Pandemic Lessons

A friend of mine sent me a video in which Dennis Pranger of Prager U, addresses the graduating class of 2020 on what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught them about life.

The address is called Graduation 2020: The COVID Class

Early on in the address, he characterizes our unique times, not with reference to the contagious and potentially deadly disease that has swept across the globe, but as a time when “healthy people, and people living in free societies, have been confined to their homes.”

This take on our current situation is central to Pranger’s message which is taken up in his third point.  His first two points are spot on and part of my motivation to write this post is to pass on these astute observations and wise words.

Pranger U is a conservative American organization that creates videos on various political, economic, and philosophical topics.   There are a lot of Christians who like what Pranger has to say but being conservative and being Christian are not the same thing.  This is born out in Pranger’s third lesson to the COVID Class.

Lesson 1: Life is Hard, Unfair, and Unpredictable.

Your life is very easy.   In the developed West, all our lives are easy compared to those in other parts of the world.  We have easy access to food.  Clothing and shelter are not much of a problem for the vast majority of  North Americans.  We are healthy and have a lot of leisure time and a plethora of entertainment options.  We can easily get the idea that this is normal.  It’s not.

Covid-19 and its effects begin to help us to sense how hard life is, “and that understanding equips you to deal much better with life’s challenges, which are inevitable.”

Pranger’s right.  To walk into life from high school expecting the world to be easy, fair, and predictable will lead to disappointment and bitterness.  This is a valuable lesson.

Lesson 2: Always be Grateful

Pranger says that “gratitude is probably the most important trait you can have because it is the source of both happiness and goodness.”

I don’t necessarily agree that gratitude is the source of goodness, but I agree with his premise and that grateful people are happier than resentful people.   We have so much to be grateful for but, ironically, we tend to be ungrateful in our culture. This may be because we are continuously barraged with advertising and social media that teaches us we don’t have enough or are not good enough.

If Covid-19 has helped you to appreciate what you have both materially and relationally, then allow that lesson to colour and shape your life.  This is an incredibly valuable lesson.

Lesson 3: Freedom is Fragile–Very Fragile

Lesson 3 is the main point of Pranger’s video.  And, from a biblical perspective, I think he’s way off here.  Pranger tells graduates:

The ease with which most Americans acquiesced to the removal of many of their most basic rights . . . should take your breath away.  At the very least it should make you realize how easily any government can take away people’s most elementary freedoms.

Pranger is critical of the extent to which some jurisdictions restricted contact in their reaction to the virus.  In some states where there was very little infection people were told to stay home anyway.  I am not going to argue with Pranger on these particulars–he may be right.  Some governments may have overreacted–we won’t really know what the correct degree of response should have been until all this is over.  (Since this video was released, numbers suggest that the response of many American states did not go far enough.)

Judging from the graphics in the video, America’s most basic rights are freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to wear a hardhat.  These are the rights that he claims we have been so breathtakingly surrendered to governments.

In reality, the only fundamental right that we surrendered, temporarily, was freedom of assembly.  This has some immediate effect on freedom of religion and the economic (hardhat) freedoms of many citizens.

But wasn’t it a good idea to suspend the freedom to assemble in large groups?  Are Americans supposed to hold onto these rights under any and all circumstances?  Is not a highly contagious, potentially fatal virus, not the exact circumstance in which this right ought to be quickly surrendered?  I can’t even come up with an analogy to drive this point home.  No analogy is clearer than the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Isn't it a good idea to suspend our freedom to assemble? Are we to demand these rights under all circumstances? Is not a highly contagious, fatal virus, the exact circumstance in which to surrender this right? Isn't this biblical? Click To Tweet

Would Pranger have us ignore the quarantine and gather anyway?  Take guns into government buildings and demand our rights to assemble?  To defiantly not wear a mask as the new symbol of personal freedom?

The Statue of Responsibility

France gave the United States of America the Statue of Liberty, says Pranger, “because America, more than any other country, symbolized Liberty.”

The problem is, the American emphasis on Liberty has become unbalanced.  Someone forgot to give America the necessary and complementary statue–The Statue of Responsibility.

The Statue of Responsibility was the vision of psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl.

Frankl is right when he says:

“Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl is saying that without responsibility, freedom will degenerate into mere license–doing whatever you want.

In a practical sense, we practice freedom in balance with responsibility all the time.  We have the freedom to drive, but this is balanced with the responsibility to adhere to traffic laws.  We have freedom of speech, but we balance this with the responsibility to not yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.

But now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some people adamantly resist the curbing of dangerous behavior for the public good.  And the more we see this resistance, the higher climb the numbers of cases and deaths from COVID-19.

What is going on here?

The Idolatry of Freedom

Tim Keller describes idolatry as making a good thing into an ultimate thing.  Freedom is a good thing.  But when it takes the place of God as the ultimate thing, it becomes a cruel deity that demands sacrifice–human sacrifice.

Both liberals and conservatives have a problem with idolatry. They both worship Freedom and are willing to make human sacrifices to this cruel deity. The only difference is the particular victims they respectively place on Freedom's firey altars.Click To Tweet

Both the Old and New Testaments are consistent in saying that God is God, and he created all good things.  The Bible tells us not to worship these good things.  He also created human beings in his image, making human beings are more valuable than any good thing–more valuable than money, beauty, fame, power, America, the flag, or freedom.

The Bible teaches that we obey governments unless their laws come into conflict with God’s law.  Quarantines and social distancing are not contrary to God’s law, they are merely contrary to the law of our false god.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks, quarantines, and social distancing save lives–this becomes more and more clear every passing day.  To refuse to wear facemasks, and defy quarantines and social distancing mandates, is to choose freedom and the economy over human life.  It’s to choose a good thing (freedom) over the image (humanity) of the ultimate thing (God).

