Review of Michael Austin’s God and Guns in America

The recent wave of violent protests has brought in its wake a surge of shootings in major U.S. cities and a spike in gun sales around the country. This prompts, yet again, questions about gun violence and gun rights in America. So Michael Austin’s God and Guns in America (Eerdmans, 2020) is a welcome book at this time. It is a work that provides much needed philosophical-theological analysis of many aspects of this complicated subject. Austin is critical of current American laws regarding gun ownership, but he is not in favor of abolishing the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Instead, he says, “the best way forward is to balance the right to bear arms with our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (14). And he proceeds to explore multiple dimensions of the issue from a distinctly Christian perspective.

In the first chapter, Austin sets the stage for his book’s discussion by elucidating “Christian nationalism” and its problematic connection to the gun rights movement in America. He also highlights some key moments in the legal history of the Second Amendment Supreme Court decisions, most notably the relatively recent SCOTUS recognition of the individual rights view, which “interpret[s] the Second Amendment as protecting the individual right to own a gun” (12). Prior to this, Austin notes, the Court took a “collectivist view” of the Second Amendment, which maintains that the right to bear arms applies not to individual persons but to organized groups or communities. According to Austin, it was the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision which was decisive in this regard.

Austin turns to a discussion of the nature of rights in chapter two, “The Right to Own a Gun.” He helpfully distinguishes between different kinds of rights, most notably legal rights and moral rights. Here he discusses what is likely the strongest foundation for gun rights: the right to life. As Austin puts it, “if a gun is needed for securing someone’s right to life, then we may be able to derive the right to own and use a gun from the right to life” (25). But he rightly points out that “if we accept the argument, it does not follow that the status quo regarding gun laws is acceptable.” Indeed, there must be some limits on the right to bear arms, just as there are limits on other rights. No one believes that individual citizens should be able to own and use missile launchers or nuclear bombs, but nearly everyone agrees that (reasonably qualified) citizens should be able to own and use pistols, shotguns, and rifles. So where does one draw the line? That is the key question in the gun control debate. In the end, says Austin, we need to balance gun rights with other rights and responsibilities, such as the right not to be shot and the moral obligation to use guns in self-defense only as a last resort. It is with this tension in view that Austin discusses stand-your-ground laws, noting a major problem with such laws—that “it is not always clear when one is truly in danger” (29). He concludes this pivotal chapter by granting that “there is a reasonable moral right to own a gun and that this right should be reflected in the law” but that “this is entirely consistent with the placement of legal limits on who can own and use a gun . . . for the purpose of defending life” (31). This is a reasonable, balanced, and popular general position on the issue, of course.

In chapter three, entitled “Guns, Lies, and Bad Arguments,” Austin reviews ten flawed arguments that are frequently used on either side of the gun debate in America. Some of these, such as that “violence is on the rise in America” and that “violence never solves anything” are just patently false. The homicide rate in America at the time of Austin’s writing was comparable to that in the 1950s. And violence sometimes does solve problems, as in the case of the defeat of the Axis powers in WWII and in many lesser known cases where would-be mass shooters have been taken out by security guards or lay people with guns. Other weak arguments make irrelevant points or false dichotomies, such as that “no law can stop all gun violence” and “it’s not a gun problem, it’s a heart problem.” Interestingly, Austin includes among the supposed “bad arguments” the claim that “guns protect us from tyranny and genocide.” While this is surely a common argument, which is no doubt wielded poorly by many people, it is not necessarily a poor argument in itself. But Austin is very critical of it.

Next, Austin discusses the various options for a Christian theology of violence. Here he discusses pacifism and just war theory, noting some of the major proponents of these views in the history of Christian thought. Pacifists generally eschew the use of violence and killing. Just war theorists affirm the justifiable use of violence and even killing, but they advocate a variety of delimiting criteria which must be met in order for violent actions to be morally acceptable. Rather than opting for one of these approaches, Austin advocates what he regards as a third option, which he calls “peace building.” Peace building, says Austin, “allows for violence only as a last resort and includes a very strong preference for nonviolence” (66). This is a curious distinction, since standard versions of just war theory explicitly recognize the exhausting of all peaceful alternatives as a necessary condition for justified violence. So, despite Austin’s suggestion that his view is an alternative to just war theory, it is actually a version of this view which places a particularly strong presumption in favor of non-violence.

