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When Someone Offers You a Doughnut While You Are on a Diet: A Follow-Up to “Clearing Cupboards”

As the body of Christ navigates this moment in history, we need to demonstrate that God is our rock (Psalm 18;2). Being a member of God’s Kingdom means we can be sober and patient. By sober, I mean that we are not reactionary. While much has been written (appropriately) about the role played by anxiety and fear during COVID-19, we should not lose site of the ways in which false bravado, frustration, political leanings, or distrust in systems might lead us to offer a less-than faithful testimony to the world in uncertain times. We need to remember that however urgent a situation may be, Christian thought is an appropriate response to such urgency.

Part of engaging in Christian thought involves thinking well about the information around us. We need to analyze arguments and consider the ways in which the content we consume helps us to live faithfully or hinders us from doing so. In my last post, I discussed three ways that might guide our thinking with regard to the Christian content we consume. As we navigate these challenging times, however, we also need to be aware of all the content we consume. While the criteria for evaluating non-Christian content may be slightly different, it seems to me that we still need to be considering:

  • How well the story takes the complexity of a given issue into account
  • The extent to which the story offers a realistic, as opposed to a sensational, portrayal of the situation it describes
  • What the story holds up as the source of hope and salvation other than Christ.

After posting part 3 of my “God and Gorillas” series entitled “Clearing Cupboards, Becoming Theologically Fit,” I was referred to an article written in mid-March by Heather MacDonald. The article entitled “Compared to What?” is a useful example of content written from a non-Christian perspective and to which the three questions above can be applied. In particular, it is useful because it was written prior to the increase in cases and deaths of the Coronavirus over the past few weeks. As such, there are conclusions drawn based on information that is now out-of-date. For instance, MacDonald notes, “So far, the United States has seen forty-one deaths from the infection. Twenty-two of those deaths occurred in one poorly run nursing home outside of Seattle.” Yet, when I checked the stats on 4/1/2020, there were 42 additional deaths reported today in Illinois alone.

While the thrust of the article seems to be to question the necessity of some of the more drastic measures taken prior to the increase in COVID-19 cases, it also offers a helpful example of what can happen when we jump to conclusions too early. While Snowden and Boone had organizational leadership in mind when they wrote “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” in the midst of complex contexts thought leaders would do well to avoid “the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles” and, instead, to “patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself.”

So, what do I really know about COVID-19? Not a lot. My desire is not to offer some sort of counterpoint to MacDonald or even to dismiss her article completely. I appreciate her concern that our leaders approach COVID-19 and other challenges with sober deliberation rather than reactivity and fear. It seems likely that “…fear of the disease, and not the disease itself” has exacerbated an already difficult situation.

Considering Complexity– While it seems obvious that fear of the disease is causing some level of disruption, the extent to which unwarranted fear of the disease is hindering us from flattening the COVID-19 curve isn’t obvious. Whatever unique impact unwarranted fears have had on the economy, MacDonald’s argument doesn’t demonstrate the existence of a gap between the economic impact of appropriate, warranted caution and the reactionary, unwarranted fear.

MacDonald bases here argument for unwarranted fear of the disease by comparing the death rates of COVID-19 to those of influenza and automobile accidents. Such comparisons offer a sense of relative magnitude. To some degree, I can read her article and say, “Yeah. The Coronavirus isn’t such a big deal. We should really be focused on perfecting automated cars to bring down the death toll on U.S. highways.” The way she argues her point creates an empowering facade. If we accept it without deeper thought, it frees us not to worry so much about whether or not we will get sick because the chances are so low. Based on her logic, we should really be able to carry on with my life as I normally would. That seems to simplify matters a bit too much, particularly given where we are just a few weeks after her article was published.

Realistic or Sensational– The comparison in magnitude between driving-related deaths, influenza, and COVID-19 have little to do with the measures needed to prevent deaths in each case. Would emptying the highways reduce driving-related deaths? Presumably. But what does that really have to do with COVID-19? Not much. Even the flu doesn’t offer a 1 to 1 comparison to COVID-19. Yes, they are both viruses. That doesn’t mean they will require the same treatment or even that we have the capacity to provide the same level of treatment.

The point of including this information in the article seems to be to support her assertion that officials are reacting to the fear of the disease rather than to the disease itself. She wants us to agree that if magnitude is the concern, we don’t need to be taking such drastic action (or at least we don’t in the case of driving-related deaths and influenza). While she recognizes that “what actually matters is whether or not the growing ‘pandemic’ overwhelms our ability to ensure the well-being of U.S. residents with efficiency and precision,” she doesn’t evaluate aspects of COVID-19 that might make it more likely to overwhelm our healthcare systems. For example, if all of the traffic fatalities in a given year happened over the course of two months or in a single geographic region, we would likely have similar capacity issues. Three weeks after her article’s publication our healthcare systems are moving toward an expanded capacity.

Where is Salvation Found– In her final paragraph, MacDonald seems to make clear that it is the wisdom and composure of our political leaders that will get us through COVID-19. Though she doesn’t offer a glowing endorsement of politicians who “have shown an overwhelming impulse to be irrationally risk-averse,” she does harken back to the leaders who navigated the challenges of “the last century’s World Wars.”

She also highlights the perceived panic of the “populace” comparing the college-age students who went off to war “with conviction and courage” to the closure colleges and universities “with no hint of the virus in their vicinity.” While political leaders certainly have an important role to play in God’s world and there would seem to be value in a populace that has “conviction and courage,” as God’s people, we can’t put all our eggs in that basket. Our hope isn’t in the political system or in the resolve and character of humanity, but in the God who sent His Son to save all those who believe.

MacDonald’s article isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) to present an opinion that “leaps out ahead of the evidence, that is surer than it has reason to be sure, that pontificates, spouts, hazards guesses, or ‘tells’ when it is indeed ‘too soon to tell’” (Stephens, Beyond News). It seems to me that we are going to be in a state of uncertainty if not anxiety for the foreseeable future. There are going to be a lot of stories floating around. Some will be well-reasoned, careful, and open to new developments rather than coming to firm conclusions. Others will be terribly simple and polarizing.

At the risk of making matters too simple, we aren’t just in danger physically, but mentally. While we shelter in place, we have an opportunity think theologically about the world around us. As God’s people, we need to take on the responsibility of becoming a community that makes good theology possible by purging our cupboards of content that does not help us to proclaim the gospel to a world that needs to hear it.

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