“You have the power to make this thing stop.”
That’s what Steve Stites said recently. If you watch TV news, you’ve probably seen him a lot in the last several months. He’s the chief medical officer at KU Med Center.
Photo by Matt Rourke/AP
Last week, he was talking about obeying public health orders and covid-19. Looking directly into the camera, he said, “You have the power to make this thing stop.”
He meant you and me. Together, we have the power to defang this deadly virus. We can’t kill it. We can’t vaccinate ourselves against it – at least not yet. But we can protect ourselves and our neighbors and keep it from spreading. All we have to do is make a few changes in our behavior.
You know the drill. Six feet of separation. Wash your hands. Wear a facemask. It sounds so simple. Why in heaven’s name can’t we do it?
Well, it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? The chief complications are government orders limiting the number of people who are allowed to gather, and closing certain businesses where limiting the size of crowds is hard to enforce.
Namely bars and churches. You didn’t know we had so much in common, did you? Most people don’t like to drink alone. Most people don’t like to worship alone. Drinking and worshipping are social activities. They can be done alone, but that’s not how most people want to do it.
The governor of California has barred places of worship from holding indoor services. Some churches have defied the order. “We will obey God rather than men,” said one pastor. “Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”
Really? I don’t recall reading anywhere in the New Testament that Jesus clearly – or even not so clearly – commands in-person public worship gatherings on Sunday morning. We should not neglect meeting together, the book of Hebrews says in one place (Hebrews 10.25). But I don’t think that’s a meant as a command from God: every Sunday morning, plant your butt in a pew or else!
I think limiting the size of services is much preferable to banning worship altogether. But surely the government does have God-given authority to prevent people from acting in ways that threaten other people. And pretending that covid-19 doesn’t exist is probably the main threat to our efforts to fight it.
So why can’t we agree on this mask thing?
In Kansas City just yesterday, national coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx said that this is a crucial moment in out fight against the virus. We have to stop it now. “Wear a mask,” she said. “Protect one another.”
A columnist for a major newspaper said recently, “There are no intelligent grounds for rejecting masks.” But who said intelligence had anything to do with it? Everybody knows the arguments for masks. Some people just don’t care. And don’t think that shaming them will change their minds. It will only reinforce their belligerence.
Best-selling novelist James Patterson says he can’t understand why we’re stuck in this self-destructive debate. He says, “Not wearing a mask is the equivalent of driving around drunk and going through red lights.” That may be true, but plenty of people do both those things even though they know it’s wrong.
When coronavirus cases soared recently in North Carolina, the governor said: “For those who continue to defy basic decency and common sense because they refuse to wear a mask – either wear one or don’t go in the store. The refusal to wear a mask is selfish. It infringes on the life and liberty of everyone else in the store.”
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas is blunt: “Put on a damn mask.”
Kansas City Star sports columnist Vahe Gregorian tells this story:
Masks are mandated in Nashville, Tennessee, but not in many nearby rural areas. So a colleague of Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, experienced this the other day:
Clad in a mask as he ambled up to a roadside produce stand, Schaffner’s associate noticed no one else wearing one. The man running the stand looked him up and down and said, “If you don’t take off that mask, we’re not going to serve you.”
I probably would have said something regrettable and got back in my car. If a business doesn’t require a mask, I don’t go there. Period.
On the other hand, store clerks have been verbally abused, beaten and even shot for trying to enforce mask requirements. And you can’t rely on traditional law enforcement to carry out these mandates.
Only last week, in Florida, where virus cases are spiking, one sheriff ordered his deputies to not wear masks in most situations. He says the jury is still out over whether masks are helpful. Actually, the jury rendered a verdict a long time ago, but some so-called public servants are reluctant to enforce the verdict because of possible political blowback.
Presidential candidate Joe Biden has called for a national mask mandate. “Patriots wear masks,” Donald Trump said the other day. For months, of course, he insisted that patriots don’t wear masks. The only people who wear masks are those out to get him, he said.
