Friday, May 29, 2020

Closet Yourselves

The refusal of some Christian churches in the United States to forego in-person worship during the pandemic has been much in the news, not least because numerous worshipers have gotten sick and some, including some pastors, have died.  Typically, there has been an effort to cast the problem as a matter of freedom of religion.  The best reply I've seen to that is this tweet:
If you're seeing the political rhetoric surrounding "religious freedom" for groups to reopen with f2f meetings during the pandemic, keep asking WHICH religious groups are pushing for this. It's not religion vs non-religion; it's *some* religious groups, speaking for all.
The more I've thought about it, though, the more doubts I have.  The main idea is correct, since not all churches or all denominations insist on face-to-face communal worship no matter what.  Of course the Christians demanding to cram crowds of worshipers into enclosed spaces are apt to regard all outsiders as non-Christians, even anti-Christians.  In general their opponents see them the same way: "so-called Christians" and "fake Christians" are among the epithets they lob at each other.  The idea of religious freedom arose in a religious context, however: the threat came not from the secular sphere, but within religion itself: Christian persecution of Jews, and Christian persecution of other Christians.  This is still true in the US, where religious freedom has to be asserted against Christians trying to impose their doctrines and practices on other Christians, though they are happy to force themselves on Jews or Muslims or atheists too.  The nominal separation of Church and State we have in the US encourages the idea that when government stops believers from killing each other or outsiders, it's doing so as a purely secularizing effort.  This attitude is encouraged by some academics, unfortunately.

A more popular response lately, though, has been to cite Jesus' saying from Matthew 6:5-6.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
I've seen these verses cited fairly often in the past year, not just in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.  I don't believe they have any bearing on the issue of face-to-face public worship, though.  For one thing, neither Jesus nor the early Christians seem to have had any objection to communal worship per se.  According to the gospels Jesus was baptized publicly, attended synagogue, went to the Jerusalem temple for the major feasts, preached publicly to huge crowds, celebrated Passover, instituted a communal rite, and took for granted that his followers would gather together in his name.  His disciples continued to worship in the Temple after he ascended into Heaven.  The earliest Christian writings we have, Paul's letters, also take communal face-to-face worship for granted.  Whatever Jesus had in mind by ordering believers to be closet cases of prayer, it doesn't seem to have excluded communal worship.  And of course, if anyone in his multitudes had gotten sick, he could have just healed them.

For another, Jesus spent a lot of time behaving provocatively, so as to incite controversy with other Jewish teachers.  Some scholars argue that he wasn't really flouting the commandments, but it's certainly how he was perceived.  As Graham Shaw wrote in The Cost of Authority (Fortress, 1982: 246),
the refusal to conform to demands for public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of exhibitionism.  Repeatedly they attract hostile attention to themselves and their master.  Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to have a highly public face.
I've also seen several people invoking Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 13:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
This does seem to undermine 21st-century Christian resistance to public-health orders, but it is also contradicted by early Christian practice.  Jesus and numerous early Christian leaders, including Paul himself according to tradition, were executed by the governing authorities because they refused to be subject to them.  (Some scholars have suggested that this passage is a later addition to the text, but as far as I know there's no manuscript evidence to support the idea.)

The best that can be said, as far as I can see, is that there is no biblical mandate to worship communally, let alone during a pandemic, so whatever drives these Christians to defy today's shutdown orders, it's not scripture nor even tradition.  I'm inclined to see it as theocratically-inclined Christians who hope to clear more space for their encroachment on everyone else's lives.  According to a recent poll, two-thirds of religious Americans view coronavirus as some sort of message from their god, but few regard the illness and death of those who insisted on face-to-face worship as an indication that they were wrong.  Indeed, "Fifty-five per cent of American believers say they feel at least somewhat that God will protect them from being infected."  That must include at least some of those who believe the pandemic is a divine dope-slap, but when you have faith you don't have to make sense.  Judgment, like karma, is for the other guy.