Coronavirus, Courage, and the Second Temptation of Christ

Discerning the difference between courage, cowardice, and recklessness.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

Matthew 4:5-7

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 16:24-26

On March 7, a Christian school not far from my home held a fundraiser, an event full of faithful believers gathered for a virtuous purpose. One person in attendance had COVID-19. Now two dozen people at that event have tested positive, including a dear friend of mine. His wife is symptomatic. Several children are also symptomatic. The faith of these Christian believers was no shield against viral infection. 

I thought of this event as I continue to see a division within America’s religious community. Thousands of churches are shutting down, and pastors are struggling to find ways to minister to communities that are increasingly living behind closed doors. But there is resistance. Writing in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher highlighted this story of Baton Rouge pastor Tony Spell openly defying Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people at a time:

“It’s not a concern,” Spell said of the virus. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore says those violating the governor’s proclamation could face prosecution as a last resort. Reverend Spell is not concerned with that and boasted he had an even larger crowd this past weekend, days after the governor’s proclamation was issued.

“I had 1,170 in attendance Sunday,” Spell said. “We have 27 buses on Sundays picking up people in a five-parish area."

The story noted that a different Baton Rouge church was also defying the governor’s order. At still another church, a pastor encouraged people to greet each other and said that his Bible school was open because they’re “raising up revivalists, not pansies.” Watch:

In a more sophisticated (and cautious) context, First Things editor Rusty Reno critiqued Catholic dioceses for suspending public Masses and wrote that America should “keep the churches open”:

In truth, I am demoralized by the Catholic Church’s response to what Ephraim Radner calls “the Time of the Virus.” Those of us who live in densely populated areas are aware of the intense anxiety and fear that has become pervasive. The massive shutdown of just about everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs. St. Paul observed that Christ came to free us from our bondage to sin and death. This does not mean we will not sin or die. It means that we need not live in fear. .

Even within those churches that have chosen to comply with public health warnings and temporarily cancel services, there are rumblings of dissent and discontent. You see it all over social media. And whether sophisticated or simple, these impulses toward defiance are virtually all grounded in a similar question: Why should Christians surrender to fear? People of faith should reject the guidance of public officials. Our gatherings are different. After all, isn’t it true that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control”? 

Let’s go back to the two passages that began this newsletter. They both represent different conceptions of risk that help me work through the distinctions between recklessness, courage, and cowardice. The first set of verses represents the second of the three great temptations of Jesus as outlined in the book of Matthew. Satan demanded that Christ perform an ostentatious display of power and faith—that he throw himself from a great height to demonstrate his invulnerability. Yet Christ refused, declaring that such a ridiculous and ostentatious act would put God to the test.

There exists within Christianity a temptation to performative acts that masquerade as fearlessness. In reality, this recklessness represents—as the early church father John Chrysostom called it—“display and vainglory.” Look how fearless we are, we declare, as we court risks that rational people should shun. In the context of a global pandemic followers of Christ can actually become a danger to their fellow citizens, rather than a source of help and hope.

Or, put another way, reckless Christians can transform themselves from angels of mercy to angels of death, and the rest of the world would be right to fear their presence.

But just as Christ rejected performative displays, he also rejected cowardice. He demands sacrifice even unto death. Yet taking up one’s cross in imitation of Christ means engaging in purposeful sacrifice. This is the risk of the doctor or the nurse who possesses the courage to continually expose himself or herself to deadly disease to care for the sick and dying. This is the risk of the faithful believer who sheds personal protection to care for the least of these so that they are not alone.

And this person does not then walk into church or to church events—or even surround herself with her own family—to prove God’s divine protection. Were the men and women who were infected at a church event in Nashville not faithful Christians who were fearlessly serving the Lord? Yet one man’s infection still became their infection, and now dozens of people are paying a steep price.  

I know doctors who are separating themselves from their families. They’re treating this moment of crisis in much the same way that a soldier treats a deployment. The normal comforts of home are just not available. That’s not fear. In fact, they are fearless in their service. It’s prudence. They will not impute their personal risk to the men, women, and children in their family and community.

Veterans are instinctively familiar with the distinction between cowardice, courage, and recklessness. A combat operation requires a soldier to expose himself to extreme danger. The coward shuns his duty. The courageous man embraces the mission, yet he also wears body armor, often fights from armored vehicles, uses cover when he has it, and avails himself of as much air support and artillery support as he can. No one would call that “giving in to fear.” Instead, his caution is wise. It maximizes the combat power of the individual and helps retain the cohesion of the team.

There was a moment in my deployment when an officer violated every rule of safety and caution. In an ostentatious display of reckless physical risk, he ordered a subordinate to ride with him in an unarmored pickup truck down an “uncleared” road (an uncleared road was a road that hadn’t been swept clean of mines or improvised explosive devices). No one applauded his vainglory. They were livid at his carelessness. And he was instantly repentant. He knew what he had done. In spiritual terms, he had climbed to the top of the temple and cast himself off the edge. 

And what is our mission in this time? Shun performative recklessness. Do not presume that our faith makes us immune to the laws of biology and viral transmission. At the same time, believers should not shrink from purposeful and sacrificial personal risk. There may come a time when you must care for those who are sick. Do so without reservation, but do so prudently with the knowledge that you should not impute your risks to others. 

I’ll repeat Martin Luther’s admonition to Christians confronting the plague that I shared last week:

If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.

And lest we’re tempted to hold back rather than “go freely,” I want to end with a good word from a dear friend, an author and pastor named Curtis Chang. In the midst of a thoughtful email thread with friends about whether we are overreacting or under-reacting to the coronavirus (a terribly difficult question to answer), Curtis sent the message below. It impacted me, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since:

For myself, I'm realizing how much I still don't fully internalize the fundamental Christian message that we are supposed to preparing for in this season of Lent: that Christ has conquered death and we who follow him participate in the hope of resurrection. I'm trying to take every flare of anxiety within me as another part of my heart that hasn't quite been converted to that truth. I want to live this life truly anchored in that truth—to love, serve, lead, speak, communicate, care with that confidence. May God have mercy on me as I seek this.

The medievals—who lived through multiple plagues—had this artistic tradition for centuries. In almost every portrait, the artist would sneak in some small symbol of death (usually a skull tucked into the corner). It was called "Memento Mori"—"Think on death."  These portraits were usually commissioned by wealthy merchants (the only ones who could afford a portrait) and the paintings usually celebrated their wealth and prosperity. Yet, the artistic tradition of "Memento Mori" was saying, "Don't be an idiot—this is the fate that faces all of us. Think on this. Think hard."

Covid-19 is like that—a small "Memento Mori" inserted into the corner of great prosperity and comfort. It is the skull that is warning us, "Think on this. Think hard."

One last thing ... 

Lots of folks dismiss Christian praise music, and I get it. Sometimes the lyrics are shallow. Sometimes the appeal to heart over head is just too blunt. But there’s a lot that’s so good, including direct declarations that God is with us, and it is indeed well with our soul: