Loving God and Neighbor During a Pandemic: Some thoughts on Christian compassion

I recently pushed back against a viral video making the rounds on Facebook suggesting that Hydroxychloroquine was either a cure or universal treatment for COVID-19. In retrospect, I wish I had done something more productive, like binge-watching a whole season of The Great British Baking Show.
In my response, I made a couple of main points, that I wish to elaborate on here, because they seem to have been lost in the shuffle and I continue to be accused of all sorts of things from being grossly naive about various secret global conspiracies to being incompetent and ill-informed about how research works.
I’m not really concerned with the personal attacks. I can take it. But I am concerned that my main points have been lost or obscured, and it is these that I am convinced are deeply rooted in a biblical worldview. So, let me reiterate those points here.
1. I would LOVE, LOVE, LOVE for hydroxychloroquine to shown (empirically) to be a safe and effective treatment, for early stage patients or for anyone for that matter. I really don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not a scientist or medical doctor though and I am thoroughly convinced that on this I need to stay in my lane and not share information that could endanger the public. And many of those sharing the viral video were doing just that. They were discouraging wearing masks and discouraging social distancing as though these were part of some vast conspiracy. Sharing a post that expresses hope for hydroxy to be a cure…I’m all for it. But wrap that hope in fearmongering and a political agenda, and we’ve suddenly moved from a concern for public health, which is a big part of loving our neighbor, to spreading potentially dangerous misinformation that could do the very opposite.

So, what can we share that is responsible? Share news about studies that show promise, like this one sent to me by a friend in Africa this morning. It was a study I had not seen and seems to suggest that my reservations about hydroxy may be misplaced. I hope they were:

https://www.henryford.com/news/2020/07/hydro-treatment-study#.XyPwrkQv_Rw.gmail

This seems to offer some positive affirmation of hydroxy as an effective treatment and I’m all for it. This is far more helpful than the often-shared Newsweek opinion piece, because it represents genuine research.

But we also should be careful to not say more than the scientific and medical communities are saying, and they are saying a lot, and a good bit of it points in the opposite direction. This information for example, is likewise important for people to know:
https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-treatment-clinical-data-on-hydroxychloroquine-in-covid-19-2020-4

It shows that many studies offering positive results have methodological flaws and this should be factored in when and if we present this data. Or, we need to balance the above study with things like this sent to me by a medical doctor and former colleague in Africa. The scientist who made this post rightly raises the question of why so much popular support for hydroxy, and not for other drugs that show equal or more promise? Could it be our political agendas and hopes that the president will be vindicated rather than a genuine desire to foster the public good? Its a question worth considering for both sides of the debate, including my own.

2. All of this raises the question I am most concerned with, and that is, what is the role of the church in a Pandemic? Is it medical, political, social, moral, spiritual? I would argue, based on Jesus’ statement that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbors that it is primarily the latter and especially not the first two. The church has no primary mandate as either a medical advisor or political advocate. It does however have as its main purpose the wholeness (shalom) of people created in God’s image and that begins with being an agent of love and grace. In other words, our purpose is ultimately to foster reconciliation with God and to lead people down that path. And we cannot do that if we set obstacles in the way by tying the gospel to secular political agendas. Its a fine line here, I admit. Once the president advocated for the use of hydroxy, this has become a political issue whether we like it or not. And I have no doubt that this impacts the search for truth on this issue for both sides of the debate. Therefore, we must weigh how much we want our mission, the mission of the church, to be associated with a political cause rather than with reaching the lost. If we choose the political cause, it will hinder our efforts among the lost every time.

To that though I would add that that we cannot offer spiritual comfort to people without engaging in social and moral care. If you look historically at the church’s role during the many plagues throughout history, the one thing that stands out is that the church cared for the sick in a direct, hands-on way–they fed them, bandaged them, housed them, and were present among the sick often when no one else would. As a result, the church’s mission advanced. God’s people were seen as having a foot firmly set in the next world and one firmly set in this world. They avoided the errors of both fundamentalism and liberalism, one making this world ultimate the other making it irrelevant. Their compassion for the sick and dying proved a powerful testimony to the transformed lives they lived. Their spiritual care of the soul was never divorced from their care of the body. Consider for example this quote from Eusebius, the fourth century Christian historian who told of Christians responding to a plague under the reign of Maximinius II:

“Then did the evidence of the universal zeal and piety of the Christians become manifest to all the heathen. For they alone in the midst of such ills showed their sympathy and their humanity by their deeds. Every day some continued caring for and burying the dead, for there were multitudes who had no one to care for them; others collected in one place those who were afflicted by the famine, throughout the entire city and gave bread to them all.”