Later in chapter 4, Austin discusses the appropriateness of congregants carrying firearms in corporate church worship services. It is a fascinating discussion of alternative perspectives which leads to a discussion in chapter 5 (“The Bible and a Gun”) of a variety of biblical arguments that have been made to justify the use of firearms as a means of self-defense (specifically, 1 Tim. 5:8; Heb. 10:32-34; and Luke 22:35-38). Austin concludes (rightly, I believe) that each of these biblical arguments is problematic, and he wisely comments at the end of the chapter that “many Christians seem to espouse views that are more reflective of one of the kingdoms of this world than of the kingdom of Jesus” (106).

In chapter 6 (“Christ, Character and a Colt-45”) Austin inquires into whether Jesus Christ would carry a gun. Austin concludes that he would not. Moreover, he maintains that “when [Jesus] told Peter to put the sword away, Jesus was disarming every Christian. . . .  They should lay down their lives, dying, not killing, in the name of Christ” (109). Austin’s argument is that such a posture of non-violence and even self-sacrifice is not only more reflective of Christ but is also a better fit for the development of other Christian virtues, including empathy and compassion. In this chapter, Austin wrestles with the challenge of the appropriateness of using guns in self-defense. He grants that this might sometimes be appropriate. But he concludes with this probing question which seems aimed at those who make the self-defense argument for the use of firearms: “Are we trusting in guns for things that we should be relying on God to grant us?” (119). This is challenging, to be sure. However, Austin avoids a likewise challenging counter: Should such reliance on God even extend to refusing to use guns to defend others (such as our own children) whose lives are being threatened? Just as in international contexts the duty to defend the innocent presents the greatest challenge to anti-war pacifism (e.g. defending Europe against the Nazis in WWII), the duty to protect the innocent and powerless in personal contexts presents the strongest challenge to personal pacifism. Presumably, this is one reason why Austin rejects outright pacifism.

In the book’s final chapter, “More Than Thoughts and Prayers,” Austin provides an extensive list of practical legal steps for dealing with our nation’s gun violence problem. These include universal background checks, restrictions regarding who can purchase a firearm, a federal “red flag” law, repealing “stand-your-ground” laws, a federal gun safety course, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and the exploration of assorted technological means of preventing the usability of stolen guns (e.g., the Bison Fingerprint Trigger Lock). Each of these proposals deserves extensive study, of course, but even this brief discussion is helpful. Austin concludes the book with a discussion of some relevant moral-theological considerations, appropriately reminding us that the more fundamental problem underlying gun violence is the human heart.

Michael Austin is to be commended for this much-needed work, which addresses one of the more divisive and complex issues of our time. He admirably strives for balance throughout the book and only occasionally fails in this aim (e.g. in his characterization “Christian nationalism” and his assessment of the anti-tyranny argument for gun rights). As is typical of Austin’s published works, his thinking is clear, organized, and insightful. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in working out a theologically informed stance on gun rights and the problem of gun violence.

Individual Humans as the Primary Source of Sin

Recent discussions regarding racism have prompted an important question: What is the primary source of human sin? Is it individual human beings or is it human institutions, organized collectives of human beings? Or perhaps this is a false dichotomy. Might sin somehow reside neither in individuals nor in institutions in any “ultimate” sense but rather arise simultaneously in both individuals and the collectives we make up? This is essentially the old debate over the relationship between individual and social sin, which might be seen as a variation of the question regarding the chicken and the egg.

In the Christian theological tradition there has been a tendency to see the individual human heart as the primary locus of sin, while also recognizing that individual sins have social ramifications which, in turn, exacerbate and compound individual sins. It is a vicious cycle. As Gregory Baum puts it, “Personal sins . . . generate social sin. Conversely, social sin multiplies personal sins. Marginalization creates conditions that foster resentment and despair in the victims and thus easily provoke irrational responses. More than that, since institutionalized injustice affects all members of society, it creates conditions that facilitate personal sin on all levels.” Baum goes on to note that “because unjust structures are created by sinful humans, it is possible to speak of “sinful structures” and “social sin” in a derived and secondary sense.”

I believe Baum is correct in noting that individual sin is primary, while social or institutional sins are derivative and secondary in nature. This is not to diminish the significance or essential evilness of institutional sins but simply to identify the locus of the root of human evil. But what good reasons can be given in defense of this view? Here are four, mostly theological, arguments for this view.

