The Ethics of Opening

There is a furor of misinformed passion about whether we must stay at home, because it will save lives, or we must return to work, because it will save the economy. I think this is a false dichotomy – those are not the only two options, nor are the reasons given for these two options the actual or complete explanation for them.

Why We Don’t Close When We Don’t Close

California Governor Gavin Newsom insists, “We will let science, not politics, must be the guide” to when we reopen the economy, businesses, and public spaces.

Look at these numbers:

Deaths in California in a year (2017, CDC)
1.  Heart Disease                               62,797
2.  Cancer                                     59,516
3. Stroke                                             16,355
4.  Alzheimer’s Disease               16,238
5.  Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases 13,881
6.  Accidents                                13,840
7.  Diabetes                                9,595
8.  Influenza/Pneumonia        6,340
9.  Hypertension                                5,596
10.  Chronic Liver Disease/Cirrhosis  5,325

Coronavirus (4/15/2020)                         790

It’s not clear to me that science is calling the shots when we shut down the world’s economy for a killer that pales in comparison to a number of others, some of which, like heart disease, would actually be affected by public policy that controls people’s behaviors in a smaller way, such as making smoking illegal. We don’t run tickers on the front page of the LA Times of how many people have died of the flu each year. It seems that, in addition to science, fear, posturing, liability, electability, mental health issues, and a host of other influences are the guides. We’re not following one alone – we’re being pulled by a team of horses, and they don’t all want to run together.

Demonizing Instead of Discussing

A current Pharisaism comes from those defending the lockdown, insisting that opening things up again is an Ebenezer Scrooge kind of move, brought on by coveting money more than caring for people. The people who try to level this charge are ignoring the fact that they take part in the same kind of cold utilitarianism every single year, when, in the US, 30,000 people on average die of the flu, and they never even raise alarms about the fact that hand-shaking is an arbitrary and unnecessary custom. We all tacitly accept the fact that there are fatal infections loose in the world, and we don’t bat an eye at the fact that we contribute to their spread.

Claiming that coronavirus is worse than the flu is a bizarre kind of hypocrisy. Why is 30,000 annual deaths acceptable, and where is the breaking point where the number of deaths becomes unacceptable? The reality is simple – we’ve accepted the fact that we can’t do much to stop the flu without crippling society, and we’re not willing to cripple society to stop those tens of thousands of deaths. So maybe let’s put an end to the self-righteousness about how advocates for staying at home are heroes, when, on this subject, everyone is in one way or another using some kind of utilitarian calculus.

The Experts Agree…virus.jpg

No they don’t. This mantra is getting tired. Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, recently said, “Per case, I don’t think it’s as deadly as people thought…The World Health Organization put an estimate out that was, I think, initially 3.4 percent. It’s very unlikely it is anywhere near that. It’s it’s much likely, much closer to the death rate that you see from the flu per case.” Dr. Knut Wittkowski, former head of the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design at the Rockefeller University in New York, said that we could wipe out coronavirus by going back to public life and only sheltering the vulnerable parts of the population (Rockefeller has distanced itself from his views). This flies in the face of other purported exports who warn of disaster should the world return to public traffic too soon.

More to the point, there is more speculation than data in our current climate. Because tests are not widely available, we don’t have accurate data on how many people have been infected, which means the mortality-to-infection ratio is necessarily lower than what has been reported, maybe much lower. I don’t know; I won’t speculate. I only mean, again, that the self-righteousness of the social media warriors who think they know everything is overblown.

Money or Mental Health?

The claim that people who want to reopen the public sphere, sheltering the vulnerable from the public rather than the public from the vulnerable, are greedy, ignores several other factors that are affected by a long timeline to reopening. The most important

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of these is mental health. Domestic abuse has risen worldwide during the pandemic. Social isolation, stress, and depression are factors that affect suicide ideation. Estimates suggest that around 20% of the population of the US, 1 in 5, struggle with anxiety disorders, which can be aggravated and intensified during this season. Reopening is not just about money, it’s about mental health. That’s a scientific consideration about which I’m seeing far less data. No one is talking about bending curves in that field, though clearly there are some exponential increases on the relevant graphs.

What Wouldn’t Jesus Do?

