A plea for hopefulness

Hoo boy: I might get labeled a heretic for this one. But here goes.

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I know that the sound bites I read in the news can never tell the whole story. Moreover, I am neither an attorney nor an expert on constitutional law. All I want to do, what I have been trying to do here every Sunday for the last few months, is to call the church back, in this strange and unparalleled season, to the importance of a living, breathing, embodied hope.

Here’s the situation: California churches are banding together to file federal lawsuits (as of this writing, two suits have been filed) against governor Gavin Newsom and public health officials, because of what are alleged to be unconstitutional and prejudicial new coronavirus restrictions.

Restrictions on public gatherings, of course, had been in place earlier, preventing congregations from… well, congregating. When the infection rate slowed, restrictions were relaxed. But as the numbers began to climb again, Newsom responded by tightening the rules.

This time, the particular sticking point has the prohibition against singing or chanting in houses of worship.

At first blush, the ban sounds odd. But as Newsom’s own words make clear, the restriction is based on research showing that singing and even loud speaking can raise the risk of infection. Such activities project airborne particles with greater force over a greater distance, making transmission more likely, even with masks and social distancing. That risk, of course, also increases with more people spending a longer time together in an enclosed space. From an epidemiological standpoint, then, the edict makes sense, though it’s an exceedingly strange rule for an equally strange time.

The pushback alleges that the defendants have violated the the First (free exercise of religion, non-establishment, and freedom of speech) and Fourteenth (equal protection) Amendments of the Constitution. Again, I am not an expert on constitutional law. But having read the first complaint filed, I suspect there is some merit to the allegations, particularly in the matter of how mandates have been inconsistently applied, giving the appearance of discrimination against churches.

My concern, though, is not about the legal merits of the case. It’s about how the suit itself, or more accurately, its public face in the media, affects the church’s witness to a world that so desperately needs hope.

. . .

What grieves me is that whatever the actual merits of the governor’s pronouncement, it was clearly based on a concern for public health. Poke holes in the research if you like, but the edict is founded on what current science seems to say about best practices for stemming the tide of COVID.

Where, then, is a similar concern for public safety expressed in the churches’ complaints? Shouldn’t that concern, a real-world embodiment of neighbor-love, be front and center in our message and witness?

The complaint is framed as the protection of Christians’ constitutional rights. And don’t get me wrong: I believe that religious freedom is a real and pressing issue. There have indeed been encroachments on Christians’ ability to act in good conscience before God. But the question here is this: what if there was sound empirical reason to believe that a behavior we cherish (in this case, congregational singing) was putting our neighbors at risk?

Perhaps you don’t believe the risk is real. Fine. But that’s an empirical argument, not a matter of mere opinion. Anyone who disagrees with the evidence should provide contrary evidence of their own.

Nor would it be enough to say, “We recognize the risk. We’re wearing masks. We’re even social distancing. So we’re willing to take the risk ourselves.” That would only be a valid argument if the church were to hermetically itself off from the rest of the world.

Think of it this way. If we increase the risk of infection to ourselves, we increase the risk to anyone else with whom we have contact. Perhaps the risk is small. But it’s not zero. And that makes the defense of our freedom a moral act that affects others and the public good.

Does God want us to worship him? Absolutely. Is singing part of that worship? Of course. But are we commanded to sing in the same way that we are commanded to love God and neighbor? No. Do we really believe that God would consider us disobedient if we didn’t sing in church because, in love, we wanted to do whatever we could to reduce the risk of harming others? Are we unable to worship God in a way that pleases him even without song —  or more accurately, without singing together in groups that meet in the same location?

Is our God not greater and more loving and gracious than that? 

. . .

A final point, perhaps the most controversial one…

Yes, there may be some substance to the argument that Newsom is being inconsistent in his application of health restrictions. On the one hand, he publicly supports peaceful protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement, and hasn’t restricted singing or chanting in such venues. On the other hand, he has restricted singing and chanting in places of worship. And yes, one might be able to make a case for this being a violation of churches’ constitutional rights.

But I find the juxtaposition jarring. Whether you agree with everything that happens at BLM protests or not, they are for the purpose of drawing public attention to systemic violations of civil rights. The freedom to protest in this way is foundational to the checks and balances of a democratic society. Is the freedom to sing in church the same?

I get it: to the extent that we as Christians feel our freedoms have been curtailed, we want to defend them. But it feels both tone-deaf and dishonoring to use BLM to argue that we have a parallel “right” to sing in church. My freedom to sing “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” on Sunday morning is not on a moral par with the right to not be profiled for the color of my skin. 

. . .

As Christians, we say that we believe in a sovereign God. We say that we have a heavenly hope, one that is founded on the death and resurrection of Jesus. We say that we believe Jesus when he says that he has overcome the world. But then, sometimes, we seem to act in fear and defensiveness: The barbarians are at the gates!  We man the battlements and fight the world on the world’s terms.

I wish more media attention could be given to how churches — even the ones that complain about government interventionism! — have been working diligently and creatively to find ways to maintain community even under the pressure of public health restrictions. I wish the attitude among believers was more, “How can we help?” rather than, “How much more of this do we have to put up with?” 

Many these days feel hopeless, and understandably so. But if we who worship a sovereign God, who believe in the security of our eternal destiny, cannot radiate hope to others, shame on us. 

We have the right to protest, of course. But let’s not do it in a way that leaps over neighbor-love or communicates a fortress mentality. The world needs hope. We supposedly have it. And it’s up to us to share the hope we have, even if for now, we have do it without singing together.