If we don’t worship God, we will worship something else.  In America, we worship Freedom and the Economy.  In America, it is your right to do so, but it is not biblical.

If we don't worship God, we will worship something else. In America, we worship Freedom and the Economy. In America, it is your right to do so, but it is not biblical.Click To Tweet

Ironically, the numbers seem to indicate that those jurisdictions that most faithfully complied with quarantines and social distancing regulations, will be the jurisdictions that most quickly restore freedoms of assembly and recover economically.

But this is not why I reject Denis Pranger’s third lesson.  I reject it because it is unbiblical.

I’d like to replace it with my own.

My Lesson #3: It’s Not Just About You

The global pandemic and the quarantine reminded you that it’s not all about you.  Lots of people will tell you that there is nothing more important than your individual freedom.  This is a tenet of our society.  It’s the only thing that liberals and conservatives agree on, albeit in different directions.

You hear it from the college kids on the Florida beaches and the conservative radio hosts and bloggers:  “If I’m willing to risk catching Covid-19, I can do what I want.  It’s my life.”

A friend of mine has a university-aged daughter who works at Starbucks and lives in their home.  He also has several sets of older parents who he is taking care of, since they are vulnerable and, consequently, are taking the quarantine seriously.  The daughter’s co-workers ignore social distancing protocols.  They like to party with friends.   Because they are not worried about catching the virus, they believe they can ignore the protocols.  They are free to choose risky behaviour if willing to take the consequences.

They are not vulnerable.  They correctly assess the risk to be minimal.  Why should they give up their freedom?

The answer is, they have a responsibility to others.  They have to protect themselves from the virus so that they don’t pass it onto my friend’s daughter, so she doesn’t pass it onto her parents, and her grandparents.

Freedom is a good thing.  But it’s not the ultimate thing.  Your life is interconnected with those of many others.  You can’t always do whatever you want because you are responsible for other lives.

My objection to Pranger’s third lesson is rooted in my faith.  Christians are to love God and love our neighbour.  In our current context, we love our neighbour by limiting movement, social distancing, wearing a mask in public.  It is not possible to love both Jesus and Freedom as ultimate things.  One must give way.  One results in human flourishing, the other results in human sacrifice.

 

14 Comments

  1. Shannon Wittenberg

    June 27, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Mic drop and bravo, Trent!
    Very well stated and some rational words to address the dumpster fire that is consuming much of the U.S. right now. Yikes.

  2. Well said! I always thought we misunderstood freedom. You have nailed it. Freedom without responsibility is licence or anarchy.

    • I am acquainted with one person that is sympathetic toward anarchy. It seems to me, part of his attraction to it is that he is repulsed by the concept of responsibility. But I might be wrong. it might be that he just hates the idea of paying taxes.
      Thanks for reading.

  3. Great job Trent! Inspiring for my grad speech. Thank-you

  4. Insightful argumentation Trent. Prager misses the mark as they often do because they stray into idolatry of Americanism. Frankl misnames responsible living. It is love. I quarantined myself for love for my neighbour. I love like Jesus when I put others first. Here’s the rub, American Christians don’t like it when the State gets it right.

    • Well said, Jim. I agree that you can’t just call it responsibility. We love our neigbour–we wear a mask, etc. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Yes, perhaps personal liberty, economic freedom juxtaposed with social distancing are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    Common sense social distancing guidelines combined with responsible personal and economic liberty are essential to the socioeconomic fabric of our society.

    Great read Trent

    • One day I will write a blog about how Modern people have a hard time with paradox. Two things that appear contradictory can both be true. Thanks for reading, Ron.

  6. I really appreciate all the wisdom in this post. I agree with the majority of what you have written; however, I do have one big question that remains after reading this.
    Churches may have been quick to stop regular services in order to love their neighbours, but why did churches not open again as soon as possible? They were some of the last organizations to re-open their doors while grocery stores, hair dressers, schools, even arcades started up as soon as they had the “okay.”
    This pandemic may have tested our love for our neighbours, but did our faithfulness to God stand firm?
    I really respect your opinion and would love to hear your view on this!

    • Good question. There is a big difference between churches and most of the other things you mentioned. In churches, it is difficult to keep two meters apart. This is why we still aren’t’ gathering in groups of more than 50. And then there is the singing. Singing flings potentially viral droplets all over the place. My church is doing services, but only 50 people may attend. Schools are another matter–they are to maintain cohorts of no more than 60 or 120 for elementary and high school respectively. I’m not sure why 120 is OK in a high school and not in a church except that the majority of the population is under 18. Like you, I think church attendance is vital, but in the current context, the injunction to love our neighbours by not spreading the virus is the path to faithfulness. I an still very connected to my local church even though I don’t attend services physically, and my devotional routines are healthier not that I am not as busy as I am when live is “normal.” This may not be the case for everyone, and it will definitely be good to be able to worship corporately again. Thanks for the question and for reading.

  7. Hi Trent. Today I saw your name on my little phone screen as a FB friend suggestion. I’m generally leery of such suggestions these days, which have pushed me significantly left from my moderate/centrist perch on most things in life.

    So after a brief websearch I read this piece in your blog, & want to commend you for sharing your insight. I look forward to reading some more.

    Best,

    Howard Roll, THS ‘81

    • Hi Howard, it’s been a long time. I’m always delighted to have someone read what I have written. I have some new posts swirling around my head and computer, but it’s hard to get to them while teaching under the current Covid-19 context. But they’ll get there eventually. Thanks for reading!

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