We humans are a presumptuous bunch. That is part of us being a sinful bunch I would presume. And disasters of various sorts sure do bring out presumptions of various sorts. I may not be helpful at banishing the coronavirus, but I will venture to give it a try to banish some presumptions flourishing from it. To attempt to banish them all would be…presumptuous.
Presumption 1: This is God’s judgment on….
In a way, every natural disaster is bound up with God’s judgment. Man rebelled against God in the Fall and has continued in rebellion ever since. As a consequence of this rebellion, God has given creation over to death, disease, famine, and every kind of disaster. (Yes, I crammed and oversimplified a lot of theology there, but continuing….)
But when someone, especially certain televangelists, declares a particular disaster to be the judgment of God on a particular group, even a group of non-Christians (and perhaps especially them), many rightly recognize that as presumptuous. Jesus himself discouraged such thinking (Luke 13:4). How can one know for certain whether a given disaster is a general consequence of the Fall or a particular judgment of God? Anyone who claims to know is selling snake oil or Silver Solution.
One day, the details of how God is judging and of who God is judging will become more clear. Today is probably not that day. Speaking of which…
Presumption 2: God doesn’t really judge anymore.
The opposite presumption is that God, if he exists, is a harmless lovey-dovey old deity who does not do that mean Old Testament judgment stuff anymore.
Well, the New Testament has plenty of scary judgment and not just in the Book of Revelation. For “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). By his grace, the Lord delays the full and final judgment so that, in the meantime, we might turn to him. But he is still the Judge. He shall return “to judge the quick and the dead.” So get right with him quick. God is not out of the judgment business.
Presumption 3: We don’t deserve this disaster.
This attitude presumes that the grace of God, including his protection and provision, really is not grace; that we somehow deserve at least some of the grace of God, which is, of course, a contradiction. The moment we speak of deservings we have ceased to speak of grace.
This certainly was not the attitude of Gregory the Great or of Thomas Cranmer. The collect for Septuagesima, likely first written by Gregory in the midst of plague and invasion, states we “are justly punished for our offenses” and asks that we “may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy name.” Similarly, the collect for this past Fourth Sunday in Lent prays “that we, which for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved.”
The Book of Common Prayer and all right prayer acknowledges that we deserve evil for our evil and that we ought to throw ourselves upon the grace and mercy of God.
Presumption 4: There is one wise and godly response, and if you disagree, you’re WRONG!
We all have one calling to follow our Lord Jesus Christ. But the details of living out that calling can and should differ. We are not all called to the same ministry as St. Paul repeatedly made clear. When we do not understand this, we may become one of those well-meaning but annoying church people who refuse to understand how any true Christian would not be consumed with enthusiasm for the ministry in which he is involved.
Nor are we called to the same responses to disaster and difficulty. The church rightly reveres Ignatius and Polycarp, who both went cheerfully and without resistance to their martyrdoms. The church also rightly reveres Athanasius, who fled persecution. And thank God that he did flee and thereby continue to contend for the orthodox Nicene faith. Yet he was criticized for fleeing to the point he felt it necessary to write a defense.
During the dark days of the Black Death around 1350, a multitude of priests continued ministering to their dying flock and many of these priests died. Other clerics were not so much on the front lines but helped rebuild in the Plague’s aftermath. William of Wykeham stands out in this regard, founding New College Oxford to educate and replenish the depleted priesthood.
One would have to be something of a moral busybody to criticize these varying responses to disaster. There was no right one-size-fits-all response. Would we have wanted Athanasius to be silenced? Would we have wanted even more priests to die during the Black Death?
Christians can certainly err in response to the current disaster. But in most circumstances, there is no one right response for all churches and all Christians.
Consider the contentious issue of church closings. Some strongly object to churches staying open, seeing it as carelessly endangering attendees. Others insist that in times of disaster, churches are all the more needed and must stay open to comfort the afflicted and administer the sacraments.
But it is doubtful that one policy is appropriate for all churches. For a large church to meet in a highly infected city would indeed be questionable given the likelihood of spreading the coronavirus. But I know of a small Anglican church in a city with a low infection rate that met the Fourth Sunday In Lent by splitting their congregation into three services to comply with local restrictions on meeting sizes. Many within that congregation would have continued to meet with each other even if services ceased. Preventative measures were, of course, taken – hand sanitizer flowed more than holy water. Was it wrong for this church to meet?
God does not make Christians identical nor give them identical callings. We are all his children, but we are not clones. Nor are our congregations. Our situations are certainly not the same. So we should not assume that there is one right response to the current crisis to which all Christians and all churches must conform.
And if you disagree, you’re…annoying