It is time that we recognize that socializing has utility – as important as flying.
August 10, 2020
Like almost everyone in our world, a vital aspect of life is missing due to the pandemic. For most, the vital missing link is what we do together. We have seen stripped from our lives festivals, symphonies, sporting events, and schools. Yet, as the photo suggests, something is not quite right. How is it that we justify cramming humanity into a tube, yet dispel the right to assembly?
The answer is simple – perception. The philosophy underwriting our policies is also simple – utilitarianism. When we need to have something badly enough, we will skew the rules to allow us to do what is necessary. Flying is one of those things essential in modern society. Going to the grocery store is also necessary. For many, riding a bus is the only option for transportation. Transportation is a “need”. To eat is obviously a basic need. Oddly enough, those needs are not ensconced into our constitution. They are not “rights.”
The empty church in this photo is a bit misleading, but it does pose the question of why we justify flying, grocery trips and bus rides, but the assembly of worshipers is somehow prohibited. The photo presents a rather large church. Such a large venue joins other facilities such as movie theaters, basketball arenas and assembly halls. For most of the country, those venues are off-limits. So churches are not treated any differently in that respect. It is also a bit misleading because in many parts of the country there is some flexibility on how a church can be utilized. Many churches have reconvened yet have implemented social distancing and other measures to reduce risk. Yet, fundamentally, we presumably have “the right” to assemble and to worship.
The question remains – why? For two reasons. One, the control element. To fight a pandemic a society needs to curb the risk, or “flatten the curve”. Reducing the frequency of exposure is a vital part of that equation. Allowing large assemblies of people only invites a rapid expansion of the disease. While flying in an airplane seems counter to that premise, you must remember that everyone in that photo may be undergoing a 14 day quarantine upon arrival, and many may have been tested for COVID-19 in the course of their travels. While the photo appears to be “high risk,” it may be less risky than riding the city bus or going to the grocery store.
The second reason, however, is not so scientific. Churches are empty because it is not useful. In a controlled society, there are winners and losers. Schools and churches were closed. Now school re-opening is being debated because schools are considered needful, churches optional. The irony of this situation is most dramatically demonstrated in areas of the country where kids may attend a Christian school, using the same building where the church service is either prohibited or significantly reduced in capacity. You can have 500 kids in the building, but 500 adults is not acceptable. Go figure.
Assembly is considered a fundamental right and is a part of the U.S. Constitution. While some may argue that it is sensible to curb assembly for a season to fight a pandemic, others will argue that the government is being selective based on what they perceive to be “needed.” In other words – perception. Policy through perception has never had good results. The internment of the Japanese during World War II comes to mind. The treatment of Germans during World War I is another. Then it digresses to Jim Crow, where “perception” is just a nice way of saying “prejudice.”
Truth be told, Christians are rather sensible people and it is they, not the government, that is usually leaving the churches empty or sparsely filled. Like most people on this planet, they evaluate the risk and act accordingly. My church held its first service this Sunday (August 9th) for the first time since March. While attendance before the pandemic covered three services with about 200-250 people, this most recent gathering had about 50-60 people for just one service. Everyone wore masks. We did not sing hymns. Every other pew was cordoned off. In other words, like the folks in the airplane, the risks were addressed.
And it was nice to see folks – and that was the “needed” thing. People need to see each other, get outside the house, take walks, go to the park. And go to church (if that is your thing). It is time that we recognize that socializing has utility – as important as flying.
It is also time to recognize that governments will need to be balanced in implementing restrictions on assembly. It needs to be recognized for what it is – a restriction on a constitutionally protected right. If it is OK to participate in protest marches, then how is it right to keep worshipers from gathering together? If schools are permitted to open, why not churches?
Truth be told – governments need to trust their citizens to make informed decisions. There are certain rules that can be universally applied like the requirement to wear masks. But rules that prove to be selective based on perception and justified by what governments deem “useful” will have rough seas. Continue to inform the public, and trust them to determine which risks they will take.
I have regularly attended church throughout most of my life, but I know the risks of gathering in large groups. My faith is not dissolved because I cannot attend church. If the sanctuary had been crowded this morning, I would have moved over to the adjoining over-flow space. If it was well-occupied, I may have found a remote corner, flipped on the smartphone and watched the service over the web. The world would not end if I did not sit in a crowded sanctuary – but my life may have.
I know the leadership of my church has respected, if not relied on, the direction provided by our state and local government authorities. It is clear they have the best interest of the public at heart and are doing their best to deal with a very difficult situation. The decision to not assemble at church was not only a state mandate (for a season), but it was a decision of our church to delay a return to meeting together until risks could be assessed and mitigation measures planned.
My prediction is that people will generally exercise caution when it comes to assembly. Every person will decide for themselves what is “needful.” For our church, it is clear that a large majority of people are being cautious. If churches are a measure of what to expect for the school year, I would not be surprised to find that parents are equally cautious about sending their kids back to the schoolhouse.
By Eric Niewoehner
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