COVID-19, Culture and Christian Ethics

Faith, not Fear! Love your Neighbor! Freedom of Church and State! Individual rights and liberty! These sound bites—or scream bites—are proclaimed at protests, across social media and in political campaigns. Some are opaque, such as faith, not fear. Faith in what? Your own decision? Anti-science? Or faith in a God who also says love your neighbor, help the poor, assist widows and orphans? Fear not, for even if you feel trapped right now, I am the same God I’ve always been—is that what faith over fear may mean? Or as protesters imply, does faith in God resist any attempt by society to persuade, or even coerce, one to act against their own desires on behalf of community good? Why is love your neighbor a retort rather than a common claim?

But I digress. For six months, I’ve witnessed a distressing America. While I hoped that my own specialty of public health would now have a rightful place at the leadership table, that has not happened with any vigor; rather, a surprising resistance to the idea of public health as a shared good has arisen. Truly, political leadership at every level has failed us. But so has the catechism of so many who identify as Christian. More than ever, I see a failure of a practical notion of Christian ethics in general, and of a faithful bioethics in particular. And I think if those who identified as Christian had incorporated the central tenets of our faith more fully into our lives pre-pandemic, we would have seen a different social response than we do now.

Ask most people on the street to define Christian ethics and they might give you the Ten Commandments. That’s ok as a principle ethics—and it is also a Jewish and an Islamic ethic. But it is really about law and order. Maybe they’d respond that Jesus summed up the law and the prophets into “Love God and love your neighbor.” Ok, but that is also not unique to Christianity, as it is found in every religion and in the Buddhist philosophy. Love your neighbor as yourself gets a little closer to Christ’s ethic, and certainly is a tall order for all, particularly when we throw in the story of the Good Samaritan. Love your enemies is even more challenging, as it turns out our neighbor can also be our enemy.

Of course, the various Christian denominations have their own ethical emphases. The Sermon on the Mount, the church described in Acts, the church in Hebrews, the Last Supper and the reinvention of a Jewish temple based system all guide branches of today’s Christian churches. But for everyday “mere Christians” is there anything unique that should influence our daily moral response in society? 

Classically, Christian social ethics has been divided in four groupings. Some say stand apart from the world (Amish, fundamentalists); others say transform the world (Reform theology); and still others say rise up above the world (Catholic, Orthodox). Lastly, you can just allow paradox, and do all the good you can, knowing it will never be enough in a flawed world (variety of congregations). But are these distinctions more rational and reductionist than they are theological? And what do they have to say about COVID-19 concerns? How, for Christian Americans, is their cultural sociopolitical understanding separate from their theological understanding as it pertains to ethics in a time of pandemic?

For me, two theological words set apart Christian bioethics from any other system of ethical thought. Those words are incarnation and Trinity. Jews have a tribe and a land, Muslims have a prophet and five pillars, but Christians have a body, whose head is Christ, and a mystical communal relationship with a Triune God that exists through all time and space.

Did that last sentence seem too weird? Sadly, the idea of the Trinity isn’t well developed in today’s congregations. Yet it gives special meaning to our COVID-19 response and directs a practical Christian view of bioethics. In Christianity, individualism always dances in community. I am never set apart completely from you. Individual liberty is an American ideal, but not as much a gospel one. In the great Philippians passage about Christ, he was said to empty himself for us, to take on the form of a servant, a man, so that we might gain. That passage wasn’t just meant to set Jesus apart from us as wildly other. It was to also show us how to live. When he says we are his body, his hands and feet, he isn’t just talking about when we are doing charitable acts. He is saying we are always living expressions of himself in the world. Not just when we deliver Meals on Wheels.

Incarnation is radical. It sets our faith apart. It sets in motion an ethics that is much more than the WWJD bracelets of the nineties. The body matters. We aren’t just spiritual beings. Earth, humanity, all creatures, have deep meaning in and of themselves. How we care for own bodies, for the world, and for each other’s bodies is a sacred duty for every single one of us. Pro-life, that charged moniker, may really be better expressed in a Christian (rather than political) sense, as pro-sacred creation, pro-image bearing, pro-beauty of the earth, pro-Shalom. That understanding stretches out love God and love your neighbor a bit more expansively.

