A Christian Moral and Theological Case for Social Distancing

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    When several public figures in my evangelical community defied the government and private sector calls to avoid group gatherings, I was offended and broken-hearted. Caring people should be willing to endure disappointment and inconveniences to protect others from suffering and death, especially when a highly contagious disease threatens the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.

    In the days of COVID-19, we shouldn’t only be willing, but we must be obedient to the central commands of our Christian faith—one of which is to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we don’t want to get COVID-19, we shouldn’t do anything that increases someone else’s potential for getting it.

    To my brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow ministers, the widely made recommendation for social distancing and cancellation of group activities—and in some instances, official orders to do so—are not principally about you but about others. Maybe you don’t believe you’ll get sick, or, that if you do, it’ll be nothing worse than the flu, but those presuppositions are all about you and how you perceive or experience this contagion. Maybe you think the alarm raised over the novel coronavirus is overblown or politically ginned up—but those conclusions are, again, all about you. The concern for social distancing is about much more than you—it’s about others who are vulnerable to devastating illness and even death.

    It’s impossible for me to casually dismiss this threat. Already two colleagues have died, several more are very sick, hospitalized or on ventilators and for my nephew with lupus, his life is endangered by it. My wife, a mental health professional, received an email report from a doctor treating COVID-19 patients in Italy. He wrote in his second language, “Our biggest trouble is that we are now noticing that even 40 years old and less are developing very bad pneumonia . . . they can easily need rapid intubation or they’ll die in acute respiratory distress.”

    The well-being of others is not a game of math, or age, or medical history. Every single human life is precious, every person is of equal worth with another, and all avoidable suffering and death is a tragedy—whether it involves one or one million. At the core of the Gospel is this question asked by Jesus, “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:12,14) How dare we not be concerned with a few when God is supremely concerned with just one?

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    St. Paul admonished the Philippian believers to, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourself.” (Philippians 2:3) This public health emergency is a time for all of us to ask very deep and prayerful questions about our true motives.

    As much as anyone else, I hate the closure of churches, the cancellation of prayer meetings, the postponement of fellowship gatherings. For over 40 years, these have been the spiritual and social mainstays of my life. I enjoy church and everything that goes on around it immensely—but again, this is not about me. Churches are very touchy-feely places where people not only shake lots of hands, but we hug, kiss, and form hand-in-hand circles!

    And if you’re from Pentecostal roots, as I am, just take a look at the saliva spray on the pulpit after one of we vociferous preachers is done preaching! When a killer contagion is aloft, we’re downright dangerous! There are times when Jesus’ second great commandment, love of neighbor, requires we lay down our own preferences, pleasures and even needs for the sake of others. After all, Jesus defined the demonstration of true filial love as much more than enduring inconvenience and loneliness, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

    Finally, there are those among our evangelical family who believe this whole national drama surrounding COVID-19 is cooked up by liberal politicians and media for their electoral advantage. (Of course, that doesn’t explain why other countries are afflicted in far worse ways than we are, but that’s a different discussion.) While I’m not convinced of this claim, for the sake of argument, I’ll allow for it.

    Let’s just say all the clamor has been cooked up—but how does that change any of our moral and spiritual obligations to the other person? The fact is people are getting sick—very sick—and some are dying. No matter what the true origin or scale of this threat, it is inflicting pain, suffering, and loss of life. We must be willing to do all we can to spare just one, two, or a few of such agony. This is not a time to make self-centered claims of our First Amendment rights, but to engage in acts of self-denial so that others can be safe, the sick can recover, and lives can be preserved.

    Jesus, the “author and finisher of our faith,” illustrated for us what we’re to do in days like these. Though He was entitled to every good thing in the universe, nonetheless, of His own will, “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant . . .” (Philippians 2:7) Servants do what they are asked to do. All of us have been asked to put aside our normal routines, our preferred social habits, and even our favorite forms of corporate worship to spare others the fear and anguish that comes with COVID-19.

    Compliance with that ask—by our family members, friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and the whole of humanity—seems a small thing to do in light of the threat of COVID-19. I believe social distancing—or as one church leader has more accurately put it, “physical distancing”–is a moral and theological imperative for all religious believers, but especially for followers of Christ, who, He said, ” . . . must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

    In this strange and dangerous time, let’s follow the example of our Lord by denying ourselves for the sake of others.

    Rev. Rob Schenck is an evangelical minister, president of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, DC, and a national advocate for gun violence prevention. His work is featured in Abigail Disney’s Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Armor of Light, an examination of the embrace of popular gun culture by American evangelicals. Rev. Schenck is also the author of Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love (HarperCollins, 2018).