Creating chaos and division is not just a Trump tactic. Back in March, religion columnist Morgan Guyton wrote a song titled “Excalibur.” Part of it goes like this:
You think that you have triumphed, Satan.
You think that you can bring the world to its knees
With a virus that makes us turn on each other.
That’s one of the nasty things this virus does. It makes us suspect each other of unknowing treachery.
I can’t know if you’ve got it but you’re just not showing symptoms. You can’t know if I’ve got it but I’m just not showing symptoms. We can’t trust each other because we can’t trust ourselves because we can’t know ourselves. To care for ourselves and each other, we have to assume that each of us has the virus already but isn’t showing symptoms.
In this situation, we have to either avoid each other altogether or be covid-careful when we do meet – all the standard prudent measures and maybe then some. That’s living with appropriate caution. It is not living in fear, as the truly paranoid often claim. It’s being smart, not being blinded by some ideology that demands the denial of reality.
An awful lot of people appear to be living in denial. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt; it’s also a state of mind. People want to return to what they remember as normal. They want to be free to go wherever they want, whenever they want, without having to worry about observing any rules. They want to do what they want to do the way they want to do it when they want to do it.
That’s why every time states or counties or cities loosen the restrictions on social gatherings, hundreds if not thousands of people rush out to break all the rules and celebrate their new freedom. That’s why thousands of bikers have been gathering in Sturgis, South Dakota. This Sturgis rally is more defiant than some in the past, some observers say. It’s not rebellion against society in general but more specifically rebellion against any sense of social responsibility.
You might chalk this up to pure human cussedness, but I think it’s more than that. It’s an almost militant defiance of the principle of caring for others. I find it very hard to understand. I have long known that it is quite possible for a person to be made in the image of God, to be one for whom Christ died, and still be as dumb as a brick. But stupidity is one thing. Not caring is another. Why don’t people care?
Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City Health Department, says that getting through this crisis will require that we make a cultural shift. We’ve got to move past the clichés of rugged individualism and start caring for one another. If we don’t, we are quite likely to see a social collapse. Some folks wouldn’t mind a social collapse, because that would give them an excuse to consolidate their power. But it would be a disaster for the American dream. It would mean failure of the grand American experiment of self-governance.
We’ve got to make that cultural shift. The key to making it happen is not so hard to define. You know the ingredients as well as I do. They are, essentially, doing the hard thing of putting others first.
The Apostle Paul lays it out clearly several times.
Romans 12:3 and afterward: Don’t think of yourself more highly than you should, because we are all in this together.
Romans 15:1: If you consider yourself strong, you need to be patient with those who are not strong and defer to them, not please yourself.
Philippians 2:3-4: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Don’t look to your own interests but to the interests of others.
The principle is ancient. It goes back to the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)
A few hundred years ago, when they were forming the first Methodist societies, John and Charles Wesley changed the wording a little. Today we express their three general rules this way: Do no harm. Do good. Love God.
The first rule is the one that applies most directly to our response to the coronavirus. We ought to first act in ways that do no harm to others. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Several months ago, we basically shut down the economy to slow the spread of covid-19. It worked. It slowed transmission of the virus. But it also wrecked the lives of millions of people who couldn’t afford to shelter in place until the storm passed.
By contrast, being required to wear a face mask is a small price to pay for beating this thing. Some people insist that a mask requirement stomps on their precious rights. I say, get over yourself. If you care so little for others that you can’t wear a mask to protect them, why do you want to be around them at all? If you care so little for others, just stay home and be with the only one you love – that is, yourself.
You don’t realize it yet, but I have just introduced a new worship series that will start as soon as next week. It’s all about those Three Simple Rules from Micah and the Wesley brothers. They are so simple – and yet so hard. But, as we all know, that’s the way it is when you try to be a loving person. It’s so simple – and yet so hard.
This message was delivered Aug. 16, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.