Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God’s the things that are God’s.
—Jesus (Mk 12:17)
Gratefully, in our region at least, we’ll be able to lawfully gather together as Christians again this Lord’s Day. My heart goes out to those brothers and sisters for which this won’t be the case (and the prospect that the entire province might face yet another lockdown in some future 3rd wave).
What is curious, however, is that schools in Grey-Bruce returned to in person learning on January 18; many other regions of the province returned on February 8 and schools in the GTA returned this week, February 16; all before churches being able to reopen (or in some cases without them being with a prospect of opening). In Grey-Bruce that means schools returned to in class teaching 5 weeks before churches have been allowed to reopen. What is curious is twofold: a) the logical inconsistency in this approach and b) the apparent apathy of the Government to places of worship.
Note 1: I sympathize with the mammoth task Government has in dealing with a pandemic and the pressures this puts upon them. This is not intended to be a gripe but a constructive conversation starter.
Note 2: Throughout the pandemic I have, personally and as a Christian leader, sought to model and exhort Christians and all people to cheerfully submit to the Government. We have also been open about praying for our leaders. We want to be good witnesses (1 Pet 2:12). While I believe in the command to worship, I likewise believe in the command to submit to the government and love our neighbours, something which a pandemic, I believe, calls us to in the name of public health; to grievously and temporarily pause large worship gatherings in favour of alternative forms (online, small groups, etc). However, I have not been without my reservations of Government policy, which I have expressed to the appropriate authorities with charitability. Yet, compliance does not mean disengaging critically. In fact, democracy dies when its citizens fail to engage and when its politicians fail to listen. Most Christians think there is a line in the sand on these matters somewhere, but it can be difficult to determine exactly where it is. Could the issue of schools and churches be a legitimate marker? Put another way, would this inconsistent Government approach pass from the realm that justifiably requires submission to one that justifiably requires obedience to the “things that are God’s”?
Firstly, the act of opening schools (and some businesses) yet not churches is one logical inconsistency in the Government’s approach. The interests of some commercial and educational interests seem to be ahead of places of worship. Now, I believe people need to eat and work and learn, but the Government needs to be consistent in these matters and help people—through media—understand their actions. This builds trust.
Returning to schools and churches, both important places in local communities (churches often preceding schools in the formation of our country); how is it that schools that host hundreds and hundreds of children and staff, meeting together in one location 5 days a week, can reopen when churches (at 30%) of say dozens and dozens of people meeting in accordance with Government guidelines predominantly once a week must remain (or did remain) closed. If it’s unsafe to reopen, let there be restrictions. If it is safe for schools to reopen, why not churches? See the inconsistency? Why does this exist?
To me the simple answer is religious apathy or a disinterested ambivalence, even if it is arguably passive rather than active. This is something that should be a cause for concern regardless of whether you are a person of faith or not.
In both lockdowns I have perceived that the Government has held a disinterested ambivalence toward places of worship. This is partly because “religion” is such a complex area of society that the Government finds it difficult to provide a catered approach. It’s also largely because the Government, like much of society, has embraced a horizontal naturalism in which religion, particularly the Christian faith, is not real and so comes second behind more real matters like business and education. It is also because, culturally, classic liberalism which championed individual rights is being replaced by the philosophy of neo-liberalism that champions the rights of one group over another. This is why places of worship are treated inconsistently, they lack a priority in Government eyes. (Yet churches remain important centres where millions of Canadians find meaning and hope; necessary things, especially in a pandemic. See the Halo Project for more on the economic benefit churches bring communities).
While I speak the language of Scripture, allow me to speak the language of Government, the “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982)” (click here to view).
Religious gatherings, as the Government calls them, are not optional or something Christians just do. A Christian’s faith in Jesus Christ, central to which is fellowship and corporate worship, is fundamental to who we are. It is not a mere option or something we do like playing soccer or attending the cinema. The Charter 2.a recognizes this by describing freedom of religion (including assembly, 2.c), along with conscience, as not just any right but the most fundamental ones. The freedom of religion and conscience is the number one listed right in the charter.
I realize that the Charter likewise lays down where these rights can be temporarily limited (section 1 and 33), however, this must be justifiable so. I recognize that a pandemic qualifies for a temporary limitation; however, consistency of approach is central to validating the necessary nature of the limitations put in place. If it is deemed safe for schools to reopen (hundreds x 5 days/week, not a fundamental right) but not places of worship (where dozens and dozens gather predominantly once a week, and which is a fundamental right) then to me and many others, there is an inherent inconsistency that seems to abrogate the temporary limitation of the right put in place by the Government. In other words, favouring education over places of worship is not only logically inconsistent, it not only displays apathy, it is dangerous to our fundamental Canadian freedoms.
Why is religious apathy dangerous? Because our Government is supposed to be a champion of our personal liberties, chief among them being freedom of religion. The neo-liberal shift to privileging certain freedoms over others, as evidenced by this subject, should not only concern people of faith, particularly Christians, but our neighbours. An erosion of freedom of religion and of conscience toward one group (places of worship) is a destabilization of the freedom you enjoy; might you in some way be on the receiving end of this trend in future?
What can you do?
Author: Chris Crocker
Pastor, historian and beekeeper.