First, Adam and Eve were both “fallen” individuals before any institutions existed. As individuals, they each succumbed to the temptation to eat the fruit of the tree, as described in Genesis 3. This was prior to any formal human institution. Now one might claim that the institution of the family existed at that point, though only consisting of these first two humans. But even so, Adam and Eve committed their sins as individuals. Their sins were not institutional or systemic in nature. So the Fall itself was not institutional in nature but a matter of individual choices.

Second, we may appeal to the biblical doctrine of original sin, according to which human beings are innately sinful, born into this world with a natural propensity to sin which precedes their entry into institutions. The Psalmist declares, “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). So not only did the human sin problem begin with the wrongful choice of an individual person, but this basic moral corruption is perpetuated by each of us as individuals at our very conception.

Thirdly, institutions are themselves collections of individuals. The parts precede the wholes. You can’t construct a building without first having the components from which to construct it. And so it goes for human systems and institutions. You can’t create a legal system, an educational institution, or a civil society without first having individual humans. And whenever any people enter into such institutions, they are already sinful. Of course, any such institutions may be poorly or unjustly constructed, but this only compounds the sin problem already infecting those social structures that is a consequence of the fallenness of the individuals involved.

Lastly, Jesus tells us that human defilement originates from within a person, not outside of them:

“Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:15-23).

Jesus illustrates this teaching in terms of food, but his broader point is unmistakable. Evil arises out of the human heart. We are not originally corrupted or defiled by things outside of us, and this includes the systems or institutions of which we are a part. Our sinfulness is surely manifested within institutional contexts, and these contexts often occasion more temptations and forms of sin. But the source of that evil is ultimately each individual fallen human heart.

Again, none of this diminishes the significance of unjust institutions or systemic evils. It simply demonstrates that the origins of all such evils ultimately lie in our moral corruption as individuals. Moreover, this implies that any corrections or improvements we make to our social institutions will never achieve perfection. There are significant limits to what we can achieve in our efforts to make our various institutions more just. Even a perfectly designed human institution—if such were possible—would still be flawed, so long as it is composed of fallen human beings.

Open-mindedness, Civility, and Our National Crisis

During the last month turmoil around the nation has been dizzying. From Officer Derek Chauvin’s hideous killing of George Floyd to the wave of protests and riots which followed to BLM’s calls for defunding the police to the CHAZ/CHOP protest occupation of downtown Seattle to a rash of firings and public shaming of college professors and other professionals who have critiqued some of BLM’s tactics. More recently, Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe has been charged in the murder of Rayshard Brooks, and protesters have begun to topple statues and monuments all around the country.

While these events seem to highlight a deepening rift in our nation, one thing about which nearly all Americans agree regarding all of this is that Officer Chauvin’s killing of Floyd was a horrific act which warrants severe punishment. And we should all agree that racism in this country has been and remains a serious problem. But there is disagreement over whether Chauvin’s act was racially motivated or a manifestation of systemic racism, whether Chauvin should be charged with manslaughter or second-degree murder, whether this heinous act is symptomatic of widespread police corruption in the U.S., whether such corruption warrants a fundamental restructuring of law enforcement, whether there is Edward Colston statue toppled in Bristolany merit to the Black Lives Matter call for defunding the police, whether the Black Lives Matter protest tactics are morally legitimate, whether local law enforcement responses to the protests and riots have been appropriate, whether Officer Rolfe’s killing of Brooks was justified, and whether Rolfe should be charged with murder. It is tragic that despite the gravity of these questions, cool-headed, rational discussions have been rare over the last several weeks. Many insist that high-pitched emotions are understandable and appropriate, given the issues at stake. While this may be true, none of us should allow our emotions to cloud our judgment or prevent us from a rational appraisal of evidence and coming to logical conclusions about these issues. Allowing feelings to reign over reason can only lead toward more division and turmoil as many of the residents of cities impacted by the rioters can attest.

Oxford University ethicist Neil Levy has observed that “part of the reason that controversial moral and political questions are controversial is that there is something to be said on each side.” Levy says that a belief is controversial when “conflicting beliefs are held by a significant number of relevantly well-informed, intelligent, and rational people over an extended period of time” (from Open-Mindedness and the Duty to Gather Evidence, Public Affairs Quarterly, p. 56). It is interesting to note that while everyone will readily admit that the above noted issues are controversial, many people will refuse to admit that there is, as Levy says, “something to be said on each side”—and by this I suppose Levy means that there is something reasonable to be said on each side which should be acknowledged and respected by those who disagree. There are, after all, intelligent and well-informed people on all sides of the current debates over racism and law enforcement in the U.S. So why are we seeing so much hysteria and so little respect between people who disagree on these issues?

