And there it was.
An Edmonton, Alberta church was closed by the health department and the building fenced off. Separated to ensure the health of the community. It’s now officially a big, hairy, self-inflicted deal.
Of course it had to happen. Authorities went out of their way to exercise restraint but the church’s blatant flaunting of public health forced their hand. Not surprisingly, some are already calling it persecution which translates into more publicity and people sending money.
It began with the jailing of the pastor awhile ago “…on two counts of contravening the Public Health Act and on one criminal charge for failing to comply with a condition of an undertaking.” (CBC)
My thoughts? Well, it is another exciting piece of evidence that reinforces what I have been feeling for awhile. Can you feel it too?
Never mind, I’ll come back to that later. Let’s ramble first (you might want to grab a snack, this is a long one).
church in here
A quick glance at the church’s website shows they are a typical evangelical congregation, active in the usual assortment of churchy things. The site opens with a pop-up letter explaining their position on Covid-19 health measures in light of recent publicity. It is written in simple but confident jargon, and naturally concludes with an invitation to salvation – because we shouldn’t fear death…
They dispute the science, challenge the term ‘pandemic’, and consider the lockdown to be about government control more than theology or public safety. It also reveals that they do most of their researching, testing, etc. internally.
In fairness, I have no idea about this pastor’s heart or the motivations of church members but my guess is they are generally sincere. I know the church fairly well, even though I’ve never been there; I know the pastor, though I’ve never met him; I know the sermons, even though I’ve only listened to one on YouTube.¹
Before the pastor’s release the judge stated flatly, “You don’t get to make that decision for everyone else, and your decisions could have affected the health and safety of so many of your fellow citizens … It is an issue when someone makes a decision that can affect the health and the lives of thousands of people.”
Just a few days ago, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders (who also value their faith gatherings) added their voices to the many other churches and community leaders asking this church to abide by health regulations for the sake of their city.
All while a third wave is filling the local ICUs.
in other news
In other news, Zachary Root, a student in the accounting program at Fleming College died after contracting a variant of Covid-19 (see here). By all accounts Zachary was extremely diligent with his personal safety and refused to attend the illegal parties that were happening around him. He died on March 15 shortly after 59 of the partiers in the residence tested positive.
Root’s brother Brandon, was generous in saying, “’We acknowledge that the partygoers had no malicious intent toward my brother.” Intentions aside, Zachary Root died because unrelated groups of people were consumed with their own interests.
I know it’s not a fair comparison, but do you see where I’m going with this?
We still don’t know why Covid-19 attacks some people more brutally than others. But it does, across every demographic. We have family members who are at higher risk because of compromised immune systems; some of you do too. And so do many Albertans and Edmontonians.
I admit this pandemic is complicated and fluid, and it has likely been mis-managed in numerous ways. But if we have even a theoretical ability to protect others simply by wearing masks and distancing, what’s wrong with exercising inconvenient caution? And anyway, Jesus people are asked to go above and beyond.
those darn christians
For decades church people have been bombarded with insider propaganda alleging that science, culture and liberals are plotting against christianity. So it’s a small step to believe that public health restrictions are an attack on worship.
But if there is any persecution around here, it’s because so many christians are wacky. (Have you seen the thousands of people who are angrily posting the Lord’s Prayer on Facebook because Facebook won’t let them post the Lord’s Prayer on Facebook? Think about it.)
The Sermon of Cyprian describes how the early christians responded to a pandemic in the early AD 250s: they were to pray, nurse their fellow christians, and do the same for their neighbours and enemies. In Alan Kreider’s excellent book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church we are given a detailed picture of how the first christians patiently accepted their loss of rights yet lived quiet, generous lives.
Although they were a persecuted minority, the christians weren’t known for complaining because … get ready for it … their Lord was risen, he was with them, and they belonged to his kingdom, not this earthly one! So what more could they possibly need?
They were truly ‘salt and light’, to use the words of Jesus, and became a sweet aroma to the world around them. It wasn’t complacency, it was love.
That is not true of many christian churches today. I don’t know the details here but in many cases health officials have been barred from entering while worshipers blatantly ignored public health inside. (I can’t help but wonder how police and health officials feel while they are doing their jobs and getting berated by pew-sitters.)
Nevertheless the church in question remains unrepentant because, in the words of his lawyer, the pastor’s “… first obedience is to his Lord.”
saint Peter defence
Appealing to the Saint Peter defence from the last half of Acts 5 (‘we must obey God rather than men’ ) is dramatic and covers a lot of ground but it’s not clear to me why some churches feel that is the case here. We can only assume they believe it’s God’s will to meet in dangerously crowded buildings every Sunday (suggesting God has run out of important things to care about).
