(Sightings) William Lawrence–Pandemic Piety: What is proper piety in the season of COVID-19?

What is the proper piety during a pandemic? Should believers gather for prayer, embrace others in the community of faith, and prophesy to the government that it cannot order people with the religious protections of the First Amendment to quit assembling? Or should believers love their neighbors with such spiritual devotion that they decide to prioritize their health and safety over their own liberty by foregoing assemblies and gatherings for public prayers until it is clear that their neighbors’ lives—especially the most vulnerable among them, the elderly and immunocompromised—will not be jeopardized by the virus?

Methodists, my faith family, have affirmed for nearly three hundred years the “General Rules” that the movement’s founder John Wesley authorized for his disciplined group. The first one of the three General Rules is “Do No Harm.” Its specifications include “avoiding evil” and “avoiding… needless self-indulgence.” The coronavirus cannot be seen without powerful microscopes or heard unless one hears the coughing that it can cause. But it is “evil.” It is a source of suffering and death. For Methodists, then, it is to be avoided. And the best way to avoid it is to limit interpersonal contact and physical proximity. It is a wise word for non-Methodists, too.

People who arrogantly insist on their right to assemble with others who share the religious delusion about spiritual protection from the virus are engaging in needlessly self-indulgent forms of behavior. They are doing harm to themselves and, potentially, to others.

In the Hebrew scriptures, when Elisha was called to help a family with a dying child (2 Kings 4), he went into the house and closed the door. In the New Testament, when Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray (Matthew 6), he told them to go into the room and shut the door. The current pandemic is a good time for people who honor a great prophet or who heed the word of the Lord from Jesus to take their advice. Stop the public gatherings for a while. Go back into the house. And pray.

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