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!

Verbal-Assault Evangelism (and why it doesn’t work)

A few days ago, I had a physical therapy appointment and encountered a fellow who was rather “in-your face” about the Lord. And by “in your face,” I specifically mean, in my face.

As I was checking in, he walked up to the counter, loudly greeting the gals working there, and then shouting “Praise the Lord!”–about something. My first thought was, good for this guy. He loves the Lord! I’m happy for him! (and I genuinely was).

But we had a second encounter a few minutes later as we were both exercising on the recumbent bikes, side by side. “When did you have your surgery?” he asked me, assuming that I had the same knee replacement surgery he had recently undergone.

When I explained that I hadn’t had surgery, he quickly interrupted me to let me know that his knee wasn’t healing as fast as expected, but that “the Lord is good!” I agreed heartily, gave a reassuring smile and finished my time on the bike.

A few second later, I was doing another exercise and talking to the therapist. And the guy overheard me say that I teach theology at the University of Valley Forge. He immediately inserted himself into the conversation and began hurling a barrage of Bible verses at me, and at everyone else in the room. He was quite loud about it, and frankly it made me a bit uncomfortable. Thankfully, the therapist interrupted so that I could get back to focusing on my exercises.

A few minutes later, we found ourselves on tables next to each other, once again doing similar exercises. He asked me, “what DAY did you get saved?” Adding, “that’s the most important day of your life.” I wasn’t really in the mood to try and explain to him that biblically, salvation is described as both an event and a process; plus, I was sure that this information would fall on deaf ears. So, to humor him I gave him the 90 second version of my testimony, and then turned back to my exercises.

He was clearly unsatisfied with my answer, because after throwing a few more random Bible verses my way, he proceeded to say, “well, we’ll finish with this…”

Wait, what? Finish? Is this a church service? An inquisition? What does he mean “we’ll finish with this”?

Whatever else it meant, it surely meant that he was in charge of this encounter and it didn’t end until he decided it could.

He went on. “You can always tell somebody who’s on fire for the Lord because they love to talk about Him. They just can’t help it.” The implication was clear. He was convinced that since I didn’t match his enthusiasm for boisterous biblical sound bites, I clearly wasn’t “on fire” for Jesus.

I smiled, shook his hand and went to work.

Looking back, I think that this is actually how a good number of people in the church think evangelism should be done. You declare your faith. You cite the Bible. You pressure people into accepting it. No discussion. No debate. No room for doubts or nuance or mystery or questions.

Yet, when I look at evangelism in the Bible, what I see looks nothing like this.

I see Jesus eating in peoples homes whom He’s just met, like Zacchaeus.

I see Him asking questions. Lots of questions. Do you want to be healed? Where is your husband? Why did you go out into the desert? What does the law say? How do you read it? Where are your accusers? What’s in your wallet? (ok, not that last one, at least not in those words).

I see Him meeting with the down and out, sometimes to tell them how great their sins are but often to tell them how great is the grace of God.

Or, think about Paul. When Paul engages in evangelism we see him reasoning with people. Making a case. Engaging with culture (and appreciating it) as with Mars Hill.

We see him in the synagogues often, talking to Jews and God-fearers, those who already displayed some interest in spiritual things.

Put simply, what I see in the New Testament is a far cry from “verbal-assault evangelism” because it’s evangelism that takes work, that takes time, investment, study, knowledge, prayer, patience, and empathy.

And most importantly, it takes the leading of the Spirit. This is the point of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan. Its the point of the disciples waiting in the upper room. Its the point of practically the whole narrative of Acts, which casts the mission of the church, as one writer puts it, “not so much the planned extension of a building, but as an unexpected explosion!”

And this kind of evangelism, to me, seems more crucial than ever in the times in which we live. In a world that by definition is “in your face”–perhaps Christianity’s greatest treasure is to be in people’s hearts and minds and homes and lives–in order to share the gospel authentically, organically, practically, and relationally.

But, don’t get me wrong. I’m not squashing enthusiasm or passion for the lost or suggesting we don’t talk about sin. I am only suggesting that we steer clear of methods that are indeed more about us than about those around us. As I looked around the room as my new friend lambasted the world with his convictions–what I saw as a lot of people rolling their eyes, shaking their heads. And I don’t blame them. His version of Christianity was not invitational. It wasn’t the kind of thing that made outsiders say, “hey, whatever that guy’s got, I want some.” No. It had the opposite effect. There was no effort to enter the lives of others. There was no effort to listen. No effort to hear, to understand, to know, to love. And it made people think, I suspect, that if that is Christianity, I’ll take a pass.

Simply put, in a faith defined by the incarnation of God in human flesh, a faith defined by the greatest act of condescension in history, we have woefully lost our way when our methods shun any form of condescension of our own, any form of sacrifice, any form of becoming all things to all people in hopes that we might win some.