They seem to presume it is some kind of sin for them to skip meeting together each week. If that’s the case they need a new definition of sin. And millions of underprivileged christians around the world are sinning when they meet in homes, parks, patios, coffee shops, bars, under trees, and on beaches. (Wait, church on a beach?)
There are a couple more tidbits to understand about the Saint Peter defence. First of all, it wasn’t so much a defence as it was the Apostle’s statement of personal conviction – they weren’t defending, they were still teaching! But more importantly, consider why they were jailed. It wasn’t for ignoring the health of the public (they were healing the sick), and it wasn’t because their public worship was inconvenienced (christians would meet in homes for the next 300+ years).
The Apostles were jailed for ignoring the religious authorities, not the Roman authorities. They were jailed for telling their neighbours that Jesus, who was killed on a cross, was now alive and well. They were jailed for teaching about a new era of inner peace and eternal life though the Holy Spirit. They were jailed for loving Jesus more than their old religious ways.
how we think
It was a narrow, twisted view of the world, really.
Each year there were some in our church who participated in a community event to raise money for cancer research. These were typically scheduled on a Sunday, so there would be predictable absences from church that particular weekend. It is an awkward thing for a small church when regular attenders are absent and I can recall feeling some annoyance on those days.
Then one year it struck me: doing good in the community was exactly what they should be doing! Christians should be living generous, helpful lives among our neighbours; we should be making a difference any way we can.
The church exists to spread the love of God in all sorts of practical, meaningful ways. And really, isn’t raising money for cancer research a cool way to do it? That’s quite a change in worldview for a bred, born, raised-in-the-church evangelical.
Have you ever wondered why churches don’t pay property tax or why they can issue receipts for donations? Well, it’s because a long time ago christian people pressured the government for it… But there’s a bigger reason: churches are presumed to provide a greater good to the community by helping the needy and sharing programs that contribute to overall health, morality, and well being.
Is that true today? Do we benefit our neighbourhoods enough to justify the tax dollars not generated? Tax dollars the rest of the community has to generate from elsewhere. How would our communities change if our churches weren’t there? Sadly, most communities wouldn’t be affected at all.
How sad that churches spend so many resources doing self-important work. How unfortunate that people go to church out of habit, or guilt, or to get a quick injection of faith for the week. It exposes how shallow our spiritual roots really are.
You know that child who pouts and throws a tantrum because she/he didn’t get every Christmas gift they wanted? Doing every single thing we feel like doing during a pandemic feels, well … let’s call it privileged.
not an end
During the pandemic, the vast majority of pastors and churches have continued to worship, sing, pray, read their bibles, share sacraments, care for the hurting and needy, even meeting together to worship (in church, on line, in drive-ins, parking lots, and small groups).
There are many, many things worth going to jail for but meeting in a building is not one of them, and we shouldn’t pretend it is. The Church doesn’t happen on Sunday, it happens whenever and wherever there are people of God.
Sorry, but limiting our crowds for the greater health of the community (whether you agree or not) is actually the christian thing to do. The church exists to serve others, not to preserve itself. Or to say it more succinctly, the church is not an end in itself.
It’s not a place for people to hide and be holy. It’s not a self-serving cult, peeking out at the reckless, feckless world through stained glass windows. The church doesn’t exist to grow(!) or give us feel-goods(!!) because those are things God does. Instead, the Church exists to be God’s senses – the eyes, ears, hands, feet, voice, aroma to everyone he loves.
The christian story has always been filled with the anguished loss of the old and the joyful birth of the new. That’s why, I gotta tell yah … I am really excited about the future of the Christian faith!
I mean, can you feel it? Can you feel the fear and defensiveness of fundamentalist beliefs? Do you see how their inverted morals and values are biting back? Can you sense that the seams of the old wine skins are separating, and new wine skins are ready to be filled?
Evangelicalism is in trouble. It is stooped and creaky because so much of it has surrendered to power and greed. And that is exciting news for anybody who loves Jesus and the kingdom of God.
Okay, I can see I need to explain. We’ll talk next time.
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¹ Yes, I sat through (only one) hour long YouTube sermon explaining the pastor’s theological position on church and government. Predictably, I squirmed through most of it as I listened to a predictable course of assumptions that should not be assumed. All in all a pretty convincing sermon for people who are regularly fed pretty convincing sermons.