But if you bite and devour one another,
watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
We’re living through a bit of a national nightmare right now. Maybe I should call it a bad dream, leaving room for it to get worse and then call it a nightmare. And it’s rather unsurprising that in this particular rough patch, when the pressures are mounting, some pretty deep fractures are beginning to appear in our society.
The sides being drawn up, and look roughly something like this:
This is a deadly virus, spreading asymptomatically, threatening to overrun our healthcare system. For the good of everyone we need to shelter in place, indefinitely, and at any cost. Whatever enforcement is required to keep the non-essential non-shelterers in place is well justified, because spreading this virus is tantamount to murder.
If we don’t want to re-live the Great Depression or worse, we have to get back to work, because ruining the entire economy for a generation for the sake of avoiding a virus 98% of people recover from isn’t worth it. Let me take whatever risks I see necessary to provide for my family, and you handle it in your own way.
I’ve noticed a distinct pattern of social behavior in crisis. The first is a tremendous unity – there’s a sudden, severe problem and we all want it solved, so we set about happily and proudly together to solve it. So when the coronavirus reached our shores, we happily went inside, proud to do our part. For a week.
But after that first wave of unity, there’s a second spirit that takes over, and that’s one of disunity, where after some time of reflection we discover we disagree on the nature of the problem and therefore the nature of the solution. How bad is this thing really? Are the economic side-effects worse than the cure? Do our liberties ever get handed back? We’re well into the disunity stage.
The third stage is division, which goes something like this: The other side’s solution is actually going to make the problem worse. I not only have to fight the problem itself, my survival also requires I fight the other side. This is how riots begin, and I have no doubt that if either the coronavirus continues to spread and kill, if the economy continues to collapse, or civil liberties are much further restricted, riots aren’t far behind.
It’s not my concern at present to pick a side in the present crisis, defend it, and attack the opposing view. I want to speak to the members of the church, also members of society, about the danger of bringing the division of the world into the church. I’m terribly concerned that as society in general unravels, society within the body of Christ will also.
First, in some cases, division is necessary and profitable (1 Cor 11:19). Someone once asked Jordan Peterson for advice to a newlywed couple, and his reply was something like, “Fight. Fight all the time and about everything.” His point was simply that the world is a complicated place, and nobody, especially a young person, has all the right answers, so you’d be foolish to just assume you are right about everything and not listen to an opposing viewpoint.
The biblical version of this goes:
Iron sharpens iron,Proverbs 27:17
and one man sharpens another.
But how does iron sharpen iron? Not by sitting on a bench, that’s for sure. Iron sharpens iron by impact and friction, with plenty of noise and sparks. Life is complex, and the natural state of man is that he is a fool, which basically means he doesn’t understand the world, and a man who doesn’t rightly understand the world can’t know how to properly live in it. Only in cartoons and Darwin do accidents create masterpieces.
So let’s fight out this coronavirus thing. Let’s have the economy vs. healthcare vs. tyranny discussion, and let it be spirited. Let us assume that since we don’t know everything individually, we might act foolishly, and the consequences of foolishness in this case are going to be really, really bad. A spirited debate on the Titanic about the wisdom of ramming an iceberg might have been a net gain, even at the price of few hurt feelings.
Some problems are so great it takes a large collection of minds to solve it, in part by presenting an idea, collectively assaulting it, knowing truth can withstand assault and error isn’t worth hanging onto anyway. Truth, in the fog of this pandemic, is hard to come by. Lots of reports, lots of “I’ve heard” and “I’ve read,” lots of anecdotal evidence, but not a lot of hard truth. That takes time, it takes study, and it takes debate. Almost certainly when Paul said “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2) he didn’t mean, “It doesn’t matter what you think, so long as it’s the same.” Only truth is weighty enough to keep unity in orbit; but truth is more like a diamond you have to mine at great struggle and expense than a sand dollar you find strolling along the beach.
Second, it seems inevitable we’re going to experience some sort of calamity in the near future, be it medical, economic, or governmental. Who knows but we might wake up in a year and see mass graves, or bread lines, or a population under the thumb of a police state. We might manage to avoid one at the cost of experiencing the other two. There’s a chance we could try to balance things out and take a smaller dose of all three. Or there’s a very really possibility that in trying to entirely avoid all them all we experience them all. They’re all bad options, with plenty of historic precedent. It might be two out of three.