For Christians, the ethics are all the more difficult here, because we follow the guy who touched lepers, was confident about his ability to heal, taught his disciples to heal, and said that his followers would do even greater things than they had done back then.

I don’t hear Jesus advocating for avoiding the sick.

On money, he has unilaterally negative things to say. Apparently, the goal of amassing wealth and storing it away is foolish, according to Jesus.

I don’t hear Jesus advocating for the economy.

On government, he has precious little to say. He never advocates for a fiscal policy, doesn’t seek to overthrow Caesar even when they want him to, and refuses kingship. His single clearest statement about government is the recommendation that we pay our taxes – hardly the revolutionary material most of us were hoping for. Paul’s charge in Romans 13 to obey the governing authorities is clearly just to smooth the waves so that he could go about his evangelism, not some kind of subsuming of the government’s will under God’s will. Someone who got arrested and thrown in prison more than once was clearly marching to a different drummer than the local authorities.

I don’t hear Jesus creating public policy.

If I had to extrapolate, I would guess Jesus would go about his business as usual. When he would have us do the same is less clear. But I am clear about three things Jesus wouldn’t do.

  1. Jesus wouldn’t endorse our self-righteousness. Self-righteousness about knowing the right thing to do, and the consequent finger pointing at those who disagree, is clearly wrong-headed and out of place. Science is only a decent guide when it itself is guided by humility. The illusion that science is just a collection of objective facts untainted by those who use its findings needs to be dispelled.
  2. Jesus wouldn’t be afraid, either of sickness or poverty. Fear is not from God. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline. Don’t be afraid! God is with you wherever you go.
  3. Jesus wouldn’t act from any motive but love. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. We might well faithfully and lovingly seek to reopen the public sphere, sheltering the vulnerable, for the sake of a greater overall utility, with deep concern for the impact of mental stress and strain on the world. That’s nothing to demonize, and the motive isn’t money.

Of Mountains and Microbes

Jesus said, “If you only have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain to go throw itself in the sea and it will.”

Mountains are bigger than microbes.

If Jesus intended us to have no fear of the mountains we have to climb, he certainly intends us to have no fear of the microbes we have to kill. In this season of exhausting inactivity, the kind of boredom that William Blake called “rage spread thin,” Jesus is working out a kind of exercise of faith in we who believe. Just like floor exercises in which the muscles are strained by maintaining a position and standing still, there is a kind of intense workout that Jesus is doing in our hearts right now. Stretch and hold it until your core quivers, and when you’re done, you will have muscles that weren’t there before.

In the patience of this moment, God is building:

Hearts that fear him alone

Minds that don’t worry

Lives lived on mission rather than in self-satisfaction, and

Prayers that are powerful

We are not victims in this moment any more than an athlete is a victim of the gym. Have faith. Don’t be afraid.

 

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell that microbe, _Go jump in the ocean,_ and it will..png

Is God Doing This?

An Edgy Question

crucifix.jpgI want to ask the question that is in the back of the minds of a lot of religious adherents right now, and perhaps even in the mind of a few skeptics. Are the terrible things that are happening in the world right now a direct activity of God?

Australia was just ravaged by fires, which destroyed over 32,000 square miles and over 1000 homes, and killed a couple dozen people and millions of animals. Immediately on its heels, locusts plague Africa and the Middle East – I mean like biblical quantities of locusts. Look it up. The story has been buried behind the coronavirus, which has now claimed 9,000 lives with a frightening mortality rate and brought the earth to a grinding halt.

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To top it all off, there was an 5.7 earthquake in Salt Lake City, Utah on March 18th, which normally might not raise eyebrows, but this one knocked the trumpet out of the hand of the gold statue of Angel Moroni standing atop the spire of the pompous Mormon Temple in the heart of their homeland. Even without all the rest of today’s chaos, that one would certainly make the orthodox zealots call out to the heavens, “Nice one, Lord!”

So the question is a bit surprisingly a rational one – is God mad at us?

Surprising at least for those raised on a Western, naturalistic view of the world, a “scientific worldview” we call it, although by that we mean committed to presuppositions which empirical science cannot substantiate. That is – we assume there’s nothing supernatural, so science can only give natural explanations.