In recent years I have published several articles and book chapters on open-mindedness and am currently working on a book on the subject. Most people believe, as I do, that open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue. It is a trait which, as virtue epistemologist Jason Baehr would say, involves a willingness to transcend one’s default cognitive standpoint on an issue. This means that the open-minded person is willing to consider that her view on an issue might be false and to seriously entertain evidence which contradicts her perspective. Open-mindedness seems especially appropriate when it comes to controversial issues, for the reasons that Levy notes: whatever view you hold—on say, the nature of racism in America and how it should be addressed—there are well-informed, intelligent people who disagree with you. So, as difficult as it is, you have an intellectual duty to listen carefully, respond patiently, and proceed respectfully as you engage the debate. To do otherwise is uncivil and does little to advance dialogue and productive work toward solutions. If we are going to remain (or return to being) a rational and civil culture, we absolutely must conduct ourselves with at least a modicum of intellectual virtue, especially open-mindedness.

I have despaired at the level of dogmatism and foreclosure when it comes to many of the above noted issues. This is especially dismaying when I consider how many important moral and epistemic questions are being ignored or particular answers to them are being taken for granted (despite the fact that intelligent, well-informed people would demur at those assumptions). Here are just some of those questions. As you read each one, ask yourself: How would I answer that question? And what are my evidence-based reasons for my answer?

  • What is the primary carrier of human sin? Is it systems and institutions or is it individual human hearts?
  • What exactly is “systemic racism”? What are the criteria for ascertaining when a system or institutional structure is racist? Are these criteria statistical? If so, then what are they? If not, then what is the nature of these criteria? In any case, how are they established?
  • Given one’s view on whether the sin of racism is fundamentally rooted in individual human hearts or institutional systems, how does this impact our approach to addressing this sin? In either case, what are the prospects for fully eradicating racist sin from society?

These are just some of the more foundational questions which are being widely overlooked, ignored, or only dogmatically addressed. There are many other questions that are not as foundational but still very important, such as these: Why is it no longer acceptable to question or critique some of the tactics and precepts of the Black Lives Matter organization, even if one emphatically affirms, as we all should, the understatement that black lives matter? Since many college professors and other professionals are being fired for critiquing BLM, how might this affect our national conversation about racial issues? Is the firing of people for raising critical points about BLM likely to make people more or less sympathetic with the BLM cause? Also, what criteria should be used to evaluate the continued display of historical statues and monuments? And how can we balance historical relevance with a desire to atone for past injustices?

Again, these are just some important questions. No doubt other questions come to your mind, perhaps even questions about why I list the questions that I do. That’s fine. The point is that we need to address these and other vital questions in a rational, evidence-based, and open-minded way. Such is essential to the maintenance of a civil society.

In closing, it is fitting to recall the standard set by Martin Luther King, Jr., who consistently demonstrated an evidence-based, rational, and civil approach. It is also noteworthy that he grounded his civil rights work methodology in the biblical themes of imago Dei, unconditional love, and non-violent resistance. (See my recent article on the subject here.) Why are these ideals not prevailing during our current unrest? What would it take for these values to take root (again) in our society? Without these values becoming preeminent today is there any real hope for pervasive racial justice and reconciliation in this country? These, too, are challenging and controversial questions, and they are more urgent than ever.

The Extra Mile

Sometimes my job requires going the extra mile. I’m sure this is true of most people, but for us—agents at American Income Life—it can often mean literally driving an extra mile, or two, or, in my case this week, one hundred. A union member didn’t feel comfortable sharing his info over the phone, so I drove two hours to meet him and go over his options. While on the road, I started thinking about going the extra mile and how making an extra effort is nine times out of ten rewarded in some way. Maybe not in dollars and cents, but I am a firm believer in my wise mother-in-law’s saying that if you cast your bread upon the water, it will come back to you as a sandwich. In other words, the gifts that you give will come back to you in greater proportion than you gave. I have seen this over and over in my own life. In fact, my entire adult life has been shaped by one act of kindness.

