One of the most interesting things about the COVID-19 crisis is watching the way people have responded to it. For example, last night before I went to bed, I checked the news one last time and saw a brief Facebook video of a couple that had two shopping carts full of meat products. There are three reasons that could explain the purchasing of such an immense amount of meat. First, despite the ban on gatherings of 250 people or more they have decided to host a massive church BBQ and they are providing the meat products (a likely reason to see someone buying copious amounts of meat). Secondly, they are the local zookeepers and need to feed the lions (less likely, but plausible). Lastly, they are stocking up on food supplies in case things pan out like Mad Max Fury Road (the most unlikely scenario, but most plausible explanation). Unfortunately this is the new normal. In the past week stores have been completely cleaned out of toilet paper, hand soap, Clorox wipes, and other supplies.
The other response takes the complete opposite road. This is the response that pretends, regardless of government warnings and restrictions, that nothing of significance is happening. I read an op-ed the other day which essentially was arguing that the seasonal flu has killed more people this year than COVID-19 so what’s all the fuss about? Again there are three potential reasons for this type of response. First, maybe the person had been on a camping trip without internet or cell service and thus failed to grasp the weight of what was happening in the world when they returned (unlikely, but possible). Second, maybe they were extremely excited about the BBQ their church had planned and don’t want it cancelled (this would explain the videos of people purchasing meat products en masse). Third, they wish to remain blissfully ignorant of the problems in the world so that they can avoid the harsh realities that we are presented with (the most plausible explanation).
Here’s the problem; both of these responses come from a place of fear.
Panicking at the first sign of trouble and driving toilet paper prices up tenfold is a result of fear. Fear that we won’t have the supplies we need. Fear that we won’t be prepared. Fear that we will be the last ones to the supermarket, and everything will be gone. But ignorant bliss in the face of trouble and acting as if nothing is wrong is also a result of fear. Fear that the world may look different than the way we thought it would. Fear that our comfortable lifestyles may need to change. Fear that the social institutions we hold dear, like Church, may have to close their doors for a bit. The first is allowing fear to work us all up into a frenzied state of activity. The second is allowing fear to numb us completely into passivity.
Unfortunately, it’s likely that we will see more and more of our friends and family members fall into one of these two responses. Who knows, maybe you have succumbed to one of these responses or, potentially, even both. Personally, I feel as if I have been oscillating between the two. At some moments I find myself completely overcome with a desire to get supplies (frozen pizzas) and at other moments I find myself tempted to completely ignore the new reality that has set in all around me. This may be the new normal that we need to get used to. Which raises the question; how should we respond in this new reality?
Well, let me begin by saying that we can’t fall into the temptation to perpetually swing between panic and ignorance. Rather, we need to reclaim the old Christian virtue of courage.
By courage I do not mean the way we attribute it to people in movies. When we look at the characters of all the major blockbusters, oftentimes we would say they are “courageous.” We see Bruce Willis jump from a helicopter or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson leap from a burning building and we think that is courage. We think that courage is the complete absence of fear. We think that courage is a pulling up of the bootstraps and jumping off that building completely unafraid. It’s being the knight in shining armour that charges a dragon, emotionally unaffected at the sight of the horrible beast. But this isn’t what courage is.
Courage is not the absence of fear but knowing how to act wisely in the presence of it.
In the book The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis takes up the voice of a demon named Screwtape who is writing letters about how to best deceive people. And in that book he writes this about courage,
“This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s [God’s] motives for creating a dangerous world – a world in which moral issues really come to point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”1 (emphasis mine)
In other words courage is not something that is independent. Courage is only shown in love, or mercy, or honesty. Courage is shown when doing the loving thing may be risky to self. Courage is shown when being honest may mean you lose some benefit you would have gained. Courage is shown when mercy means you disadvantage yourself for the sake of the other.
Hopefully it can be seen how this is drastically different than the other two responses to fearful situations. Courage means that before we buy all the meat products from a supermarket that we stop and think of the person who just got laid off and now needs to eat without a salary. Imagine being laid off from your job and going to an empty grocery store: horrific. Courage means that we don’t bury our head in the sand and continue to shake elderly people’s hands just because we think this is unnecessary “hysteria.” Rather, we face reality head on and continue to show love to these people by acting in accordance to our social duty to protect the weak and by not abandoning them to complete isolation.
Courage is the Christian response to fear. It is the testing point of all of our virtues. Fearlessness is not the goal, nor is fearfulness, but courage. And we have a good reason to be courageous, the hope of Jesus Christ. Unlike the stockpilers and the virus deniers we can look this situation in the eye knowing that our king is the true King of the universe who has been exalted to the right hand of the Father, ruling and reigning forever. That one day everything will be made right by his hand and that we will dwell with him for all eternity. And it’s when we realize this that we can be people who are shaped by the courageous love of Jesus for others.
Don’t be naïve. When your neighbour sees you unload 50 boxes of Clorox wipes from the trunk of your car it says something to them about the God you believe in. That he’s weak. And when your neighbour sees you gathering in groups and refusing to social distance it says something about the God you believe in. That’s he’s apathetic to the needs of others. Instead have courage, and this will be evidence to people of the God you know.
“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” – Philippians 4:5