The problem, Science, is that most of us, most of humanity, believes in God. Not only that, many gods, angels, demons, an afterlife, miracles, ghosts, and all the rest of it. Most – a majority – of all humanity present and past. Scientists even now speculate that some part of evolutionary history wired us to be religious, even if there were no God out there to be religious about. But whether there is a God is a subject of another post. Here I want to ask, for those who do believe in God, is God actually, you know, doing this?

Some religious people, those with especially guilty consciences, assume that when something bad happens to them, it’s because of something they did. Karma is essentially the same idea. But the disasters befalling the world are too broad for even the worst narcissist to assume they’re causing it all.

So is it because of us, all of us? And do we have the power to change world events through our behavior, through repentance?

It Has Happened Before

Clearly, readers of the Bible can see, this jibes with what the Bible says God has done in the past.

God says to King Solomon in 2nd Chronicles 7:

13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Repeatedly God forewarns of doom for disobedience and reward for faithfulness. When Israel is taken into slavery in Babylon, they say it was because King Solomon wasn’t faithful. When Jesus’ disciples come across a man born blind, they ask Jesus, “Is it because he sinned or his parents sinned that he was born this way?” (John 9:2). In the book of Revelation, God even warns rejection of churches that are not faithful, because God disciplines the people he loves (Revelation 3:14-20).

Two Options

However, Jesus’ answer to his disciples about the man born blind is that his blindness is not a result of anyone’s sin. His blindness is an opportunity for God’s power to be shown through him. Likewise, in the book of Job, a man named Job loses everything – his family, his wealth, and his health. His friends gather around and tell him he must have sinned. God shows up at the end of the narrative and vindicates Job – in fact, he hadn’t done anything wrong.

So Answer #1: Bad things are not always tied to God’s punishment. There’s a biblical basis for saying this. Furthermore, those who believe in Jesus believe that he died on the cross for our sins, so we are now completely forgiven. There is no anger left for us, and God does not destroy his children as punishment. Jesus aims to shape us in to healthy, loving, faithful people; he did not come to condemn us (John 3:17).

But, Answer #2: The terrors of this world are in every way a tool in the hands of God to lead the world to repentance. However, rather than causing suffering willfully, I think the Bible suggests that they come about in another way. Romans 1 says that God’s worst punishment for us is to let us have our own way (Romans 1:21-24). He “hands us over to our lusts,” it says. Allowing us to live in a broken world without his intervention is its own punishment. We live in a horribly broken world, and as we reject God and push God away, we can hardly complain that he allowed bad things to happen. He’s literally done exactly what we asked for. The consequence, sadly, is a world that doesn’t look like heaven. The hard part for those who follow Jesus is that we are all in this together, and the brokenness of the world drags us all down.

Our Hope

There are three places in which to put our hope:

  1. If you choose to invite Jesus into your life, he will immediately begin a remodel that will turn something broken into something beautiful. You can do that through a simple prayer – Jesus, I invite you in. Please take my life, forgive me, and lead me.
  2. When we follow Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit, we get to witness miracles. Jesus empowers his followers in the world to do exactly the same kind of things that he did, and that brings people out of brokenness and into healthy life. Against the backdrop of a world of storm clouds, a light shines through in the lives of the faithful.
  3. There will come a day when this present darkness will be chased away by light, and we will enter a world where there is no more mourning or crying or pain, and every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4). Until then, we work to build the kingdom of God on earth; on that day we will rest.

Don’t be afraid. Jesus is still on the throne. When you believe in him and follow after him, he will save you. He’s not out to punish you and he doesn’t hold grudges. His business is forgiveness and redemption. Whatever origin story we believe in about the catastrophes of the world and the coronavirus, let them sharpen our minds and point us towards the one in whom we find true hope: Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The Viral Blessings Challenge

We’re going to change the world this week with a little challenge.

chris-de-tempe-6Tl5Kl7JEQg-unsplash.jpgUp and Down.

When I ride roller coasters with my kids, I grab hold of the handle bars, make a face like someone who is having dental surgery, and hold my breath until it’s over. My kids throw their hands up in the air, laugh, and scream about how they think my seatbelt is coming loose. We don’t ride the same way.

As our society does somersaults this season, there are two different ways to handle it.

Some are holding on tight. They’ve raided Costco and stocked up unnecessary tissue. They have dozens of water bottles, though their sinks work fine. They’ve dumped stocks and they’ve stopped spending, clinging to every dollar.

