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Lethal infectious threat to human life has been worse than this. Much, much worse. Other pandemics and more geographically contained epidemics have taken the lives of higher percentages of populations than COVID-19 has so far.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. One year later, on March 11, 2021, the 2.65 million of the world’s 7.8 billion people who had died from COVID-19 comprised only 0.03%* of the world’s population. According to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, in the United States, 0.16%* had lost their lives. In Canada, 0.05%* had. Thankfully, we now have the medical science to understand the virus, the vaccines to combat it, and the communication technologies to inform and direct people. Together, these have kept mortality rates historically low. It was not always so.
Christians in History
The most recent pandemic to which the current crisis is conventionally compared is the H1N1 flu of 1918–1920, when 3–5% of the world’s population died. The 1665 Great Plague of London killed 20% of its population. The well-known Black Death of 1546–1553 wiped out 40–50% of Europe’s population. Before that, two epidemics radically reconfigured the Roman Empire. Between 165 and 180 C.E., about 30% of the people in the Empire died from what might have been the first appearance of smallpox. Then in 251 C.E., 5,000 people per day reportedly died in the city of Rome from what might have been measles.
In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark (1996) details the sharply contrasting response of pagans and Christians to those two epidemics during the Roman Empire. While pagans pushed the ill away and fled the cities, still-healthy Christians stayed and cared for sick and dying Christians and pagans alike, many at the cost of their own lives. Their radically social ethic called them beyond a merely self-interested exchange between humans, in astonishing contrast to the pagan religion of the time.
Stark went on to calculate and document the comparative mortality rates that ensued as Christians developed immunity, and subsequently superior survival rates. The net result was a larger proportion of Christians in the population and a spike in conversions to Christianity, due to pagans increasingly aligning with the Christians who had risked their lives to nurse them. A century later, the emperor Julian launched a campaign to have pagans emulate the charity and benevolence of Christians, which created what some historians have termed an informal social welfare state.
The Rise of the Individual
However, as Christianity evolved in concert with Western culture, its ethics became ever more individualistic. The Protestant Reformation provided the doctrinal basis for focus on the self, the Enlightenment provided the cultural basis for focus on the self, and modern Christianity embraced and celebrated the self. This modern social construction of the liberal, autonomous individual casts the self as the primary reality, having priority over the community. As such, community becomes merely the contractual relationships that individuals enter to advance their various self-interests.
Today, we even have a minority of Christians denying any social responsibilities amid a pandemic far less lethal than those faced by early Christians. Defiantly they declare it their individual personal right and collective public duty to gather for worship, no matter that it irrefutably endangers others. It is their God-given human right, they claim, to exercise their personal freedom of religion as they now feel called, and to meet their personal needs by indulging their personal desire for “community.” Flouting what they deem to be Big Brother’s social control, they claim a higher calling in full accord with the Western cultural value of the human right of freedom, especially the freedom of religion. How dare anyone argue or act against that, they demand to know.
Whether such arguments or actions are normative or deviant in any particular locale, they are at least cause to pause for deeper reflection. True, freedom often appears at the top of compilations of current Western cultural values. But what can happen when we absolutize personal freedom and hold it as an unqualified good? More specifically, what has already happened when freedom of religion has been exercised at the expense of the well-being and very lives of people at least since the principle was written into the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791?
Personal Freedom and Social Responsibility
To illustrate the point, if my personal freedom is absolute, suppose I summon my friends to meet me on Main Street in their vehicles to enjoy some drag races down that main strip in town. The standard distance of a drag race is one quarter mile (plus deceleration), so any intervening traffic lights and speed limits be damned! After all, traffic laws are a form of government oppression. I have my rights, my freedom to do what I think would lift the downtrodden spirits of my personal circle during this pandemic. If others are frightened and feel endangered, that’s their problem. If someone gets hurt, the health care system will take care of them.
This, in effect, is what protesters of pandemic protocols proclaim: all laws, codes, and regulations that protect people at some cost to other people are tyrannical. And therein lie two core problems with absolutizing the human right of personal freedom. First, many human rights neutralize each other when they conflict. In my home country’s Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, freedom of religion (Section 2) does not automatically take precedence over the right to life, liberty, and security of person (Section 7). Second, personal rights must always be balanced with equal social responsibilities. In our individualistic Western culture, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights has effectively entrenched personal human rights, but we have yet to find a similar way to embed empathetic human responsibilities as their desperately needed complement.
‘Look Not to Your Own Interests’
At its root, Christian defiance of best social practices in this pandemic is merely one manifestation of the conflation of Christianity with modern individualistic culture, a combination that has over recent centuries deeply shaped Western Christianity, to its peril. In its refusal to look “not to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:4), it is the degenerateness of entitlement, self-gratification, and eros (erotic love), not the righteousness of humility, self-sacrifice, and agape (sacrificial love).
To the extent it is also pervasive in multiple arenas of public life, it is also a profound embarrassment to Christianity. Prioritizing personal power over principle in politics, prioritizing personal consumption over empathy in economics, and prioritizing personal pleasure over sustainability in ecology are only a few further manifestations of the same sorry sentiment. It was not so in the early church. Together, all these manifestations of current self-centeredness represent the rampant egoism and loss of community with which Western individualists now live.
If this pandemic is “an opportunity for a reset,” as Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau suggested to the United Nations, then the most comprehensive and now urgent reset is a rejection of our current cultural norm of short-term self-interest, and a return to long-term collective interest. If, instead of being complicit with the cultural scourge of short-term self-interest, Christians would again lead the way in prioritizing social responsibilities over personal rights, it could serve as a counter to the potential “fall of Christianity” in the global North already evidently in process. And while we seek to alleviate this physical pandemic, we should seize the opportunity to also assuage deeper, graver cultural pandemics such as political devolution, free-market capitalism, and climate crisis, each their own consequence of short-term self-interest.
Meanwhile, there remains a time for everything (Eccl. 3), a time for love and a time for hate, a time for war and a time for peace, a time for civil obedience and a time for civil disobedience. This acute physical pandemic is no time for Christian civil disobedience. These chronic cultural pandemics are.
*Note of correction: These numbers have been corrected from the earlier version of this article. Corrections were made July 19, 2021.