra). Put simply, the magistrate has no right to tell the church what to preach, how to pray, how to administer the sacraments, who to discipline, etc. That is not their assigned task. They need to stay in their lane.
But when it comes to questions of public safety (which is exactly what this is), preachers need to stay in their lane. It would be different if we were talking about a monastery with a bunch of recluse hermit monks, and the magistrate told them they couldn’t gather in their own chapel for prayers. That would be none of the magistrate’s business. But if great herds of Baptists head out to the Golden Corral after services, and they do this during the time of an epidemic, the magistrate has full authority and obligation to tell all of them “not so fast.” This is circa sacra.
There are so many areas where the church should be resisting statism, it would be shame to waste our powder on any issue where the state is acting well within its rights.
Prudence Remains Prudent, As Expected
As fierce debates have already broken out over this pandemic, I have been able to see how something as objective as a disease has already been politicized. This is a symptom of a deeper cultural malaise that is in evidence everywhere. For example, if you differ with the current climate change orthodoxy, you are clearly a climate “denier” (which rhymes with Holocaust denier), and you are one who hates all his fellow creatures and wants them all to die. If you think the coronavirus is a serious concern, one that should be taken seriously by all concerned, but you are not calling for an immediate shut down of everything, this does not make you a virus “denier.”
So wanting to turn up your prudential and preventative measures to 6 or 7, while other more urgent voices are demanding that we turn them up to 11, is not the same thing as denying that there is a threat. Rather, on the contrary, it is attempting to combat the two very real threats simultaneously.
And these are not threats that can be tackled one at a time. They have to be addressed simultaneously. You have to take preventative measures against the virus without freaking people out, and you have to work at keeping everybody calm without instilling in them a complacent devil-may-care attitude.
So when a virus threatens a populace, do the people involved need to make decisions about preventative measures? Yes, yes, they certainly do. And whenever people panic, riddle me this. Do they tend to make good decisions or bad ones? As I am fond of saying, there is no situation so bad but that you cannot somehow make it worse. Does anyone seriously think that what happened to all our toilet paper cannot happen to the bread and milk? You cannot whip whip whip it up, get all the truckers to stay home, crash the supply chain, and then say chill and calm to the food rioters.
Lest You Think I Am Blowing Smoke
So, for example, before our worship services yesterday (at which hundreds of people gather), I sent out the following set of protocols for our people to follow. These are not the words of someone who believes that the virus presents a non-existent threat. Of course it is a concern. But, as you will see, not the only concern.
As we all watch the evening news regarding the coronavirus, one question that naturally occurs to everyone is this: “what about Sunday worship?” A few states have already canceled any gatherings the size of ours, and even though there are no reported cases in Idaho yet [NB: we now have two], we still wanted to be ready. We do not want to have any part of spreading either virus—whether we are talking about the coronavirus or the panic virus (which is also quite contagious). The two viruses have this in common—the carriers often don’t know that they are carriers.
So here are a few prudent measures that we would ask you to observe as we worship this coming Lord’s Day.
Please wash your hands before coming, and if you have portable hand sanitizer that you can bring, please bring it, and please feel free to use it; Please don’t shake anybody’s hand. Just beam at them, or do that new and interesting elbow bump; We will be cancelling fellowship time and the snacks that cause people to congregate at both at CCD and Christ Church uptown; If you have a cough, or a cold, or any flu-like symptoms, please remain home; If you are elderly, or have any underlying medical condition that concerns you, please feel at liberty to remain at home; Those running the service (communion prep, etc.) will be taking the obvious extra precautions; We will also pull out the bleachers so that those who want to take the precaution of “social distancing” might have room to do so. At CCD, please feel free to use the balcony; As we pass the communion elements, we would ask you to have an adult or older teen take the elements in order to give them to the little ones; And if you are fearful or in any way panicky, we would ask you to remain home also (Dt. 20:8). If you are one of those who likes to share scary stories, statistics, or scenarios with the other saints, please stay at home. And if you do decide to come, please wash your hands and heart down with Ps. 91 and 121 first.
Some of our folks who had recently been around hordes of people and had spent a lot of time in airports are keeping their distance, which is great. And I see this morning that the CDC is recommending a nationwide moratorium on any meetings of over 50 people, which means, given what I said above, that we might be live streaming our services next Lord’s Day. We will keep you posted.
Another obvious question or concern has to do with our upcoming Grace Agenda at the end of April. We have not canceled that event, but we are willing in principle to cancel it as soon as the need to do so becomes obvious. We will make that decision by April 10. Here is the Grace Agenda announcement on that.
