Originally Posted: March 10, 2020
About the Author: Bianca Lopez is a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.
In numerous parts of the United States, certain stripes of Christianity and quarantine orders stand in direct opposition, resulting in deadly outcomes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ignoring or refusing to follow social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines, congregations from California to Florida have continued to assemble for worship services and thereby put themselves and their communities in peril.
Examples include Sacramento County in California where more than 100 of the county’s 314 coronavirus cases are related to churches. Some of the congregations have ceased meeting in church buildings but continued to gather in homes, even though dozens have fallen ill and one has died of COVID-19, public health authorities say.
During the last weekend in March, megachurches continued to draw packed crowds, including one in central Louisiana, which hosted more than 1,800 people, and another in Tampa, Florida, where Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne promised churchgoers that he had the technology necessary to “basically kill every virus in the place. If they sneeze it shoots it down like at 100 miles per hour and it will neutralize it in a split second.”
Police later arrested Howard-Browne for defying county orders to maintain social distancing.
These are unacceptable developments for faith communities during Passover, Easter Sunday and Ramadan.
The motivation for congregants to ignore public health guidelines is often linked to scriptural commands — or tests of faith — that pastors broadcast from podiums, or from church factions that abandon mainstream doctrine in lieu of extreme expressions of faith. Instances of feeling physically invincible, because of spiritual status or beliefs and ignoring the reality of pandemics, have been recorded as far back as the Black Plague in 14th-century Europe.
Victims and survivors reacted to the plague in religious ways. As mainstream clergy fell victim to the disease, it was common for lay groups, confraternities, to carry on with church missions and doctrine. But rogue groups began to rise up, such as the Disciplinati, who practiced a far more violent form of communal religious life.
To atone for the world’s sins, they beat themselves or one another with flagella, multi-tonged whips. They became known as flagellants. They were joined by other groups who espoused manic dancing as a way to cope with the plague.
Fancying themselves agents of The Almighty, such groups thought they were immune to the plague as they roamed Europe — along the way spreading the plague Italy to Germany, and from France to England.
Today, unfortunately, we see similar behavior.
Across the United States, Christian leaders have encouraged congregations to attend services in person, resisting state-ordered social distancing and shelter-in-place proclamations. The coronavirus cannot harm anyone inside church walls, the leaders insist, as God would never let that happen.
Some pastors argue “true Christians” will remain immune to the virus, and that only sinners need worry about catching coronavirus and transmitting it to others. They posit that God is sending a message that the end is near through the virus, and letting His presence be known in the world through a natural disaster.
As a result, some Christians, including self-ascribed evangelicals, claim invincibility against coronavirus. On March 23, Clay Jenkins, who presides as judge of Dallas County, Texas, issued a shelter-in-place proclamation, one that echoes similar decisions made by cities, counties and states across America.
That same day, churches across Dallas held their first online services, following weeks of encouraging their parishioners to meet on site in spite of weeks of advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin social distancing.
Yet, even in front of an online audience, American evangelical preachers promote the idea of a plague as a sign of God’s wrath toward sinners, citing the Book of Revelation as a more reliable text on these matters than any peer-reviewed epidemiological study.
I am alarmed by the dangerous religious reactions of modern evangelicals.
I teach courses on pandemics and culture at Southern Methodist University; my students have even created digital maps that follow similarly dangerous religious resisters to quarantine. They observed that regions that experienced high numbers of plague deaths were also home to religious resisters to quarantine.
The same invincible attitude that emboldened the flagellants is in some measure with us today. Just as the Black Death was understood to be a punishment for sin, we see some Christian groups ignoring public health directives.
But just as mainstream 14th-century believers disapproved of the flagellants — the Holy Roman Emperor, the University of Paris’ theology department and Pope Clement IV condemned the movement as preying upon people’s fears — we in the United States are fortunate to have more reasoned church leaders speaking out endorsing public health practices.
The Catholic Diocese of Dallas is hosting masses over video conference, and encouraging churchgoers to pray for the sick at home. Churches in Dallas are providing drive-thru religious services, which would maintain spiritual closeness while adhering to social distancing guidelines as much as possible.
The flagellant movement and other episodes of “invincible” congregations throughout history provide lessons for us today. Communities respond to the existential threat posed by pandemics in religious ways. Being face-to-face with the divine transcends any social distancing measures a government might recommend, now as it did in the Middle Ages.
Yet, while most Christian denominations have offered alternatives to their parishioners, some groups continue to resist quarantine, infecting others and growing sick themselves as a result.
Surely then, this virus poses a threat to the entire human family, and not just some anonymous “sinners” deserving of divine punishment. READ MORE