Individualism and the gospel during a pandemic

Judges 21:25 In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.I was sick this past weekend and it got me thinking. Naturally, me and COVID-19 were on my mind but it was not the main thing. As I lay there in bed, I guess my biggest thought is that I believe this pandemic is both similar to and, at the same time, unlike anything the world has ever seen so far. As a student of history, I have done a fair amount of reading and research on plagues since this virus broke out around America in March. What history shows as similar to the present are the topics of “social distancing” and “stay-at-home” orders. This is not new! During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, just like today, stay-at-home orders were routinely enacted in major cities across the United States and the world. During the fifteen year long Galen Antoine plague of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the late second century BC, whole cities evacuated into the countryside to try and escape contagion. The polio virus hit the US with devastating force in the late 1950s, closing pools, beaches, movie theaters and playgrounds because of fears that it was waterborne and that children were most at risk. For the plagues of the Bible and during medieval times, “social distancing” involved throwing bodies on the street away from homes, and physically staying away from any person or household suspected of infection (this would include withholding food and medical attention — just like today in some places). And I would be remiss not to mention some “minor” epidemics that have hit North America and different parts of the world just during my lifetime: SARS, bird flu, HIV/AIDS, MERS, Ebola, West Nile virus, and anthrax. These examples from other eras of national and international crises show that people have acted similarly under similar circumstances. A lot of this is not “new” nor are the ways they are being handled.

But perhaps the greatest difference for what I’ve seen so far is exactly that last point: how things are being handled. In a word, I am speaking of how both persons as individuals and nations as autonomous independent states are responding to and dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. As a header for this article, I quoted a famous verse from the Old Testament book of Judges which many are familiar with: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The verse came to mind because all fifty US states have begun reopening in one way or another this week, even as the rest of the world does the same. Easing back to some new form of normalcy has become the goal. But everyone is doing it differently. As a recent Washington Post article noted (link below): “The data clearly shows that when Americans were told it was time to stay home, most people did. It also indicates that they are deciding for themselves when to go back out.” This last sentence is telling, especially since the reporters were basing their conclusions on hard data rather than personal opinion. The data in the article shows that reopening has become a somewhat subjective, even personal, decision where, indeed, everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes, “they are deciding for themselves.”

Share of time spent at home – Source: Washington Post

Is this wrong? Or is it unavoidable? Many have placed blame and pointed fingers for this pandemic on different persons, nations, or circumstances. In my peer group, I have good friends on both sides of the divide so I will not go there in this article. What I am more interested in here is looking at late May 2020 from a perspective not often addressed. This is because, as I mentioned above, we seem to be handling this pandemic differently from some of the other eras I cited above. The answer seems to come down to the first part of the verse. I quoted the well known part, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”, but the first part of the verse is important, too: “In those days, there was no king in Israel.” This verse is quoted verbatim twice in the book of Judges, in 17:6 and 21:25. The latter is significant because it is literally the last sentence in the book of Judges, and choosing to end a book in this way is quite impactful. But both verses come in the context of lawlessness and a lack of leadership or direction for the people of Israel as a whole. In Judges, chapter seventeen, the house of Micah created their own priesthood, complete with a shrine, ephod and household idols(!). In chapter twenty one, the tribe of Benjamin had a free-for-all kidnapping the daughters of Shiloh as their brides to be. In both of these chapters, the same verse is repeated: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.“ Interestingly, Judges 18:31 links Micah to Shiloh.

While understanding that the epicenter of our current dilemma originates from China and what happened there, I am more interested in how we are dealing with it now. And when I use the phrase, “there was no king”, do not think a person. Think authority. I’m talking about cultural perspectives and cultural influences here. So, rather than singling out a leader, a system or political party, I will say that I believe the strong culprit at fault for our present confusion and for some of the misguided actions taking place, according to “what is right in our own sight”, is individualism, the kind of individualism permitted under a democracy where the people rule through elected leaders, as well as the individualism or, better, sovereignty that a given country exercises in deciding how it will govern its people, particularly in a pandemic like what, literally, the whole world is now experiencing. This unique strain of individualism on a personal and collective scale is what separates the COVID-19 pandemic from other historic plagues over the ages, in my view. There is so much personal choice, opinion and rights present in the current conversation — whether by individual human beings or by “tribes”, as well as by the national entities we call “countries” — that “there is no king.” No one is in charge, so to speak, and everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes. There is “scientific evidence” on both sides of the debate. “Experts” disagree and throw data and examples at each other. And everyone thinks they are on the side of “right” and doing for their own selves or their own nation what is best. This is problematic, at best. But, again, is this wrong or is it unavoidable under the present circumstance?