When I think about the this and compare it to the contemporary church’s response, I don’t see us giving care, compassion, and basic necessities. What I see is political posturing, conspiracy theories, and misinformation. I see a church that the world views as largely hypocritical adding to that reputation because we are too caught up in the politics of our day to recognize the significance of the hour. We are not maximizing our compassion, but rather fostering divisions. And where there is division, the devil is not far away.

My point then all comes down to three main things. First, let’s err on the side of caution when it comes to medical and scientific studies, especially if we lack medical and scientific training, and trust the consensus of those communities and verifiable and repeatable evidence. Christianity and science are not enemies and historically it was Christianity’s belief that God created an orderly world that gave rise to scientific inquiry in the first place. When we offhandedly dismiss scientific research, we appear as rubes, out of touch with reality, and most importantly, out of touch with the concerns of the people we are called to reach. By contrast, anecdotal examples are not evidence and here’s why. If a doctor prescribes Hydroxy to a patient and the patient recovers, that’s great news. But was it due to the hydroxy or was it due to…their diet? Other medications they also took? Their immune system? Their DNA? Their environment? Outside of a study with a control group, we can’t know the answer to these questions and should therefore be overly cautious about stating the importance of these instances.

So, hope yes. Let’s spread hope, offer hope, embody hope. But hope that is real…grounded in truth. And our best source of hope regarding COVID19, as of today, is in loving each other the way Jesus loves us. Perhaps tomorrow there will be overwhelming evidence that there is a cure or universally effective treatment and perhaps that treatment will be hydroxychloriquine. If so, I’ll be the first in line to celebrate. Right now there is not a universal cure or treatment. And as we engage in healthy, civil discussions about the prospects, let’s be sure that love and respect, not suspicion and innuendoes drive the conversation. Second, love means doing no harm. We will one day stand before the Lord and be accountable for our actions. We will answer not for how well we defended the president or supported his party or uncovered government corruption. What we will answer for is how well we loved God and how well we loved our neighbor. Right now what we know to be true is that masks and social distancing are effective means of mitigating the spread of the disease. And so we should do these things and promote these things not because they are convenient or easy or comfortable but because they are expressions of love for our neighbors. Finally, when in an attempt to defend our position, we feel the need to undermine all authority but our own, we undermine the very essence of the Gospel that is rooted in submission to divine authority and respect for civil authority (Rom. 13). In doing this we take on a very postmodern mindset in which truth is subjective and evidence irrelevant. This is an odd place to be for people who claim allegiance to the One who calls Himself Truth. We set ourselves up for, when we talk about God or the Gospel, the historicity of the resurrection, to be told merely, well, that’s your opinion. Do we really want to go down that road?

If our driving question in a pandemic and in politics, were what things can I do that will win the most people to Christ, I am fairly well-convinced that we all, myself included, would have less time for social media and more time for social action–for entering the lives of the sick and hurting and leading them on the pathway to shalom, and to the Prince of Peace.

Peace out!

To the Graduating Class of 2020 (An Open Letter):

You didn’t bargain for this and you don’t deserve it. You worked hard. Paid your dues. And when it came time to celebrate, the world went crazy.

And I wouldn’t dare say anything as tone deaf as “look on the bright side” and then proceed to pretend that I would not be angry and bitter were I in your shoes.

But, there is a bright side, and the bright side, quite frankly, is you.

Your whole life you’ve been told that technology was wrecking you—that it was turning you into mindless, socially inept automatons and that you couldn’t survive 10 seconds in “the real world.” But how foolish we all feel now, when the real world turned out to be the very world you told us was already here, as we tried haplessly to hold on to one that was passing away.

And the great irony in all of it is that at a time when you could have gloated in your prophetic success or at least rolled your eyes when we all began scrambling to figure out how to take our world online, you did nothing of the sort. Instead, you were present, you were kind, you were generous, you were everything that we said you didn’t know how to be.

The silver lining then to all of this is not the hard lessons you are learning, but the hard ones the rest of us are. We undervalued you, under appreciated you, and misunderstood you. We need to own that.

The second part of that silver lining is that the world, the one you create, will flourish. It will be less divisive, more relational, more socially aware and less self-conscious than perhaps any generation before you. How do I know that? Because these are the qualities we are seeing in you right now.

The future is bright indeed, and you make it so. And the world will perhaps remember your delayed graduation more than any that ever happened on time. And it will be remembered because we will remember you. We will not, cannot, forget your perseverance and your ability to roll with things as they come. We will never forget that you offered us compassion instead of judgment and grace instead of blame.

So happy graduation, class of 2020. The world needs you. I need you. We all need you.

A Professor