Commentary

When it comes to fighting the pandemic, heaven help us

September 30, 2021 4:20 am

Photo illustration by the Daily Montana (Original image by Pxhere, public domain).

As the death count from COVID-19 exceeds the number of soldiers lost in World War II or the number who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic or the fact that we experience roughly the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every day in fatalities, I find myself becoming nostalgic for the political conversations of bygone years.

Whether it was the “compassionate conservativism” of George W. Bush or even the daffy-hatted Tea Party, there was a certain ideological approach that, even if misguided or misapplied, had a point-of-view that could be discussed with some integrity.

Take, for example, abortion: The objections were framed in almost exclusively theological objections about playing God with life. The ideology was often consistent because those same groups often (but not always) objected to the death penalty for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, prayer in schools was rooted in the idea of a predominantly Christian nation with founders who appeared to make reference to a similar God, so therefore public displays of the Christian faith were a hearkening back to our patriotic roots. Talk about your virtue signaling.

Sadly, in the past year, I have become nearly nostalgic for those days because while I disagreed (and still do) with both of those positions, they had some semblance of intellectual consistency and were rooted in an attempt to live out religious beliefs.

Yet in the fevered debate about COVID-19 and community responsibility, have you noticed the only thing missing more than people lining up to be vaccinated or masks in public is the absence of an appeal to religious values, namely those conservative Christian beliefs that have so often been used as an oversized club to beat the non-evangelicals of us just a few years back?

We don’t talk about God much more in our conversations about COVID-19 unless it’s to pray that someone’s health will be miraculously spared.

And so the more that I have noticed the absence of a conversation of Christ as it relates to this current pandemic, the more the question has bothered me. Probably because the savior who would bring people back from the dead so they could live abundantly wouldn’t think much of the ol’ personal freedom argument.

If Christ were living in America today, he may be the only person more overworked than our healthcare workers, having to save people who can’t breathe, or raise from the dead those in cold storage somewhere in one of Montana’s mobile morgues.

As much as people look to scriptures for answers – which is the tradition the Old and New Testaments – both those  may be better defined by two questions.

In the Old Testament, one of the most cherished verses is from the prophet Micah, who asks, “What does the Lord require of you?”

Most folks pay attention to the verses immediately following the question because the notions of seeking justice and acting with mercy align well with our founding American documents. But that question – and the question alone – keeps rattling around in my head. Pardon me for geeking out, but it’s the verb – “require.”

Interesting that the prophet doesn’t just say the Lord requests or asks something – you know, if it’s not too much trouble. Instead, the verb is to require – something that’s not negotiable.

Meanwhile the New Testament, which concerns itself with Jesus-ly things, asks the most piercing and direct question when Jesus says to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”

As uncomfortable and brass-tacks as that question is, it is indeed the heart of Christianity: Who is Christ to us, as individuals and as a nation?

I think I understand better why this pandemic isn’t just a crisis of public health, but also a religious one for many Americans.

Maybe all the nutty conspiracy theories laden with junk like mind-controlling chips embedded in the vaccines are easier to promote than to confront the reality that the most common American religion demands something from us – it requires a responsibility for ourselves and caring for the health and safety of others. Remember, those are the same theological values that supposedly make us such an exceptional nation.

I’ll have to admit: It’s so damn tempting for me to sit here and answer those theological questions in a way that I believe is so obvious and self-evident. Yet, that’s only me doing ­the same thing that I have despised for so long – using Christianity or any religion as a cudgel rather than a comfort.

Oh yeah, that’s right – all I need to do is mumble something about “thoughts and prayers” and look awfully sincere while saying it.

Instead, my proposal isn’t one of words, but rather actions. Maybe the clergy, exhausted from having to figure out how to hold a church service virtually while burying parishioners, should find every portrait and picture of the sincere-but-serious Jesus and put a mask on it. Mask up Jesus in the nursery. Mask up Jesus in meeting hall. And while you’re at it, see if you can find a ladder to get the mask on our savior crucified.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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