Coronavirus and Christian courage
July 29, 2020
When I hear some of my fellow Christians proclaim that we should not wear masks because God will protect us, I am distraught. When I hear those who share my faith encourage speedy re-opening of our worship spaces, I am uncomfortable.
Part of my distress stems from my disagreement. The deeper disquiet, though, comes from a more subtle space. It comes from the ways in which we agree.
When they say Christians have a specific calling not to surrender to fear, I agree. When they say we must live as though we have the conviction that God will save us, I agree. How can I reconcile my deep disagreement with their conclusions with my profound empathy for the reasoning they invoke?
And it is a profound empathy. It is a conviction as deep as my bones. I can still see Rev. Amy Jacks Dean standing before my youth camp when I was in middle school and hear her reminding us of those immortal words announcing the birth of Jesus Christ: “Fear not.” I have taught on this throughout my career, from the pulpit to the classroom. Christian courage is a core principle in my life and ministry.
Courage in the face of adversity is something our religion teaches. Bravery in the face of oppression and danger is one of the greatest virtues the Holy Spirit can develop in us if we follow Christ authentically. It is an act of devotion in more than one faith to stand before Pharaoh and proclaim an end to their rule. It is an act of love to proclaim to Caesar that one day soon God will scatter the proud.
What pains my heart is the context in which my fellow pilgrims apply these important lessons. Our courage has a context. Bravery flows not from mindless risk-taking, but from compelling reasons to act on behalf of one another. We do not dare God to keep us safe no matter what foolish actions we may take. Christ himself reminds us of this. When Satan puts him atop the Temple in Jerusalem, and says that if he would but leap from the rooftops, angels would wing from heaven to stop his fall, Jesus says, “Again it is written, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Luke 4:12).
Courage has a context. Bravery flows not from mindless risk-taking, but from compelling reasons to act on behalf of one another. We do not dare God to keep us safe no matter what foolish actions we may take.
How then do we determine when we should show fearlessness? When should we behave with the wild, foolish unreason of God? Scripture tells us that the greatest test of our commitments to God and to each other is love. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. The second greatest is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Of faith, hope, and love, love is the greatest. This is our commandment from Christ: love one another, as he has loved us.
Christ loved us not by walking towards us with disease on his breath, commanding us to draw close to him and risk a death sentence. Instead, he came towards us with arms filled with healing, a heart full of mercy, and a life he was willing to lose that we might see a new way forward—a new way into eternity.
This is my prayer for myself, for us, and for you, in a time of coronavirus—that we will show our courage in the same way. He told us not to lay down the lives of friends for ourselves, but to lay down our own lives for our friends. I pray we can live as though he meant it.
Instead of gathering and enjoying fellowship in ways that risk our most vulnerable, I pray that we will face the heartache of loneliness and time apart with resolve and fear, knowing that we do so that others may live. If I must risk my life going out into the world, I pray God will grant me the grace to risk it feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, and visiting the prisoner. God commands nothing less of me and promises resurrection if I but believe that these promises are true—that God will raise me up on the last day and remind me that I always was my brother’s keeper.
Go forth into the world, Christian citizens. Be courageous. Live without fear. Remember, Christian courage knows that we can love our neighbors by doing all we can to keep them healthy and flourishing for the day when we can all eat together, laugh without restraint, touch each other, and sing praise for these things again.
Madison McClendon is the assistant director of Development and Alumni Relations at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he received his MDiv. He is in the ordination process with the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago.