It is now official, the COVID-19 pandemic has become part of the culture wars. Initial tremors were felt as a few prominent pentecostal pastors resisted the temporary ban on large religious gatherings. The battle lines were set as state legislatures in Kansas took up the cause of religious liberty by attempting to overturn their state’s ban and as New Yorkers began to target Samaritan’s Purse as the organization began to provide aid to the nation’s worst hot-spot. Since then, the war has taken to the streets as politically conservative groups stage protests against lock-down procedures. While political signs at the protest tend to favor the language of individual rights and economic recovery, the issue of religious liberty is a potent undercurrent in conservative media and has stirred many groups to action.
Online, this conflict has reached peak meme status as satirists and meme-generators choose sides. The simple images reveal dark and starkly divided narratives about the role of evangelical Christianity in the current pandemic.
One narrative says that evangelicals, along with President Trump, are threat to the national well-being through a potent mix of partisanship and ignorance. The other says that state governments are using this crisis as an excuse to wantonly target churches and rob people of their God-given right to worship Jesus.
This, of course, begs the question: What are our rights as followers of Jesus during a time like this?
To answer this question, we need to make an important distinction between human rights and Christian rights. While these two ways of talking about rights have a long history of being linked, they are not the same thing. Human rights have a long discourse in Western legal philosophy and are enshrined in national constitutions the world over. The United Nations lays out a basic definition of human rights, saying that:
Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.
Among these rights, Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration for Human Rights recognizes that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and that this right includes the ability of people to freely follow the dictates of their belief, both individually and communally.
Responding to a pandemic in a way that respects human rights is a tightrope walk that must take into account both public safety and public freedoms. Sadly, there is ample evidence that many governments around the world have used the pandemic as a means to further restrict the freedoms of religious minorities. The United States is not typically seen as being one of these bad actors. Still, present concerns over bans on religious gatherings are completely valid given the framework of human rights. Such bans are a de facto restriction on the free expression of religion, and as such must pass serious legal muster to even temporarily stand.
Human rights are important, and the United Nations Universal Declaration is arguably one of humanity’s highest moral achievements. Despite this achievement, Christians would be mistaken if they treated human rights as the basis for Christian ethics.
Simply put, Christians do not have any “rights” or “freedoms” in the modern sense of the term. In fact, Christian Scripture prefers to discuss ideas like these using a rather inhumane image: slavery.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is responding to the fractured community at Corinth. Perhaps employing a more modern conception of freedom, the community was torn apart by sexual scandals and lawsuits. Sound familiar? Paul concludes with this:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NIV)
The Corinthians seemed to believe that freedom in Christ meant a freedom to assert their own desires over that of their brothers and sisters. It was a freedom of personal autonomy and unconstrained choice. Paul demolishes this way of thinking and tells them curtly, “You don’t have any rights.”
Paul uses the image of economic slavery to explain this. During most of human history, humans who were unable to repay debts had one final option: to sell themselves into slavery as means to cover their debt. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they were in fact debtors who had sold themselves to their own sinful desires. Christ came and shed his blood to pay back their debt, but this is was not like paying bail. Christ paid for their debt and became their new master. They belong to Him.
And while this might sound like bad news, Paul insists that this is the path to true freedom. By learning to serve and imitate our Master, Christians begin to relearn what true human freedom is all about. Again in Philippians 2, Paul urges early Christians to put aside any vision of “freedom” and “rights” that they had and to instead follow Christ.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.Philippians 2:3-8 (NIV)
To be sure, human rights are something Christians should affirm and advocate for on behalf of the oppressed around the globe. They are a natural outgrowth out of a Christian concern for the the divine image imprinted on each human being. Yet, as Christians, we ourselves are called to a higher freedom that is birthed out of the self-sacrificial love of God. Rather than assert ourselves and our desires, we are called to give up our individual “rights” so that we can find the greater freedom found in bonded-servitude to God and our fellow human beings.
Freedom in COVID-19
Too often, Christians engaged in the cultural battle over religious freedom seem to confuse these two ways of viewing their own freedom. Rather than assert the freedom they have in Christ, they settle for less by asserting their basic human rights. Like the Corinthians, they run to lawsuits rather than service.
And, sadly, service is direly needed right now. Beneath the thick veneer of rage seen in internet memes, social media posts, and lockdown protests is real human suffering. People are mourning lost loved ones, they are greaving evaporated income, they are afraid of the uncertainty of what comes next, and many are just hungry. This suffering is amplified among vulnerable populations and the global poor. More than ever, we are called to a higher expression of Christian freedom.
It is true that a few prominent Christian “leaders” have opted to ignore this call to freedom and have settled for indignation. Thankfully, most Church leaders around the United States have not. Many churches and para-church organizations scrambled everything to protect their neighbors by canceling in-person services even before mandatory lock-downs were ordered. Other churches around the nation have rushed to serve by organizing relief work through food drives, volunteering with partner organizations, donations, and benevolence ministries. Moreover, many of these churches are doing these things while facing reduced budgets and potential closure. They are heroic examples of Christ and beacons of hope in the midst of all this loss.
If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that everyone is keen to protect what is theirs. We hoard toilet paper, stockpile ammo, and demand our rights. Yet, perhaps this pandemic is also an opportunity for some Christians to relearn and relive a core gospel truth: that real freedom only comes when we cease fighting for ourselves and start living for others.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.