As a recent college graduate, an acquaintance needed a ride and I offered to give him one. Now this was no ordinary “Hey, can you give me a ride to the corner store?” ride. This was a 15-hour, 800-mile, two-way trek. I offered thinking he would probably turn it down. But he didn’t, so I drove from Knoxville to Jackson, Mississippi, got out of the car and was greeted by this acquaintance, only to realize in an instant that I loved this man, and we have been married for over twenty-two years now. I can’t imagine my life without that one “Sure, I can do that” and all the many blessings which have followed from it.

Reflecting on that instance has given me a boost of confidence in being, whenever possible, outrageously, foolishly generous. It doesn’t have to be money, or things, or long drives across the country. Maybe it’s the few extra minutes you spend listening to someone who needs a friendly ear. Maybe it’s the card you send or the smile you give or the prayer you offer up.

While driving the extra mile the other day, I was listening to a John Maxwell podcast that had been shared with me. He was talking about how we can prepare ourselves for whatever lies ahead. Along with being adaptable, promoting discussion and humility, he talked about the importance of being open-handed. The closed-fisted will be unable to grab hold of opportunity when it comes their way. I encourage us all to live open-handed and go the extra mile. You never know who or what you might pick up along the way.

Covid-19, Churches, and Hardware Stores

Here is another point about the issue of government bans on Church worship services that in my two previous posts I have taken for granted but which I evidently need to make explicit. Do these bans really accomplish much given how little time each week is devoted to corporate worship? And does the small reduction of risk achieved by such bans compensate for the loss of religious freedom they entail?

Consider the fact that during the pandemic hardware stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Menards are open every day of the week for 11-14 hours each day with thousands of customers coming and going throughout the week, while church services, which average just 75 people, are not permitted to meet for even one hour each week. When it comes to presenting a real danger to a community in terms of spreading the Covid-19 virus, the risks at a small church service are negligible compared to those at such large hardware stores. Yet the former are closed while the latter are bustling with activity all over the country.

One might argue that our society needs hardware stores to stay open far more than we need weekly worship services. First, such a response presupposes that corporate worship is not necessary for human flourishing, which begs the question of my original argument in my April 25 post. Secondly, even if one grants that corporate worship services are not as essential to human flourishing as home improvement supplies, then can we not at least grant that worship services are 1/60th as valuable as hardware stores? If so, then this would warrant permitting a 90-minute worship service once per week (to maintain the proper value ratio vis-à-vis a Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Menards, which are open 80+ hours per week).

So, fellow Christians, if you support the ban on church worship services while you’re supporting keeping open such hardware stores (and your shopping at one of these stores during the week is a tacit admission that you do), then this would seem to imply that you have a rather low view of the importance of corporate worship. For some of my critics, perhaps that is the real crux of our divergence on this issue, and that is fine. But for those who say they place a high value on corporate worship, something has to give here.

If you are really that concerned about human contact hours and the risk this presents regarding spreading the virus, then it would be far more efficient to create a stricter limit on the operating hours of retail stores. Therefore, I would suggest this modest compromise: Reduce the operating hours of large retail outlets by just one hour per day and lift the ban on corporate worship services. This would create a net reduction in the number of contact hours during which the virus can be spread while preserving the public good of corporate worship. Everybody okay with that?

More Thoughts on Government Bans of Worship Services

In his powerful plea to keep churches open during the Coronavirus pandemic, First Things editor R. R. Reno declared that “the massive shutdown of just about everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs.” It is interesting to note, however, that in this country we don’t take this approach with any consistency.

Let’s suppose we could be confident that Covid-19 is, say, three or even five times as deadly as seasonal flu and thus likely to kill tens of thousands more Americans if the bans on corporate worship are lifted. Would this justify these mandates? Well, consider some other legal behaviors in this country which result in the deaths of large numbers of people. Every year approximately 40,000 Americans die in traffic accidents. This figure could be greatly reduced by simply lowering the speed limit 10 or 15 mph. But no one is clamoring for this in the interest of saving innocent lives. Why? Because we cherish our freedom to drive fast and arrive at our destinations quickly, even though doing so endangers ourselves as well as others.

Or consider the fact that there are approximately 480,000 deaths in the U.S. each year due to tobacco use. We have chosen to keep tobacco use legal despite this high mortality rate. Why? Again, because we cherish our freedom to use these products. Similar points can be made regarding the legality of alcohol and fatty foods in this country.

The point is that there are many activities which cost hundreds of thousands of American lives every year, but we keep them legal despite this because of the pleasure we get out them and simply because we cherish freedom. So why not permit religious worship services even if this costs more lives? Is not the freedom to engage in the corporate worship of God at least as valuable as the freedom to drive fast, smoke a cigarette, drink a beer, or eat a cheeseburger?

