Over the past year or two there has been a resurgence of interest in Mister Rogers and his iconic tv show. We love the kind and gracious spirit that Mister Rogers exudes. But in this cultural moment that we are currently living in, under the specter of advancing COVID-19 coronavirus, learning how to live in such a way to love our neighbor is a lot more challenging, it would seem. It turns out that loving our neighbor is harder than just watching movies and asking others, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” No, the truth is, loving our neighbor requires sacrifice on our part, and that’s always difficult.
The Second Greatest Commandment
When Jesus was approached by a group of self-righteous religious teachers who asked Him what the greatest commandment was, He told them that the greatest command was to love God with all of their hearts, souls, and minds. Secondly, He said, they were to love their neighbor as themselves. Finally, He told them that all of the law and prophets were dependent on these two commands (Matthew 22:36-40).
Jesus wanted these religious teachers to understand that the priority of His ministry was to teach people to love God and to love others. Of course, this question of loving their neighbors was one they needed to test. Just who was their neighbor? The Pharisees were concerned with the broad-reaching implications if they couldn’t more tightly define, or restrict, the definition of who their neighbor might be.
In another story of a Pharisee’s engagement with Jesus, the Pharisee affirmed that loving God and loving neighbor are at the top of God’s priority list. But when he pressed Jesus for clarity on who his neighbor was, Jesus answered by giving him the parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable, of course, set the Pharisee’s enemy up as his neighbor. Jesus’ point is that everyone is our neighbor, and we need to pay particular attention to how we love those we are not naturally inclined to love.
What does all of this have to do with COVID-19? Well, right now, essentially every corner of the planet is paying attention to it. It has encroached on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. There is basically nowhere we can hide from its advance.
And even as it continues to advance, we are being asked to make sacrifices. Large gatherings, including churches, are being asked not to meet. In many places, children are out of school, or doing school online, for an extended period of time. The concept of social distancing has come into our vocabulary and has created an uncomfortable new reality.
All of these sacrifices, of course, have spun off a tremendous amount of conversation. Is it biblically acceptable to cancel our worship services, or to move them online? Is it possible that this whole virus is a politically driven hoax? If we aren’t visibly sick ourselves, do we really have to distance ourselves from others?
I think, in large part, we have to approach each of these, and other questions, through the filter of how we love God and love others. For the sake of space, I want to focus on the latter question in this article.
Principles to Shape How We Love our Neighbor
I think two guiding principles should drive how we behave and shape how we love our neighbor. Principle #1: We should act toward others in a way that causes the least harm. Principle #2: We should prioritize others’ lives over our own.
To act toward others in a way that causes least harm means that we have to be willing to make difficult, even overly cautious decisions, for the benefit of the whole. As to the question of cancelling public gatherings and practicing social distancing, and beyond, we must not make the mistake of thinking that we know what is best.
In an issue as intricate as this one, with as much information and disinformation floating around, it is incumbent upon us to listen to the authorities over us. This becomes even more compelling when political divides are being bridged and we are seeing unified positions across the political spectrum, which is exactly what we have right now.
Recently conservative Republican Senator Ted Cruz was on Twitter agreeing with and advocating for liberal Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often known as AOC) about the perils of COVID-19 and the approach we need to take. The actions being requested by our government seem extreme, but the positions they are holding are held by the vast majority of medical professionals worldwide and nearly the unanimous position of our governmental leaders across the political spectrum.
It’s important for us to love our neighbors by following their instructions, even when they are difficult to follow.
The second principle at play here, that of prioritizing others’ lives over our own, is a distinctly and historically Christian position. A cursory glance of plagues and epidemics across history reveals to us Christians willing to place themselves in harm’s way to care for their neighbor.
Our trust in Jesus allows us to rest in times of natural evil; it allows us to pursue His kingdom when everyone else is pursuing self-protection. We are, at this moment, to do what Christians have done so many times before us—namely to allow ourselves to be placed in harm’s way, if necessary, to care for the hurting, the vulnerable, and the weak. We are able to do this because we have trusted in Christ and in doing, we have given up the rights to our own lives.
When once asked if Christians should flee the plague, the great Reformer Martin Luther said no, and argued that Christians should be found at their posts, serving among the hurting. He argued that to do so in a time of crisis was to fulfill both of the two greatest commands, to both love God and to love your neighbor. “The service we can render to the needy is indeed such a small thing in comparison with God’s promises and rewards that St Paul says to Timothy, ‘Godliness is of value in every way and it holds promise for the present life and the life to come.’ (1 Tim 4:8). Godliness is nothing else but service to God. Service to God is indeed service to neighbour.”
So in this moment of global pandemic, what should the Christian do? And how should the Christian love their neighbor? In short, we are to obey those in authority over us, and follow their lead in an effort to do the least amount of harm, and we are to prefer the lives of those around us, placing ourselves in harm’s way, if need be, to make sure the weak, the hurting, and the vulnerable have been cared for.