Last Saturday, I was planning to do a video chat with a friend, and she mentioned to me that she was busy on Sunday morning with virtual church. Until then, I hadn’t thought of what church-goers are doing in regards to church attendance, but it made me wonder. If I was still attending the church that I had gone to for twenty-one years, would I still have gone last Sunday? Would that church be partaking in the “sharing of the peace” and the excessive shaking of hands which has always struck me as unsanitary? Would they still be taking communion from a shared cup? I couldn’t help but cringe at the thought.
So I decided to check in my old church’s website for the first time in months. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod operates on a church-by-church basis, so the response from my old church was decided by its pastor and elders alone. The response was the best that I would have anticipated: every extra event besides services themselves was canceled, and services were also streamed online.
As a supplement to online services, the pastor started writing letters to the congregation on the church website. The first letter, from March 16th, is mostly informational, but I couldn’t help but be concerned that the pastor only heeded the new state and federal limitations on gathering size because of Luke 20:25, which says to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The pastor says he is cooperating because he “take[s] Jesus’ Words very seriously.” It’s great that he’s cooperating, but could he not have followed orders without Jesus’ specific permission? God forbid he be proactive and take preventative, cautious measures with his elderly congregation (and source of income) before the government forced him to.
But I shouldn’t expect much from someone who, in the same letter, said, “[B]eing faithful to Christ and His call for us to gather together and be nourished by Him in Word and sacrament [is] truly the right medicine in the face of a pandemic!” I mean, they also listed praying as the first thing people should do to address the spread of the virus and other illnesses. So my confidence is low. Like, Mike Pence low.
The two sermon-style letters are where things get really interesting. The first one was posted a day after the initial announcement, on March 17th. I would have expected nothing more than this kind of harmful irreverence of science and health from the pastor who led this church during my final years there.
The general thesis of this letter is that Christians are turning COVID-19 into an idol, because they are fearing it more than they are fearing God. It reads,
We are suddenly washing our hands with almost religious devotion out of fear to Covid-19. We are limiting our interactions with other people – people made in the image of God – because we are afraid of what Covid-19 may do to us. . . . Such godly fear we are showing, and it is being offered to what? A virus.
I’ll be indiscreet with you for a moment and just say that this is disgusting behavior. And at the risk of being redundant among atheist voices, I will say that there is a reason people are fearing the coronavirus more than God. As I write this at 2:45 p.m. on March 28th, 2020, 30,299 people worldwide have died from this virus (source). God has killed no one. Ever. Belief in a god has caused millions to kill, and the bible says the God himself killed millions. I’m not talking about those two numbers. I’m talking about real life. God doesn’t exist. He can’t kill anyone. Deadly viruses exist, and they do kill. So yes, that’s something to be afraid of.
On March 21st, the third letter was posted. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it gets worse. Now do you see why I left this church?
The third letter is a continuation of the ideas developed in the second: the virus is an idol, a false god that we shouldn’t fear more than the Christian god. After piling fear of God on top of people’s already growing fear of the coronavirus, the pastor tries to spin this into a positive light. (Hint: it doesn’t work.) He says that “we could see this as an opportunity in which God is intervening in the temple of our lives and in the face of false gods. He is breaking them to smithereens!” Conveniently, now the idol is not the virus itself but instead what it has taken away from people.
The pastor gives three examples. He says to consider a teenage girl whose sports practice has been canceled for the rest of the year, a man who can’t go to the gym for his daily workouts, and a woman who can’t enjoy her favorite restaurants, coffee shops, and stores. These people have just lost great outlets for the stress in their lives that presumably just got exponentially more stressful. But fear not! Now they can look forward to the eager reader of this letter texting them to say, “Hey! Do you have a minute to talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Forget working out which is proven to be beneficial for your mental and physical well-being. Check out these plagues that God sent to Egypt! And cubits! That’s way better than being able to live your life, right?”
The pastor writes, “If there is a benefit to the coronavirus it may be this – in one fell swoop God has laid before our eyes false gods that have been lurking within our lives. . . In doing so, God is asking all of us to look inward.” Essentially, he is saying that God has ruined all the joy that you get from your life—uncontroversial activities that even conservative Christians would appreciate, might I add—so that you can remember how much you need him. How absolutely manipulative! If anyone in your life really did this to you, it would be crystal clear that it is toxic behavior! Many Christians view Christianity as not a religion, but a relationship. Well, if a significant other did this, it would be considered abusive. But when someone who is supposed to be capable of perfect love does it, it’s okay?
In the past weeks, different Christians have proposed dozens of reaching explanations for why God may have allowed or caused the coronavirus. It can be an interesting application to the classic problem of evil, but viewing it as a good thing because God used it to take away the things you love most is strictly horrific.