Here many Christians appeal to the alternative of on-line worship as a reasonable alternative to traditional corporate worship. Aside from the fact that on-line worship is an inherently poor substitute for worshiping in the physical presence of fellow believers, there is the further problem that two church sacraments—baptism and communion—cannot be administered via on-line services. For those church traditions where communion is done on a weekly basis and necessarily administered by an ordained minister, this is a serious loss. Even in those traditions where communion is administered monthly, as the corporate shutdowns continue, the loss is felt there as well. Perhaps your particular church tradition is not highly sacramental, but for tens of millions of Americans communion is a means of grace. This is vital spiritual nourishment, and government mandates are depriving them of this. That is a big deal, a serious blow to their relationship with God. This is another reason why I am surprised that more Christians aren’t challenging the shutdowns of corporate worship services.

Are Government Bans on Religious Worship Services Morally Appropriate?

During the Covid-19 pandemic many state governments across the country have banned church worship services. Some states have prohibited religious services altogether, while others have placed severe restrictions on the number of people who may gather to worship. While the constitutionality of this unprecedented move is certainly open to debate, one may question whether such bans are morally appropriate. Thus, we may ask, do religious practitioners have a moral obligation to abide by these mandates even if they are constitutional?

Here is an argument which challenges the moral appropriateness of the bans on religious services:

  1. Civil government has a moral duty to permit what is essential to human flourishing.
  2. The corporate worship of God is essential to human flourishing.
  3. Therefore, civil government mandates which forbid corporate worship are immoral.
  4. Christians do not have a duty to abide by immoral government mandates, particularly those which proscribe fundamental aspects of their religious practice.
  5. Therefore, Christians do not have a moral duty to abide by a government mandate to abstain from corporate worship.

What follows from the conclusion here is that congregants at local Christian churches don’t have an obligation to abide by the government mandate to avoid meeting for corporate worship.

This is a logically valid and, I believe, sound argument. That is, the conclusion follows from the premises and, it seems to me, each of the premises is true. I assume most Christians will grant the first and fourth premises, as would all Christian ethicists and theologians I know of. So that leaves the critic with the burden of demonstrating that the second premise is false. Presumably, many atheists and religious skeptics will reject this premise, in some cases because they believe that religious practice of any kind is actually harmful. That’s fine. My main audience with this argument is fellow religious practitioners.

But is the Covid-19 pandemic somehow serious enough to justify a qualification to the second premise and thus warrant certain bans on worship services? In other words, might this pandemic provide a special exception to the general truth that corporate worship services enhance human flourishing? This question naturally leads us into a discussion of a whole nest of issues that are epidemiological, immunological, microbiological, economic, and statistical in nature. This is why we must pay close attention to recent reports and scientific studies showing the mortality rate of the Coronavirus is much lower than previously thought. Several recent studies suggest that the mortality rate of this virus is comparable to that of common strains of flu. Other reports suggest a higher mortality rate than seasonal flu, though still no more than .08%. But is this difference significant enough to warrant a general ban on religious services? It’s difficult to see how it could be when other options are available. For example, why not rather encourage high risk people (i.e., the elderly and those with pre-existing medical problems) to stay at home while allowing others to resume practice of corporate worship?

If Covid-19 mortality rate data is inconclusive in terms of justifying general bans on corporate worship services, then the social harms caused by the shutdowns should give us further pause as regards warranting an exception to the general good of corporate worship. There is also the economic dimension of shutdowns, which some economists believe could trigger a depression. Furthermore, the shutdowns are taking a serious public mental health toll in our country.

All things considered, there is evidence to suggest that the shutdowns, not just of worship services but other sectors of society, are more harmful than helpful, potentially more devastating to American society than any flu virus could be. This creates strong supplemental support for my argument’s second premise, which given any reasonable Christian view of government already enjoys a strong presumption in its favor. Therefore, only very strong empirical evidence could nullify it’s applicability to our current situation. And that, I submit, no one has provided, despite what our political leaders and the American mainstream media have been telling us.