I’m convinced the same thinking that took wheels off infant’s walkers so they couldn’t fall down the steps or happily scoot across the kitchen floor, that put helmets on toddlers riding tricycles so they wouldn’t bang their heads on the sidewalk and get hurt or bang their head on the sidewalk and get smart, and that gave trophies to the losing T-ball team so they wouldn’t feel bad or try harder in practice is going to give us a foamy-mouthed bite in the bum, because we thought we could avoid all forms calamity, when we simply can’t. We have made a god of Safety, and offered up our sacrifices, but in our hour of greatest need, it appears to be occupied by ruling from its other, more *ahem* private throne (1 Kings 18:17).
Third, whatever calamity finally does befall us, it’s almost certain that the segment of society that takes the brunt of it will quite naturally blame the segment that doesn’t. After all, we are to some degree picking our poison, and who will drink it.
I’m entirely sympathetic to the vulnerable, for whom the vapor of an unguarded sneeze could be the angel of death. And I’m entirely sympathetic to the young husband three months into a thirty year mortgage, struggling, as young men often do, to support his young family on wages appropriate for a twenty-five year old with two years’ experience, having now lost his job and is now forced to sit at home at home, knowing even if he did get the virus, the overwhelming odds are he’d have a mild cough at worst. And I’m entirely sympathetic to the ones in a panic over State overreach. Tyranny, like all the devil’s schemes, comes bearing gifts of safety, security, and hope for the small price of some clinking chains. I’ve read enough of the history of 20th century tyrannies to know those shackles are sometimes fastened by the magic words “state of emergency,” and not loosened until millions lie dead.
So where does this leave the local church? In short, in a really precarious place, because the divisions of society will be represented in the church. If riots break out in the streets, and they might, no doubt they’ll break out in congregational and leadership meetings too. So here’s some of the thoughts swirling in my head the past few weeks, for what it’s worth:
First, Christians have to fight this out, but properly. These times require careful, thoughtful, deliberate, biblical thinking. One temptation is to give into the panic and function on raw emotion. Christians must “fear not,” but not because no calamity can befall us (it can), but because we can’t think straight when we’re afraid, and we desperately need straight thinking in fearful days.
Anything that’s important and complicated is hard to figure out, and worth doing so. And these are important, complicated days. These are not the days to be driven by the winds of fear, but directed by a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. In complex times we need each other to help us think carefully, assail our ideas with a view to discovering truth and discarding error, so we may be pleasing to God and faithful stewards of our charge. When the early church hit a complicated issue, and it appeared that some of God’s commands were in conflict, they assembled their collective brainpower, summoned the Spirit to help, and after lots of debate, hammered it out (Acts 15).
Second, we are bound by God to bear each other’s burdens, which includes the burden of fear. The fears of the day are many, and they’re real, and the things people are fearing might actually come true. People are going to die, houses are going to be foreclosed, and some civil liberties may be gone forever, and some in our churches will be more affected by one or two of these than others. So whatever our individual fears are, we must avoid assuming we are right to harbor our own fears as realistic, while others are stupid to harbor their fears.
It’s natural to rank our fears and flee the greatest and face the least. But not everybody has the same ranking. The young, strong, but poor are going to have different fears than the retired but vulnerable. Both have legitimate reasons to fear, because both stand to lose a lot. Still, the law of Christ is to love one another, which means being willing to lay down one’s life for his friend, and we’re approaching the point where that kind of love might get a wee bit pricey.
Finally, we must remember that our point of unity is in Christ alone, and our ultimate citizenship is in the heavenly city, complete with large assemblies, holy kisses, and joy of joys, there’s not a mask or bottle of sanitizer anywhere to be found. We must steadfastly refuse to allow the crisis of the day to divide the church of Christ, and that has to mean something more than “I won’t divide the church if the church just does it my way.” Christ is not divided, and the church ultimately must not be either. We may remain united in Christ while in disagreement on a virus, but that depends on where one’s primary loyalties lie, because let’s face it, in the conflict surrounding a life or death situation, we can easily feel like the other side is literally going to kill us. Part of loving our brother is assuming he’s not trying to destroy me. Another part is loving him in such a way that he knows I’m not trying to kill him. In any case, one cannot love Christ and hate a brother (1 John 4:20).
I have yet to see this printed on a “God’s Precious Promises and Kitten Pictures Calendar,” but it should be:
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.1 Cor 3:17a
A house, or temple, divided against itself will not stand, and God will destroy temple destroyers. We need to have our fights, we need to have our debates, we need to air our fears. We should try to convince, and we should be willing to be convinced. But we dare not destroy the temple, and this promise of God will help us not do that. We must bear weighty burdens regularly, love expensively, confess constantly, forgive profusely, and live eternally. We may be three in response to the crisis du jour, but we are forever one in Christ, and oneness in Christ must trump threeness in COVID, collapse, or tyranny.