Tensions over the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) are taking hold of our country as the infection leaves a trail of sickness, death and uncertainty. As the number of deaths approaches 60,000 in just eight weeks, some states have decided to reopen select businesses in the coming days, despite warnings and conflicting recommendations from health officials, the White House and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This step is seen as a small victory in the name of freedom by individuals who believe their rights have been trampled upon by directives to shelter in place and to close non-essential businesses and who are convinced this is the first reboot the economy desperately needs.
Opponents, however, point to the public’s responsibility to continue the only sure defense against the novel virus in order to stem the rising death toll and to guard against a recurrence that could be even worse. Critics also identify an underlying, unjust political tactic in reopening prematurely, relieving the state from any responsibility to pay unemployment benefits to workers who will now return to jobs that will predictably face lower volumes of business amid the ongoing pandemic.
The financial crisis has exacerbated the anxiety and frustration many Americans are experiencing from the stay-at-home orders. As weeks have turned to months, more incidents of family and behavioral health issues are being reported. Teachers, students and parents are doing their best just to finish out the school year online. In many areas, medical systems and healthcare providers are stretched to the breaking point.
“COVID-19 has become a political flashpoint.”
Fear, grief and anger now grip the country amid uncertainties about the implementation and effectiveness of coronavirus testing and a possible medical solution.
As we enter a politically charged season of unrest and conflict in the public square, COVID-19 has become a political flashpoint. Some view the pandemic as an overhyped media story that has created the impending economic disaster. Some minimize or dismiss the seriousness of the virus, citing the small percentage of the 350 million Americans who will contract it and/or die.
For some, like me, COVID-19 is personal. It almost killed me.
On the night of March 25, I was hospitalized. The admitting doctor informed me that I had the worst COVID lungs she had seen to date. My situation was grave. In her estimation, I would be on a ventilator by 8:00 the next morning. Unsuccessful calls by the doctor to my wife at 4:30 a.m. eventually led me to record brief videos for family and friends, sending them personal words of love and gratitude. By 7:00, when I was transported into the ICU, I accepted the realization that my life was now in the hands of brilliant doctors and nurses as well as in the arms of God who was already present, welcoming me, holding me and staying with me to see me through to the other side, whatever that threshold might be.
I received incredible medical care that day, which prevented the use of the ventilator. In less than 24 hours, I was stabilized and moved to recovery. My admitting doctor later informed me, “You are an absolute miracle case.”
Accounts of my COVID-19 experience were published by Baptist News Global and by local, national and even international media.
Since that harrowing encounter, I have become a patient advocate and personal resource for people around the country whose loved ones and friends are now behind the COVID curtain, alone. With reluctance, I have also entered the public dialogue about COVID-19 on social media. I do my best to keep my posts respectful and honest, but I admit I have been guilty of letting my anger get the best of me, pushing back in ways that perhaps are not always helpful. In these times I hear the words of Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane, “Put away the sword,” and I remember who I am and who I follow. In these moments I am challenged by the love of Christ to search for other approaches to the pandemic that might prove more productive and better reflect my relationship to God and neighbor.
“My admitting doctor later informed me, ‘You are an absolute miracle case.’”
As a follower of Jesus, the Great Shepherd who healed the sick and protected the poor, I have the responsibility to frame this global health crisis in a manner that better reflects a pastoral concern for everyone who is hurting and struggling. I believe people of faith have an obligation to offer comfort and hope in the midst of mounting grief, fear and need.
I was oddly reminded of the shepherd metaphor recently in one exchange on Facebook, where the derogatory use of “sheep” entered the fray. One person responding to another individual’s post that supported the stay-at-home strategy wrote, “Open everything … if you don’t want to go out, stay home … don’t take the freedom from everyone because you are a sheep.” A third person sniped back, “Sheep are the ignorant who think [the virus] is nothing.”
Jesus talked about sheep – but in quite different terms.
In Luke, while eating a meal with the local outcasts, Jesus pushes back in response to the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes who questioned his association with a group of despised individuals. To illustrate a radical kind of attention to the marginalized few, he tells two parables about a singular lost sheep and one lost coin, underscoring the merciful reach of God:
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulder and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” In the same way, Jesus said, “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin’” (15:4-6, 8-9, NIV).
Jesus speaks about a kind of agape love in the parable of the lost sheep that shows compassion on the part of the shepherd who understands his responsibility to protect the vulnerable one. The shepherd takes a calculated risk, leaving behind the larger herd of 99. In the parable of the lost coin, the woman does everything possible to restore her purse of coins, working diligently and doing whatever it takes to find one coin.
“COVID-19 should be first and foremost an issue that calls for responses that are ‘both/and,’ not ‘either/or.’”
In both parables, Jesus aims to refocus the Pharisees and the scribes on the importance of the amount of attention given to the disoriented and the missing, the few and the least valuable. The shepherd and the woman did not display a spirit of dismissal, judgment or scorn. Instead, Jesus emphasizes their intense devotion to what others might downplay or dismiss – a focused response grounded in love and mercy requiring the larger group to wait and remain vulnerable. Jesus concludes that when this kind of difficult, surgical work occurs, the community and all of heaven rejoice.
If we are called then to live out and enact the same kind of work that shines God’s love in this world, should we too not commit ourselves to the pastoral work for the small percentage of people who become seriously ill due to the coronavirus? Should we not take every measure to protect them from the fullest brunt of the virus?
Simultaneously, should we not also find ways to help those who have a lost coin, who now hunger and have little or no income? Should we not advocate for financial assistance and loan forgiveness for the student worker, the small business owner and the unemployed during this worldwide crisis? Should our faith communities not search for ways to contribute to assisting individuals and nonprofits that are working on behalf of our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors?
Radical times call for radical measures. For Christians, COVID-19 should be first and foremost an issue that calls for responses that are “both/and,” not “either/or.”
For starters, let us refuse to engage in divisive rhetoric or to spread false information. Let us not diminish the dangers of the virus. Let us not ignore a financial crisis that is crippling the lives of fellow citizens. Instead, let us advocate for a clear plan that includes mass testing, COVID-tracing, financial resources and a carefully developed plan to reopen our country responsibly. We need to be examples of how people of differing perspectives can work together in order to fight for the sick and their families and to protect and support the most vulnerable among us.
When we do, we will be able to say, “Rejoice with us. We have found each other.”
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