Thistlethwaite: Jesus wants you to keep your churches shut on Easter
There are two stories of Easter to be told this year. One is about celebrating the Lord of Life on Easter by keeping church doors shut to prevent greater illness and death from the COVID-19 pandemic. The other is about courting death for millions by keeping churches open.
Some pastors have chosen to court death instead of celebrating the Lord of Life on Easter Sunday. They have chosen to violate stay-at-home or other similar orders by keeping their churches open. The offending pastors, and their lawyers, such as those from Liberty Council, are invoking “lessons” of the Constitution to defend this, but it should be plain that deliberately doing harm is not a religious freedom. (Readers may wish to watch the Vail Symposium Debate on Religious Freedom as carried on C-Span.)
Religious freedom does not give you the right to spread a deadly contagion. It is astonishing there could even be a debate about this.
Refusing to abide by stay at home or other such orders is not just harm, in fact, it could be nearly genocidal. The White House coronavirus task force has projected that without any measures in place to mitigate the contagion’s spread, between 1.5 million and 2.2 million Americans could die from COVID-19. If Americans abide by mitigation orders, that number could be brought down to 100,000 to 240,000.
Why then do Florida’s and Ohio’s stay-at-home orders exempt religious services? It is already well-known that in-person religious services have been identified as “hot spots” in the spread of the pandemic.
These exemptions are unjustifiable. There are compelling public health reasons why orders should definitely apply to religious services such as those on this coming Easter. Churches and other houses of worship should be forced to shut to prevent spreading greater sickness and death among the American people.
In-person religious services are not “essential,” and I say that not as a legal expert but as someone who has been a pastor and a teacher of pastors for nearly 40 years.
I believe there are compelling theological arguments for keeping churches shut on Easter, not just public health ones.
In normal times, as a Christian, I love to see churches packed on Easter Sunday.
We are not living in normal times.
Packing churches with congregants on Easter during the coronavirus pandemic makes Jesus into the Lord of Death. We could see sanctuaries filled with worshipers on Easter, and just a few weeks later, filled with coffins.
Here’s some good news. You don’t need a church building to celebrate Easter. In fact, according to Christian tradition, the first Easter did not take place in a nice house of worship, perhaps with padded pews and a sound system. It took place in a rock-strewn cemetery.
The text in the Gospel of Luke relates that “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James” and some other women had come, on the first day of the week, to bring spices to anoint the body of Jesus. They find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. (Luke 24: 1-12)
They find the tomb empty. Empty.
As a pastor this Holy Week, that is the crucial point of the Easter story on which I will be focusing. The tomb was empty. Jesus was not there.
It turns out, an empty church is a far more biblical way to celebrate Easter, and it is certainly a crucial way to celebrate this year. The Lord of Life is found in life, not in any particular building and certainly not in a building packed with people breathing in a potentially lethal virus, and breathing it out to others.
It astonishes me, frankly, that the pastors who are trumpeting that they will keep their churches open on Easter are defending that death-dealing practice through a dubious reading of the Constitution offered by lawyers. And I ask the governors of states who have dubbed in-person religious services essential, “What exactly is essential about spreading more disease and death?”
There is no theological argument worthy of the name for spreading disease and death through in-person worship. There is no public health reason for spreading disease and death through in-person worship. Quite the contrary.
I submit that, instead, the only possible course for pastors who wish to follow the Lord of Life, not Death, is to keep their churches shut.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.