I mention all this because these are not measures that reveal complacency. What they actually reveal is urgency in two directions. We need prudence, not panic.
When a situation like this develops, one of the things we must learn to view dispassionately is what it is like to make decisions in a huge crisis, or on the verge of a huge potential crisis (which is what I believe this is).
Here is how it works. People in charge are accountable for a large number of their decisions, but they are not accountable for all of them. They have to give a reckoning when they do certain things, and they do not have to give a reckoning when they do other things. This is another way of saying that certain decisions are hard, and other decisions are easy. There is a path of least resistance and there is a path of, well, resistance.
Public opinion always offers both incentives and punishments, and this is the case in the very nature of the case. If that public opinion is an opinion shaped by panic, then this does not make the incentives and punishments go away, but rather it heightens them.
So during a time of panic or (for the more thoughtful) high concern, if an official in authority makes a decision to keep something open (school, church, concert, sporting event, whatever), and if someone contracts the illness there and dies, or contracts the illness there and carries it to someone who dies, then the public official who kept the venue open will pay a severe price. The victim is identifiable, and the responsibility is laid at the feet of the person who “failed to act.”
As a side note, I should mention that taking one thing with another, public officials are unanimous in their opposition to paying severe prices. And this sentiment has a marked impact on behavior.
But on the other hand, if the official in question shuts the whole thing down, regardless of how much mayhem it causes, he is unlikely to pay any price — particularly if everybody was yelling at him to shut it down, and all the other institutions just like his were all shutting down as well. The mayhem is not as easily identified, and even if it is identified, everyone sort of remembers all the shouting. So, for example, the nameless person from the CDC who originated the idea that all meetings of over 50 people be canceled may have been brilliant, or it might be the most destructive thing a bureaucrat has ever done over the last few centuries. Let us say that it is truly destructive. There is no chance that the bureaucrat in question will pay any price whatever. He was just playing it “safe.” But actually, he was playing it safe in one direction, forgetting that he had a blind side. We don’t want to wreck the lives of people who might get coronavirus, and so we wreck the lives of people whose livelihoods are dependent upon all the industries we just shut down. If someone points that out, like I just did, then Congress will hastily pass the Hot Dog Stadium Vendor Relief Bill for quatintee billion, which mysteriously has a provision in it for a huge solar energy plant in Vermont, thus ensuring that the lives you ruin will be those of your bankrupted great grandchildren, but you will be dead by that time and won’t have to worry about it. Like Hezekiah, you can kick the debt can down the road.
“Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?””
2 Kings 20:19 (ESV)
Incidentally, for those who think that I have somehow turned into a Trump shill, this particular vice is something that he is terrible at. Our fiscal policies were already idiotic and demented, and our approach to debt and unfunded obligations was already on a level with poo-flinging monkeys, and comes now the Fed charging zero interest. On the one hand, we might all die. On the other hand, credit is loose and money is free.
Let us say that coronavirus turns into a roaring inferno, and winds up putting the Spanish flu into the shade. Will this in any way refute those who acknowledged that this was a possibility all along? Not at all. There is a difference between those who say that a true plague in modern times is an impossibility, and those who say it is a very real possibility but we do not yet know if one has in fact begun. If it does happen, this does not refute those who maintained that it could happen.
Now let imagine the opposite scenario — the sun comes out, we have a hot April, and the pandemic turns out to be a big dud. This does not in any way refute those who were urging us to take drastic measures, because they can obviously say that such drastic measures as we did manage to take clearly worked. The only people refuted by the dud scenario are those who were maintaining that it was already too late, we are done for now, etc.
Now take a look at the graphic here to the right. Take a gander at the little teeny dot at the bottom. That is the current size of the coronavirus. Now before you leap to your keyboard, let me hasten to acknowledge that it is a representation of a coronavirus that has not yet run its course. Noah’s Flood began with two days of rain, and to compare those two days with the Johnstown flood would be obviously cockeyed. This is quite correct, but my actual purpose in showing the graphic (tricked you) is to ask you to take a look at the Swine Flu, which occurred during the Obama years. Recollect if you can, when that pandemic was the size that the coronavirus is now, with all the potential for exponential devastation that COVID-19 has, and with all the same kind of unknowns, how the media assaulted Obama relentlessly over his botched handling of that. You don’t remember that? Me neither.
Which leads to the next point.
You have to have a peculiar turn of mind to think that something like this happened: some James Bond-type villain, secure in his mountain fortress, mutters fiercely to himself. “The Russian collusion story did not work. Release the virus!” Remember that the characters in charge of the dark lords of the Illuminati are about to secure the nomination for Joe Biden, so I think their reputation for omni-competence might be a bit over-rated.