Personally, this week, if I have to go to a grocery store for essentials, I’ll try a new spiritual discipline. I won’t shop for myself. I’m going to buy the gift cards that they often sell near the registers, and fill them with small amounts of money. Then, after the employees at the registers hand them to me, I’m going to give them back to the employees as a gift and thank them for what they do. I’m going to tell them that Jesus is watching over them. These are people who are serving as modern day caregivers tending to the people who are afraid of the roller coasters. You can do the same.

It’s the “Viral Blessings Challenge.” Pay attention to public health announcements and don’t go out into public spaces when you don’t have to. It’s best to wait this thing out, but when we do encounter one another, let’s fill those encounters with grace. If you have a blessing-filled encounter with someone, send me the story at jim @ reallife.la

An Open-Handed Life

Jesus changes everything about the way you approach the season of sickness and anxiety.

With Jesus, I approach life with open hands. He will provide me whatever I need, and I don’t have to cling to anything. I can throw my hands up as we roll over these hills. It may not be filled with the same fun-filled laughter you’d hear at an amusement park, but it’s filled with freedom. I don’t have to worry about life, or what I will eat, or what I will wear, because my Father in heaven knows what I need. I’m not hoarding anything.

With Jesus, I approach death with open hands. I assure you, I’m going to die some day – there’s nothing to wonder about there. But whereas some people have to approach that reality like it’s a cliff they are jumping off blind, I approach it knowing that there is a huge party waiting for me on the other side of that door. I don’t have to cling to life, because what’s in store for me will be even better.

A Prayer

If your recent days have been filled with anxiety, here’s a simple little prayer you can pray. Say it by yourself or with your family. Say it out loud if you want.

Jesus, I’ve done life on my terms instead of yours. I’ve clung to things out of fear, and I’ve lived for myself.

I don’t want to be filled with anxiety anymore. Protect me from temptation and keep me away from evil.

I give my life to you with open hands, and I trust you to take care of me. Forgive me and start me on a new path.

Now teach me how you want me to live.

If you’d like me to pray with you and for you, or if you want to talk about Jesus, send me an email at jim @ reallife.la.

The coming days may still be a roller coaster. That’s not something you can control. But you do have complete control over how you ride.

The Panic of the Faithful

You know what will really convince the world that Jesus is the good and loving Lord of all creation? It would be if all of his children absolutely go insane whenever there is a public crisis and then lead the way in running, hiding, blaming others, and over-reacting.

About Coronavirus

Here are three things Christians ought to be thinking about as the world reacts to aspreading sickness.

1. Don’t go crazy.

Every year in the US alone, the flu kills on average 30,000 people. In the 2018-19

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flu season, it killed 61,000. The coronavirus has killed 3,000 in the world, out of 7.7 billion. It is admittedly stronger than the flu, but it is not the medical version of a nuclear bomb. The stock market is spiraling, organizations are cancelling conferences and gatherings, and Japan and Italy have temporarily closed their schools. Whereas the mass of humanity is led by animal instincts, Christians are bearers of the Spirit of God and ought to swim against the current, not get swept up in it. We have not been given a Spirit of timidity, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline. The Christian response is not, “Where can I hide?”, it’s “God is bigger than this.”

2. Ask the right questions.

The first questions I hear as a pastor is whether or not churches are safe places to gather and whether we should all stay home. At least we should receive the eucharist through a doubly-secured air-lock, and the Pastor can stand behind that thick plexiglass like the bank teller. The first question that the Spirit would have Christians ask would be, “If it gets bad, how will we help?” Danger is the opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate faith, not fear. Crisis is the opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate compassion, not cowardice. First questions first – no matter what the state of the world, followers of Jesus don’t run and hide.

3. Be wise.

Coronavirus-response is not going to be the modern, bio-chemical equivalent of snake-handling. Everyone should practice good hygiene – wash your hands, sneeze on your elbow, and don’t go to school if you’re sick, even if there’s a math test. These rules should apply during the ordinary flu season, and not just because it kills 30,000 Americans a year, but because it’s gross when you sneeze on your hand and then hold it out saying, “Nice sermon today, Pastor.” Thank you for that.