Contaminate the World

In our current circumstance, I’m sure you, like me, are thinking a great deal about the people around you. Especially in high traffic areas like the grocery store and . . . the grocery store, since that’s really the only place to go anymore. Not the passing thought of “Oh, I wonder where she bought those cute shoes.” But zeroed in like the Secret Service on high alert, assessing each aisle like a motorcade route in Dallas 1963. “Is it possible for me to reach the Ovaltine without coming within six feet of the woman with the mask whose been pondering the nutritional value of Nesquik for the last five minutes?” When I saw pictures like this one my initial response was “You have got to be kidding me.” But now I think I get it. This guy just wants a little clarity, clearly defined boundaries, no guesswork.

View image on Twitter All of this was going through my mind yesterday while shopping and recovering from a most unpleasant encounter with a member “at work”. I deal with a lot of unpleasantness as a part of my job, so it takes a special kind of rude to make me mad or cry. This guy did both. This guy was clearly a distant cousin of Hitler himself and destined to a special ring of Dante’s Inferno reserved for mass murderers, people who leave their grocery cart in the parking lot, and guys who yell at people over the phone who are just trying to do their job. But by the time I got to the store, I was considering the fact that I was forming a firm, and perhaps overly-dramatic, opinion of this guy based on a fifteen minute interaction. Surely there were times when I had been on less than my best behavior and left a bad taste in someone’s mouth. Did I really want people cherry picking when it comes to making assessments of the full measure of my character?
So as I navigated the minefield of contamination, I thought about the people I could touch. Not reach out and touch physically. Pretty sure that would get me arrested at this point. But touch with a smile or a kind word or a moment of patience. Pre-Coronavirus, after talking all day, the temptation for me to stick in my earbuds and get lost in my own podcast world would have been strong indeed. But with a heightened awareness of those around me and the power I have to spread “germs” of good or ill, I am going to try to contaminate as many people with kindness and love as I can. I don’t want to be judged on the briefest of encounters and certainly want to resist the temptation to do so to others. But at the same time, I want to be mindful of the power of those encounters. If our bodies can be put into crisis through exposure to the tiniest of contaminations, maybe the world can be made better through exposure to the smallest acts of kindness. We may not be able to heal those suffering or reopen the economy, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless. Let’s infect the world with light and love. Surely that is ultimately the cure for what ails us all.

Dealing with Anxiety about the Suffering of Others

Recently a student shared with me her struggle to concentrate on her school work due to the COVID-19 pandemic:

I know that suffering is always going on in the world, and if we let that get to us we’ll never live at all and we can’t help at all. However, for me to be expected to sit from the comfort of my own home and continue my education like normal when I know that there are people that do not share the same simple luxuries as I do seems almost blasphemous. I’ve always known that God has made me have my heart broken for the sake of others and right now it is shattered from all of the hurt in the world and I feel like we’re not addressing any of it. I feel completely helpless and like this is not how we should be responding. And I don’t know what to do. . . . How do I find motivation when all of this is going on?

Can you identify with this? This is a common struggle for people who are especially sensitive to suffering in this world. And it’s to be expected that the pandemic would heighten the difficulty for some folks. So what can one say in response?

If you share this struggle, the first thing I would do is affirm your sensitivity to the suffering of others. This sort of empathy is a gift, and God can use it mightily to motivate you to help and serve others. However, as with all gifts and special talents, it also presents certain challenges and temptations, and the temptation to anxiety and becoming overburdened by others’ sufferings is one of these. So you will need to address this head-on with some relevant biblical truths. One of these is Jesus’ command in John 14:1, “Do not let your heart be troubled.” The fact that he issues this directive as a command indicates that we bear some responsibility in keeping ourselves from indulging anxious thoughts. Because, as Kant says, “ought implies can,” this means we are capable of resisting the temptation to anxiety and a troubled heart.

So this raises the question, how does one do that? The answer is apparent in the following verses of John 14, where Jesus says, “You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” In short, we must exercise faith in Christ and specifically remember the eschatological promise that he will make all things well for his people in the next world. Jesus addresses anxiety also in Matthew 6:31-34 and Luke 12:22-31. In these passages, too, he reminds us that we should trust God, and know that he will take care of us. So worry and anxiety are basically a lack of faith. Now this applies to everyone, so when you are worrying about other people, some of whom perhaps you’ve never met, who are experiencing hardships that you have been spared, this is no less a lack of faith. You need to trust that God is taking care of them as well.