At the same time, politicians are nothing if not opportunists, and in pursuit of their interests, they will consistently board any available train. Recall how, in the House bill that was just agreed upon, Nancy Pelosi tried to insert funding for abortions that could by-pass the Hyde amendment. When everybody is saying “this is no time for partisanship,” feel free to look around for blatant partisanship. When everybody is saying “we need to come together,” the chances are pretty good that virtually no one is doing so.
Take a look at this clip below, and ask yourself if this is a climate in which America will come together, offer reasoned critiques of the president for this decision or that one, while at the same time giving credit where credit is due, and so on. If you think that, then I would suggest that perhaps the virus has already gotten to your brain.
If it is loose and lying around, then all our establishment solons will make free to throw it at the president’s head. You can differ with the president without playing politics with this issue, and you can agree with him without playing politics with the issue.
But more to the point, if you don’t think that this issue is being used to overturn the last election, or to discredit the next one, then you have an unusually sunny disposition, and are no doubt a great encouragement to your friends and family.
We don’t need more people to explain exponential curves to us. We need to understand all the variables that feed into the exponential curve. And — here is the thing — we cannot understand all the variables. We only understand a handful of them, in the very nature of the case. This is not a game of tag, where the only variable is the clear and evident fact that you were in fact tagged.
Let me throw a few other possible variables into the hopper. For example, we do know that vulnerability to the virus is age-related. The average age of the fatalities is currently 80-years-old. But also notice, as I think you should, that one quarter of the Italian populace is 65 or over. Might that have something to do with all of this? We do know that most respiratory diseases like the flu (and this is like the flu) are seasonal. We speak of flu season the way Africans speak of rainy season. It comes and goes, and does so on the basis of temperature. Look at the calendar, ye who live in North America. I can fully understand (and sympathize with) the postponement of the start of athletic season like baseball. That makes sense. But to cancel the whole entire thing? Did you know that the World Series was played in October last year? Somebody in the main office must have set their hair on fire, right before he defenestrated himself.
You cannot ask us to do a story problem in math, and then withhold critical information from us. “A man is walking east at two miles an hour. How long has he been walking?” It kind of depends on where he started. When we compare confirmed cases of coronovirus to deaths, we do get a ratio — but not informative one. How many people got the coronovirus and did not manifest any distinctive symptoms to speak of? They thought they had a cold, and it went away. We don’t have a real fix on this yet.
And it is not as though I believe the variables only push in one direction. According to their nature, the variables vary. Here’s another one. This is not so much a disease issue as it is a supply chain issue. Hospital beds and respirators are a commodity, kind of like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. As the number of patients vary, the results will vary drastically, based on the availability of those commodities. The mortality rate without the necessary treatment is far worse than with treatment, and if there aren’t enough respirators, then the system will be overwhelmed. This is why everybody is so interested, rightly, in flattening the curve. Medical care is part of the supply chain, and supply chains can crash. Just remember that panic does not delay such crashes.
The Shadow of the Almighty
One last thing, the most important.
“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty . . .There shall no evil befall thee, Neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling” (Psalm 91:1, 10).
Psalm 91: 1, 10 (KJV)
Throughout Scripture, the sovereign God has consistently wielded plagues as a means of calling people to repentance. He uses them as an instrument for calling them to return to Him. If you want to be safe from the diseases that strike invisibly, then the place to be is the shadow of the Almighty. This shadow is cast by a great Rock, and the Rock is always Christ.
So by all means, wash your hands. By all means, avail yourself of the best medical knowledge we have. But the foundational response should always be to turn back to God. This means prayer, but the key thing that was left out of the president’s call to prayer over this virus was repentance.
But the obdurate heart rejects this, and blasphemes the very idea that mercies could ever be camouflaged as torments. The unbelievers gnaw their tongues in pain (Rev. 16:10), and refuse to give honor to the God of Heaven. So if we don’t want to be stubborn the way they were stubborn, the best thing that President Xi could do is repent of his treatment of Chinese Christians, release Wang Yi, and ask God for mercy. The best thing the rulers of Iran could do is repent of their blood lust sponsorship of terrorism, and cry out to God for Him to show them favor and kindness. And the best thing Americans could do is repent of the abortion carnage, along all the rest of our foul practices.
Otherwise, our prayers for protection amount to prayers that He protect our wickedness. So remember that all these things are under God’s control and authority. And if we wash our hands, but keep our hearts dirty, He will not hear. He cannot endure solemn assembly and iniquity together.