War over Easter

On the one hand are those nurses who are willing to travel from Kansas to New York, separating from their families and exposing themselves to great risk as they lend aid in one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

On the other hand, we have the weekend fiasco that the Kansas City Star described as a “War over Easter.”

Clearly, pandemics bring out the best and the worst in people. The nurses represent the best. The Easter war represents the worst.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly largely exempted churches from the statewide ban on large gatherings. Then, on Tuesday of Holy Week, she announced that the ban would apply to churches, too.

A handful of grandstanding Republican legislators blocked her order, triggering an outcry across the state. She appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, which upheld her order on a technicality.

Still, several churches held services on Easter, deliberately defying the order. They claimed religious freedom, but the language they used sounded purely political to me.

Republicans who tried to block the order said they agreed that people should stay home on Easter; they merely wanted to assure that no one was arrested for disobeying it. As if anybody thought that was a real possibility!

Some call Kelly’s order unconstitutional. That’s baloney. The Constitution grants no absolute rights. The First Amendment safeguard freedom of speech and religion. But the protection of free speech does not cover shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Nor does it cover human sacrifice in a religious rite.

An order for the public good that does not target religion does not violate First Amendment protection of religion. If all are prohibited from gathering, churches are not automatically exempt.

We see this pattern of defiance in other churches, especially fundamentalist bastions in the South. With false bravado and spiritual arrogance, these churches vow to remain open, come what may.

At best, these prideful proclamations of faith are disgusting tests of God’s faithfulness. “Don’t test the Lord your God,” Jesus said, quoting scripture (Luke 4.12, Deuteronomy 6:16). At worse, such defiance is based on simple idolatry. Some people value their tradition so highly that they mistake it for God.

United Methodists value the health of all people. We are mindful of that first rule of Methodism: “Do no harm.” We will not endanger the lives of others by parading our piety in public.

These pastors who insist on keeping their churches open are endangering not only members of their own congregations but all those who might have contact with them. They may not be deliberately trying to kill people, but they may do it nonetheless. Their form of Christian “witness” is toxic and dangerous. No wonder people are fleeing churches today!

It is a pity that these churches chose to celebrate their apostasy on the day that most Christians celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus. God raised Jesus from his tomb. These churches remain in theirs. Pray for the resurrection of all – and pray for those brave nurses who are doing far more for Christ than those loudmouth preachers who are so proud of their obstinacy.

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