To the Church in Quarantine:
Another challenging lesson from Skye Jethani today, whose With God Daily devotional is a must-read. Please consider signing up to receive these stimulating insights to start each day by going here. Here’s Skye:
William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, tells the story of a group of English schoolboys stranded on a tropical island after a plane crash. Following initial attempts to maintain order, the boys eventually succumb to savagery. The novel isn’t merely about the cruelty of adolescent boys, but the evil we are all capable of displaying when social structures disappear. Lord of the Flies reveals civilization’s fragility and the persistent fact of human depravity it attempts to constrain.
It’s easy to dismiss Golding’s book as a parable; an extreme situation to communicate an important lesson. But if we believe a breakdown in civil order isn’t actually possible, then we haven’t studied our history. Following natural disasters or in wartime, we often focus on the inspiring stories of neighbors helping each other and strangers showing kindness to those in need. Who can forget the way normally brash New Yorkers tenderly supported each other amid the rubble at Ground Zero on 9/11, or the way communities across the country welcomed those displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005?
Recently, columnist David Brooks noted how this common response to catastrophes doesn’t hold true for pandemics because unlike storms, earthquakes, or even wars, in a pandemic it’s unclear who or what is the real threat. One journal from the 1665 plague in London reported, “This was a time when everyone’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distress of others. … The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.” After surveying responses to plagues throughout history, Brooks concluded that pandemics don’t just kill people, they also kill compassion.
The reason is clear. When the cost of kindness is determined to be too high, many people simply refuse to pay it. When our safety is in clear jeopardy, that’s when generosity, decency, and the common good get pushed aside and survival is used to justify any evil. Fear is the enemy of civility. But that is precisely when divine love stands apart from all others. Mere human love is transactional; it gives in order to receive. As Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have. Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
The real test comes when we choose to love without reciprocity, or when loving another will result in our harm. Heavenly love persists when the structures of society fall, when the supermarket shelves are empty, and when the markets crash. Divine love even continues when those you are serving would seek your harm. It’s the same love that led Jesus to pray from the cross, “Father, forgive them.” The true mark of Christian love isn’t revealed merely when we have nothing to gain, but precisely when we have everything to lose.
Grace and peace!