As we continue to wade through the coronavirus quarantine, doubts, fears and opinions continue to grow stronger. When this happens, rhetoric also grows stronger. When rhetoric grows stronger, people begin to make statements of hyperbole and polarization. And when this happens, the danger that we will communicate something that we don’t actually think becomes great. To avoid communicating something we do not actually think, I suggest we think before we speak.
I know the statement “think before you speak” is not a direct scriptural quotation, but I think it is a legitimate extrapolation of many biblical teachings. For example:
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James 1:19-20).
The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18).
Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin (Proverbs 13:13).
The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered (Proverbs 17:27).
So, what are the circumstances that currently call for thought? What fears, specifically, are driving sloppy rhetoric? The Covid 19 virus, according to the latest official estimates, has claimed the lives of nearly 70,000 Americans. While some would say these numbers are too high, and others would say they are too low, there is no debate that this virus is killing people. Many are in fear for their lives. Especially those in high risk demographics like the elderly and the chronically ill. Many have lost loved ones, and many fear for the lives of loved ones. Many fear that the death toll will be much higher if the quarantine ends too soon. This concern resonates deeply with me because my wife is chronically ill, and thus in a high risk category.
Others fear that an extended quarantine threatens large scale economic disaster. To glibly dismiss this concern would be ludicrous. While it is difficult to predict exactly how bad the damage will be, it will be significant. Many face unemployment, loss of businesses, loss of homes, hunger, and the list could go on. Many fear the damage that will be done if the quarantine goes on too long. This danger resonates with me as well. As the pastor of a small church, my function as CEO of the corporation has been put into high gear as I scramble to navigate the waters of our church weathering this storm. I might add that,, many times in my life, I have been unemployed or under employed, and unable to provide for my wife and I’s basic needs. These concerns are real in the United States, and in the third world the concerns accelerate to fears of mass starvation.
Many other fears could be cited, such as overarching government authority, deep state conspiracies, biological warfare, etc. The point of this blog is not to say that any of these concerns is, or is not, unfounded. The point is to encourage Christian brothers and sister to think about how they articulate these concerns. I am going to focus especially on the first two concerns I mentioned because they are the most common, and because denying that they are both real concerns seems very unreasonable.
In response to the death tolls, many have made statements that are disturbing and hurtful – especially coming from Christians. The response usually comes in two forms: 1. Indicating, whether explicitly or implicitly, that the lives of the sick and elderly are of less value than the young and healthy. 2. Minimizing the loss of lives by citing percentages.
Let me tell a true story to illustrate the first response. My wife had a conversation with a neighbor who was minimizing the dangers of the coronavirus. My wife mentioned that an acquaintance of ours had died from it. The lady responded: “was he old?” As it happened, he was not, he was my age (41). But the basic premise her response suggested is that mostly old people are dying of the virus, so its not a big deal. If one asked her straight out, she would probably not say that, but this is definitely what was communicated.
Friends, the idea that the death of the old and sick is not a big deal is not a Christian ethic. It comes from the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest, and it amounts to a mild form of eugenics. Some with a more Darwinian outlook on this have gone so far as to say that the weeding out of the burden of the old and sick is a good thing. It is important that we Christians keep far from these kind of arguments. According to biblical ethics, the weak and vulnerable are not expendable:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute (Proverbs 31:8).
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him (James 2:5)?
Furthermore, rather than being a drain on the resources of the young, the Bible views the elderly as a valuable resource for the young to treasure and care for.
“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3 “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth (Eph 6:2-3).”
Gray hair is a crown of splendor;
it is attained in the way of righteousness (Proverbs 16:31).
The glory of young men is their strength,
gray hair the splendor of the old (Proverbs 28:29).
Listen to your father, who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old (Proverbs 23:22).
We should note that “honoring” and “not despising,” in this context, includes caring for the material needs of the elderly. When they are too old to work, or have a deceased husband who cannot provide, God commands children to care for their aging parents, and to view them as a treasure of wisdom. This is a far cry from “They died? No biggie, they were old.”
We should also mention that most Christians are pro-life (and rightly so). One of our arguments against abortion is that human beings are not of less value because their age or an inability to care for themselves. If this applies to abortion (and it does), then it also applies to the old and the sick. Let us be consistent in our pro-life stance.
If you do not believe the lives of the sick or elderly are of less value, then think before you speak! Make sure you don’t say anything that communicates this. Perhaps you believe that the dangers of mass starvation due to economic disaster will claim more lives than the coronavirus. A strong argument can be made here. But if that is what you mean, say so! Acknowledge that the coronavirus deaths are tragic. Express sympathy for the victims and their loved ones. And be clear that your concern is greater loss of life rather than the premise that we should sacrifice human life for economic prosperity. Be clear that you value human life over money!
As to the argument from percentages, my advice would be “just don’t!” Statements like “70,000 people is only .02% of the population” ignore the fact that 70,000 real people have died. When roughly 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks, I don’t remember anyone saying it wasn’t a big deal because that is such a small percentage of the US population. We still have the bumper stickers and memes saying “never forget.” Again, if your concern is that mass hunger will claim even more lives, say that! But don’t diminish the loss of tens of thousands of human beings based on a math problem. As I mentioned, my wife is in a danger category. If I lose her to the coronavirus, I guarantee you I will not be comforted by the fact that she is such a small percentage of the US population. And neither will you if you lose a loved one. Think before you speak!
On the other side of the isle, there are those who genuinely believe that the economic dangers of an extended quarantine are a greater threat to human life than the coronavirus. I must confess, I do not know the answer to who is right. Those who favor greater caution in opening things back up should try to understand the reasoning of those who believe the greater danger is keeping things closed. I believe that most do not want the quarantine to end because they “want people to die,” or “don’t care if people die.” They have very genuine concerns. Many are falling farther and farther behind on their rent. While evictions are not being allowed (in San Diego, anyway) during this time, rents will still come due, and the Piper will show up to be paid. Many may be facing homelessness, hunger, and the loss of things that took years to build. In these situations, it is easy to think a lot more about the immediate dangers to one’s self, and especially one’s family, than the deaths of people one does not know personally. You might not believe these issues are the most pressing concern, but whether you, personally, are facing them might play a big part in that. If you believe the deaths caused by the coronavirus are the greatest danger we are facing, say that! Be compassionate about the severe trials of others, even if you think your concerns outweigh theirs. Think before you speak!
the coming days may hold, I hope that we who are believers will hold together,
meet one another’s needs, and show generosity and compassion to the
non-believing world. I quote one of my literary and cinematic heroes, Aragorn,
son of Arathorn: “What if we held true to each other?” Let us love and support
one another even as we have some disagreements. And let our compassion begin
with thinking before we speak.
 E.g., former Antioch City Council member Ken Turnage, https://www.nydailynews.com/coronavirus/ny-calif-official-who-said-coronavirus-could-fix-society-may-lose-job-20200501-crcpsikwejbnvpahwo5racbdgm-story.html?fbclid=IwAR0wRHnNvjfBFiEiVvxjJP9mvKZR8UH7IXvPLc4Xg4kVbKSjTJRQOVu29_E#rt=chartbeat-flt
 These figures use rounded numbers, 70,000 deaths and roughly 325,000,000 for the US population. The percentage is also rounded. This was calculated using the website https://percentagecalculator.net/