It might be helpful to consider how Jesus conducted himself during his time on earth. Note that he was not anxious about the millions of people around the world who were suffering in all sorts of ways, even though he could have brought all of that suffering to an end with just a snap of his fingers. Ponder that for a moment. In fact, he often enjoyed himself and lived in relative comfort. He even participated in a wedding banquet, and his first miracle was to create a luxurious item—wine out of water (John 2). So if we are to follow Jesus’ example, then we must recognize that it is appropriate to enjoy certain comforts and luxuries—in moderation of course. I would add that this, too, is one of our duties as God’s children—to thankfully enjoy the bounty that God may grant us at various times in our lives.

Furthermore, consider the Golden Rule in this context. When you are suffering in some way, is it your preference or desire that all sorts of other people whom you may or may not know become sorrowful and downtrodden because of your pain? Or would you rather just a few people close to you comfort you in your time of need? For me, it is definitely the latter. I certainly don’t want lots of people to be burdened by my pain. So the Golden Rule would seem to recommend that I be particularly concerned to help, assist, and comfort those whom I personally know to be in need and whom I am able to help or comfort in some way. To be extremely burdened by the suffering of countless people whom I have never met is a failure to abide by the Golden Rule. Moreover, it cannot help anyway and can be paralyzing, as my student seems to have experienced. So even though your anxiety might be prompted by a concern for other people, it actually makes you less helpful to others, so it is self-defeating.

So there are multiple biblical reasons (i.e., Jesus’ command, the example of Jesus, and the Golden Rule) not to be constantly troubled or anxious about the suffering of others out there whom you haven’t even met but to be productive and focus on blessing and serving others with whom you make contact in the course of your day. This is the best we can do as mortal, finite people. And we must trust God to take care of others all over the world. Remember that they are his children, and he loves them infinitely more than you do, and even if they suffer tragedies in this life (as the Kennedy family recently did, yet again) we must trust that God will comfort them, whether in this life or in the next world.

Again, the key is faith and trust in God. But now what can we do to build that faith and trust in God? The most effective step is prayer. See, for example, Ps. 34:4, Phil. 4:6-7, 1 Pet. 5:6-7, and Rom. 8:26-28. And if you struggle with this sort of anxiety, here is something you can do as a spiritual discipline. Whenever you feel that unease welling up within you, pray for one minute for the people about whom you are concerned. Or, if there is no one in particular who is the object of your anxiety, then pick some person, family, community, city, or nation and pray for them. And be sure to commit them into God’s good care and declare your trust in God regarding their welfare. If you make that a regular practice, I expect that will go a long way in resolving your struggles with anxiety. Give it a try. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). And that power and effectiveness pertains not just to the persons and situations about which one prays, but also one’s own soul.

The Penitent Thief: Why His faith Was Great

One of the most remarkable passages in the Holy Week Gospel narratives regards the responses to Jesus on the part of the two criminals crucified on either side of him. Luke gives us this account:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:39-43)

It is clear from Jesus’ response to the second criminal that this man has been forgiven and will not be condemned in the afterlife. Some people might find this disturbing, since this man has demonstrated relatively little faith and repentance, which are crucial to a biblical concept of salvation. But there are several things to note about the faith of this penitent thief on the cross.

For one thing, he declares his faith in Christ publicly, and as Jesus said in one of his earlier discourses, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven” (Mt. 10:32). Secondly, the thief demonstrates genuine repentance, acknowledging his life of sin when he says “we are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” As is clear from Scripture, there is no salvation without repentance (cf. Acts 2:38), so it is crucial that this man demonstrate true penitence. Although his remaining time on earth was very short at this point, he repented to the extent that he was still capable of doing so.

Thirdly, the penitent thief declares his faith in opposition to his fellow thief, who
“hurled insults” at Jesus. Apparently, the penitent thief himself had also verbally abused Jesus, given Matthew’s crucifixion account, where we read that just as the chief priests and teaches of the law mocked Jesus, “in the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (Mt. 27:44). So after initially joining his fellow thief in mocking Jesus, the penitent thief had a change of heart, culminating in his plea to Jesus to remember him in the next world.

Fourthly, the penitent thief declares his faith that Jesus is indeed a king, citing Jesus’ coming “kingdom.” This he does despite Jesus’ extreme humiliation, having been beaten to a bloody pulp, and now writhing on a cross with a sign above his head mocking the very idea regarding which this thief is testifying sincere belief. Perhaps at this time even Jesus’ own disciples, who, with the exception of John, had by this time scrambled into hiding, would have been rather skeptical of Jesus’ messianic kingship. But not this penitent thief. He believed despite all appearances to the contrary. Now that is faith.