Spread of COVID-19 – Source: Johns Hopkins

Let me go back to my own example. In terms of the illness itself, whatever it was, I was laid out for most of the weekend. I have only felt better the last couple days. I’m probably at 85-90% of my normal health at the time of this writing. My presenting symptoms have some resemblance to what I’ve read on some of the coronavirus-type manifestations. But, they are not all or most of the common ones. Actually, what I went through was similar to what I’ve felt and experienced when I’ve been sick before. In other words, it was a “typical” kind of illness for me. I didn’t go to the doctor. Even if I had tried to, she already told me during a well care checkup right before the lockdown that she wouldn’t have taken me. And it is my understanding that I probably wouldn’t have been able to get a test at a hospital anyway under the present circumstances because my case was not severe. I also seem to be in recovery already. So, what have I done? I self-diagnosed. I made decisions and choices on my own based on the information I had and the situation presented to me. I did my best under the current situation because there was no other choice left. In a very ironic way, I had to do what was right in my own eyes. Even though I didn’t want to. I shouldn’t have had to self-diagnose but that indeed is what I did. I think that’s what’s going on our world, too. Extrapolate what I just shared to issues debated in congress or how countries are dealing with coronavirus differently from the United States. They’re bigger and more far-reaching but the same, as I did with my own illness. That is how I am interpreting Judges 17:6 and 21:25 for today.

Fauci says reopening too soon could backfire – Source: Boston Globe

We still don’t have a definitive solution or even a clear direction although there is much to hope for. There are still too many unknowns. And not enough time has passed. Some attempts have been made in this area but because there is neither a singular, strong, united effort, whether by individuals or by nations, for leadership, some have fallen back into partisan politics, unnecessary debates (theological ones, too!) or even violent or vindictive actions as a means to an end. I do not condone these in any way yet, on a certain level, it is actually understandable because no one completely “gets” (understands) coronavirus either. And everyone IS doing what is right in THEIR own eyes. Why? Because no one really knows. No one has certainty. No one has a sure solution. So, we have to “punt” but with the appearance of “confidence.” Yet, many don’t like that kind of ambivalence, which is why “taking sides” or “presenting proof” is so appealing. As CNN put it (link below): people “prize personal freedoms, limited government and free will over all else.” Certainly, I am guilty of going there, too. However, if I/we are humble and honest about this, we must admit that it is all too early to draw lines or take sides at this point in time. At least that is my take on the matter.

I have left the most important part until now. Having said everything I’ve said, the crux of all this is, how am I to respond as a Christian? What about us, as believers? Proverbs 29:18 reads, “where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law.” We run unrestrained when vision is not clear. The Hebrew word actually says, “revelation”, which implies a direct word from God. Yet, we have that now, with the Bible. “Keeping the law” here means obeying the teachings of scripture, the Old Testament in this context but we Christians also have the blessing of the New Testament, too. What direction does the Bible give when everyone, including we ourselves(!), does what is right in their/our own eyes?

  1. Clearly, we are to obey the government as long as it does not conflict with our beliefs as Christians (Rom 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; Hebrews 13:17). One thing notable about the book of Judges is that the people of God had themselves strayed away from God. They rejected Moses, then Joshua, then every God-given authority raised up by God Himself. For this reason, God raised up “judges,” earthly authorities who stood in the place of God to both deliver and govern the errant children of Israel. And if you read Judges you will see that it is a comedy of errors as they repeat the pattern again and again of rejecting God-given authority then begging for it to be restored.
  2. We are to exercise charity, grace, and kindness to the weaker brother (Romans 14). For some, the weaker brother or sister may be someone who refuses to wear a mask. For others it may be someone who insists on staying home longer than the government requires. In either case, we need to exercise the attributes of Christ toward each other, not condemnation or ridicule (Colossians 3:12-17). The Gospel Coalition has released two outstanding articles on how Christians should live in a coronavirus age. Links below.
  3. Finally, just as the body of Christ is diverse in its giftings, functions and roles as the church (1 Corinthians 12:4-7), so I believe that we can apply this same principle to the way that we look at and deal with the world. What I tried to highlight in what I shared above is that different individuals, different systems, even different countries, handle the same thing (COVID-19) in different ways. It can be said that these realities have likely impacted the way in which the virus has affected or not affected these nations. Culture informs practice, just like political convictions inform practice. But it does not always means that there is a right or a wrong way. It can sometimes just mean difference, too. That’s all, and that should be OK. NPR did a fascinating piece on how different countries responded to the virus based on their cultures. We are seeing this in the US as well with how various state cultures (not only if they are red or blue) are responding. In the same way, individual Christians and churches are making very different, very difficult, decisions on these same issues. As believers, it is incumbent upon us to work with our leaders, our legislatures, and our own convictions as honestly and as humbly as possible. This is really the time and place where we are to exercise our faith, isn’t it? (Hebrews 11:1, 6)

In this brave new world where everyone does what is right on their own eyes, the way forward is uncharted but it is also full of Him. It is in the direction of Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, we must advance because He alone is our surest point of reference.

LINKS mentioned in the article above: