How to celebrate Easter during a pandemic
This weekend, many millions of Christians around the country will celebrate Easter — a holiday that commemorates Jesus rising from the dead. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and official "stay at home" orders in many states, some expect to observe the occasion the way they usually do: by worshipping together in a church.
That's a problem. It will make the work of "flattening the curve" of coronavirus cases more difficult, which means there are just a few days left to convince worshippers that it's OK to celebrate Easter — but that they should do it safely, at home, either with their families or using online tools in order to create a digital version of their church communities.
But how? The answer is not to mock the values of conservative Christians, but to point out how those values can and should align with the greater public good.
In my home state of Kansas, authorities this week identified three clusters of coronavirus outbreaks tied to church gatherings. Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, on Tuesday ordered church gatherings be limited to no more than 10 people. Senior members of the Republican-controlled legislature rebelled on Wednesday, overturning her order on religious freedom grounds — even as the state's death toll jumped sharply.
"The governor should not use this crisis, or any other crisis, as a basis to restrict our constitutional rights," Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle (R) said in a statement.
Authorities are thus worried, rightly, that a holiday meant to celebrate new life instead will endanger the lives of all involved — and harm efforts to slow the spread of the global pandemic.
"If we go lax at this critical juncture, lots of people will get sick very quickly," the state's top health official warned.
It's not just Kansas. While most American Christians have altered their Sunday morning schedules to worship at home in recent weeks, many churches across the country have continued to meet as usual — some out of theological conviction, others out of a defiant belief that government should be given no quarter to infringe on the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion. The result? In New York, a landlord changed the locks on a church to stop services from being held. In Florida and Louisiana, pastors have been arrested for defying emergency orders.
The tension between worship and public health has become a flashpoint in the country's culture wars, in which even a global pandemic cannot induce a temporary ceasefire. That's unfortunate and unhelpful. The result is a temptation among health officials and more secular-minded people to get angry at those who plan to gather this weekend. Right now, though, a better and more effective response might involve a little compassion and some thoughtful theology.
For many people, after all, religion is a core part of their identity — and the foundation of their belief systems. There is a reason that freedom to worship is among the very first rights guaranteed by the Constitution. And Easter isn't just any holiday. If you're a believer, it represents the very reason the Christian religion exists in the first place. Even people whose faith has lapsed often find their way back into a church to celebrate the holiday with their families and congregations. To lose access to that tradition will be devastating for many people.
But believers should choose to skip church this weekend, anyway.
If you're a Christian, you worship a figure who often chose doing the right thing over fulfilling his religious obligations. Scriptures describe Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, over the objections of religious authorities of the day. He said it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath — and that "wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them."
Well, it is good to avoid endangering the lives of your fellow citizens and churchgoers. And thanks to technology, two or three — or more — can "gather" at a distance, whether by phone or video chat. Is it as satisfying as being in the same place? No. But this year, it should be sufficient.
Arrest reports aside, law enforcement officials will likely be hesitant to crack down on churches celebrating this Easter Sunday. There aren't many elected officials who will want arresting pastors on their record. So it will be up to churches and churchgoers to police their own actions. Hopefully they will remember that Americans of all stripes — secular and religious — have made sacrifices during this crisis. And then, God willing, they'll stay home.
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