The Other Pandemic
By Rev. Lindsey Williams
At the beginning of 2020, we as Americans were feeling the collective angst of this being a Presidential election year. These 4 year cycles often threaten neighborly love and family ties like no other, and all indicators were that this might be a Cat 5 political storm. Yard signs were coming out, and battle lines were being drawn. Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, primaries were being cancelled and politics became an afterthought. For a brief moment it felt as if the hidden blessing of this pandemic is that it might actually unite our country behind a common enemy known as Covid-19. And that lasted for about one week. As of today, we can’t seem to agree on who or what our
enemy is, much less how to fight it. And so the battle lines have been drawn . . . again . . . in the form of “Keep NC Safe” or “Reopen NC” (I’m sure every state has its own version). The rhetoric and name-calling has ratcheted up considerably in the past week, and the anger is boiling over into social media and even the streets.
As a pastor, I have found myself on the listening end of both perspectives. I have a college friend who contracted Covid-19 during a worship service. Another member of my church had a friend who died of Covid-19 at the age of 27. On the other hand, there are others in my congregation for whom the “stay-at-home order” is putting their small business at risk. Our church serves a refugee community, many of whom lost their jobs due to the “stay-at-home” order. Anxiety levels are skyrocketing. Both sides are grieving something they have lost or are at risk of losing. And I grieve with them. But
as I have seen this debate play out publicly, I am also grieving the loss of something else. Within our common language, it goes by the term “civil discourse”. But there is a more substantive word for it, and it is called charity. When we are in crisis, our natural proclivity is to look for the enemy out there. Many years ago the London Times asked a group of prominent Londoners to respond to the following question, “What’s wrong with the world?” They received a number of essay responses, but the shortest response allegedly came from author GK Chesterton. He wrote, “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, GK Chesterton”. In the Bible book of James, we are told, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” The message is consistent. Perhaps the greatest threat to unity in our country is not a particular public policy, but it is the peculiar condition of the human heart that makes it difficult to show charity towards the person on the other side of the debate. And this has been at a pandemic level for quite some time.
If you want a primer on what charity looks like, read the KJV of 1 Corinthians 13 (as it translates “agape” as “charity”). Whatever side you are on, the following are some of my practical observations on what charity to those on the other side look like in this season:
Don’t Assign Motives: Unless you are God almighty, you can’t pretend to know the motives of the other person. It isn’t helpful to say, “They’re just trying to ruin the economy to get Biden elected?” or “They just care about the economy, while we care about human lives”. Are people politically-motivated in times like this? Absolutely. But people are far more complicated in their motivations and the average American is genuinely concerned about preserving American lives. Lets think the best of people’s motives, not the worst. Charity is about being “kind” to your fellow human being, and that includes assigning them the best motives, not the worst (v.4)
Do Listen To The Other Side: If you are only reading viewpoints that support your viewpoint, that is a problem. If you truly believe what I said above, it should lead you to have the humility to hear what your fellow human being has to say. Author Stephen Covey wrote, “Most people aren’t listening with the intent to understand. They are listening with the intent to reply.” (Footnote 1) You haven’t cornered the market on truth, so give truth breathing room to move around. Rather than giving lip service to listening, look to the best and most informed voices on the other side. Charity “does not insist on its own way” (v.5).
Do Hold Opinions Loosely: Just to keep everything in perspective, we haven’t experienced a pandemic like this in our generation. In the past 50 years, we have only experienced 1 pandemic in the U.S. (being H1N1, which killed approximately 12K in the U.S.). This is uncharted territory for all of us, so we should all hold our opinions very loosely. No one has all the answers on this virus, and that includes our best and brightest leaders. Have the humility to acknowledge your limitations. And give your leaders the grace to hold their opinions loosely as well, and to even change them over time. In fact, true love demands an awareness that “for now we see in a mirror dimly” (v.12)
Do Remember Social Distancing Isn’t the End Goal: When the dust settles on this pandemic, we will have to live in community with the people we are disagreeing with on social media. As Costi Hinn said in a recent article, “What will it matter if we reassimilate only to end up “socially distant” again not because of a virus, but because of our inability to love others who approach COVID-19 differently than we do?” (Footnote 2) And in case you are inclined to just write those people off for whom you disagree with their actions during this pandemic, just remember that Jesus didn’t write you off when your actions didn’t line up with his desires for you. “Charity bears all things . . Charity endures all things” (v.7).
Here is the bottom line. If your relationships don’t survive Covid-19, you may tell yourself it is because of the other person’s miscalculations. But that isn’t true. The reason your relationships won’t survive is because you haven’t figured out how to embody charity towards the other person. And the flip side is also true. Your charity towards your enemy can do a lot of good. Frederick Buechner once wrote, “The love for equals is a human thing . . . The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing . . . And then there is the love for the enemy–love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.” (Footnote 3) Let’s conquer Covid-19. Lets fix our economy. But lets remember, “So now faith, hope, and charity abide, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
1. The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
3. The Magnificent Defeat by Frederick Buechner