Trinity is absolutely peculiar to an orthodox Christian ethic. Not to be disrespectful, but to only ever hear about Jesus is to miss out on knowing, loving and following a Triune God, known as Creator, Spirit and Redeemer. I think maybe this is why Jesus used the image of the body—he knew we needed to know how interconnected we all are, to fundamentally understand ourselves as never separate from God—who in his very being is interconnected—and never separate from each other. Paul echoes this message—nothing can separate us from the love of God; not even a pandemic. Paul also refers again and again to the body of Christ as the Christian collective. Communion is the culmination of that idea as it joins us physically and mystically all at once. If anything, it is our central pillar of identification, and meant to shape the way we see the world and our place in it.

So how does this circle back to the pandemic, the scream-bites, the ethics of response? First, the church needs to teach that while individuals are responsible to God for responding in faith freely, to choose that Love of Loves ourselves and with integrity, that doesn’t mean our faith is an individual endeavor. If we align with the faith that claims the Trinity, then we align with indivisible community. We go where the body goes. When part of the body suffers, we feel it. When part of the body dies, we die a bit too. There is no true individual liberty separate from connectedness and interdependence. Second, the church is supposed to help us see where we fit in the body—are we a hand, a foot, an eye? We aren’t to be jealous of the other members, but to cooperate for overall health. Comparisons of status or demands for ourselves must give way to participation in the function we are best able to demonstrate on behalf of the whole. Third, the church needs to make sure its faithful have a healthy dose of mystery injected into their assurances. Very little of our faith can be reduced to a sound bite. The Trinity? How crazy! Yet so essential. Dwell with it for a while. Get caught up in something bigger than you can ever imagine or understand. Be in awe. See the wide beauty. Be humbled.

Arguing about masks, medicine, vaccines and public closures are a distraction. They aren’t where we are supposed to be focusing. As a body, we are in a pandemic. It isn’t a hoax. Can’t we feel the aching death in our own body as the toll rises? What are we called to be right now? Hunkering down in opposition, or only gathering with people who are just like us, makes the body incomplete—it ends up missing all its feet or all its eyes. The Christian ethic, as it relates to the body, is an outward facing one, alive and vigorous toward health and goodness, the fulfillment of Shalom. We all need to find our place in it and be the best body part we can be.

We must act like there’s a Trinity. We are all mysteriously connected through time and space. No political divisions, national borders, or separate religions will change that. We all belong. We have to believe in an ethic of sufficiency, not scarcity. There is more than enough. We truly have nothing to fear. The loaves and fishes hinted at this, as did Peter’s catch of fish. Only by turning from a response of self-protective grasping to a posture of open handed generosity will we be able to actually visualize what our faith claims is true. What needs to be let free in each of us, what fears need release, what can we give as well as receive in the dance of communion with God and the world? In the view of eternity, what is our present life proclaiming about the love of God?

If Christians claimed an ethics grounded in ideas of the Incarnation and Trinity, we would not only have practices that truly reflected our faith, but we would withstand cultural constrictions and temptations. Individual liberty, the American elevation of the individual good over the community good, would be newly understood in a Christian context as rightly protecting the sacredness of every life, but not worshiping the rights of individuals over the health of the whole. The particular and the general are both celebrated in Christian theology. If I help the least of these, I truly do help them. They can become well. But I also mysteriously help us all, and God receives it as gift of his own. And ultimately, that transmission is imbuing goodness into my own life, making me healthier, more complete, more alive. The ramifications are timeless. 

Published by jenniemclaurin

I'm a wonderer and a wanderer who likes to think about the intersections of science, faith, culture and the natural world. Hiking, family, medicine, travel and a collection of writers and mystics inspire me. I make my living in the land of public health, as a pediatrician. I live my life in the Pacific Northwest.

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