Let us Beware of Covidolatry – Observations from the Michigan Deanery 

As Dean of the Michigan Deanery of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia I no doubt will have to answer – at least on some level – for the parishioners of our Deanery. Not in the way that Archbishop Peter would as our ruling hierarch (he answers for every soul in the diocese), or the way in which I will unquestionably answer for the parishioners of the parish where I am the Rector in Ann Arbor. But to imagine there is NO repercussion for my work as the Dean is probably a fantasy, so I think it is important, and hopefully an aid to my salvation, to make a few observations about the state of our state from a spiritual point of view, and to raise some questions that hopefully will cause some soul-profiting soul searching for the faithful in our deanery.

If you would like to read a diatribe against or for protesters or others who are emotionally/spiritually struggling during the pandemic you should stop now. I will make the argument here that if we join any extreme position we have missed the point completely. This is not a conservative or liberal question – at all. Being an Orthodox Christian means zealously avoiding extremes. This piece is not going to be about politics, but about being an Orthodox Christian, and how this most important reality in our lives must drive our behavior in a pandemic, outside a pandemic, and always.

Sunday we marked the annual celebration of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus the Pharisee. When we greet this feast we generally think about service and boldness. The service to the Lord of those Myrrh-Bearers we commemorate: during His ministry yes, but especially at and right after His crucifixion. And their boldness in the face of the Romans and Jews as they carried out that service. But we are Christians, and so our service and boldness must be in emulation of Christ and those who were transformed into the sons and daughters of God by emulating Christ. Random boldness and action is not in emulation or Christ or the saints. The inclination of our heart as we act matters – and ours must be a Christian inclination.

Recently in our Michigan Deanery we have had a few incidents where some of the citizens of our God-preserved state did not adhere to pandemic guidelines: protests at the State Capitol, the shooting of the security guard in Flint for enforcing his store’s mask policy, and the citizen who wiped his nose on a store clerk in Holly when asked to don a mask show that our deanery is pressure-filled now. In light of these, and other notable actions in our state, including Governor Whitmer’s series of Executive Orders, we need to understand our part in this great societal conversation taking place around the pandemic, and how our Christianity should drive our actions, reactions, and participation in this conversation.

Before we go too far down this road I think it is going to be important to define what it is that we expect from those who serve. And to try to determine who it is that needs to serve. A few quotes from the Lord’s own words will probably help us to figure this out.

Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:26-28)

Here we see that as Christians – those who bear the name of Christ – we are called upon to serve. Christ came to serve – He says so here. As Christians it is our responsibility to serve as we can, based on the talents that the Lord has given each of us.

And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:28-31)

Here we see our place in the spiritual pecking order. God is #1. Anything that is put in front of God is an idol. Neighbor is #2. At best, then, we might be #3. This concept – that we are not #1 and that anything that we put in the #1 place other than God is idolatry – has to be a foundational concept of our lives as Christians.

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:40)

This comes from the famous chapter 25 of Matthew, where the Lord explains what will happen at the Last Judgment. Here we see the Lord making it clear that we are to care about the least in society, and that when we do, this is counted as service directly to Him.

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 18:10)

Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:14)

These three passages from Matthew 18 show us that the little ones, the weak, the sick, must be especially cared for. Lest anyone think this phrase “little ones” applies only to children, let us examine Blessed Theophylact’s explanation of “little ones”: “And you, O reader, understand that even if a man gives offense to one who is truly small, that is, weak, and does not instead use every means to bear him up, he will be punished.” (The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, Chrysostom Press).

St. John Chrysostom says: “He calleth little ones not them that are really little, but them that are so esteemed by the multitude, the poor, the objects of contempt, the unknown...” (Nicean & Post-Nicean Fathers, Digital Edition). So St. John in fact stresses that this is not about children at all, but rather those who are considered “little” - or insignificant - by society: the poor, the weak, the ill, etc.

Another scriptural aid to our understanding the scope of our service as Christians during the pandemic must be this: “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13)

We should also not ignore the civil context of our societal struggle taking place during the pandemic, its quarantine, and what that means to all of us. There is a great involuntary sociological experiment taking place. As Americans we have certain rights. We are very concerned, as we rightly should be, about the abridging of these rights. The question is: how does the interaction of our Constitutional Rights and our Christian requirement to serve work itself out? If anything being placed before God is idolatry, then it is clear that God must come before our Constitutional Rights, no matter how unalienable the fathers of our nation considered these rights to be, and no matter how much we value these rights.

This is not me stating that our Constitutional Rights are not important. In fact, I think they are VERY important. But there is no way we, as Christians, can say that our Constitutional Rights come before our Christian responsibilities. I cannot imagine that anyone in our deanery would have said, before this pandemic, that it was not outright idolatry to say that we would subject the very words of our Lord to anything that we considered greater or more important – even our Constitution. Yet, something has happened during the pandemic. We have become confused. We lose track of time. We get our priorities mixed up. We forget things more often than we did before. And we have trouble remembering what we were taught before the pandemic.

I would submit that as Orthodox Christians we should not have a political party that drives our decisions and actions in this world. Rather, our party must be Christ. We are not left or right, we are not extreme in any way. As those who belong to Christ we must strive for the middle ground. This is not being lukewarm – this is exhibiting sobriety. Political sides cannot define us – we must be “...the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.”(Matthew 5:14) Put another way, why are we here? Did the Lord create us so that we could become agents of extreme political movements? Or did He put us here to raise our society to a higher spiritual place, lifting up those around us by our continual striving for the Heavenly Kingdom? These are not the only two choices of course – there may be other reasons that the Lord brought us into being, but I humbly suggest the latter is more in line with the reasons for the Lord’s Incarnation than the former, and that our public and private lives (including our social media presence) should more strongly reflect this reality.

So if we as Christians are not driven principally by partisan politics, and if we have the responsibility to subject our worldly concerns, like Constitutional Rights, to our eternal Christian responsibilities, how then should we act in the present situation? I would suggest the following for those in our deanery:

Politics: let us be careful not to be pulled into the present extreme partisanship in our deanery. Extremes are never acceptable for an Orthodox Christian. We must be especially concerned with this now, when extremism is the watchword in Michigan – on both sides of the debate of quarantine vs. release. Speak out with Christian Love and with a magnanimous heart for all if you feel you must speak out. Remember that prayer is something powerful and of great efficacy. Remember that there is only one enemy – and that enemy is not your fellow man. If we are honest – we can solve few of the present problems based on our own wisdom. Let us remember that “...with men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27) This Gospel passage seems to be one of those things that we have misplaced in quarantine. Let us labor zealously to find it again and keep it at the forefront of our interactions with the society around us.

Resistance/Protest: if we feel strongly that something is going wrong in society let us follow the acceptable and civil paths of expressing our feelings and opinions, remembering the suggestion on politics above, and that God is first, our neighbor second, and we and our concerns are at best third in order of importance. We are not barred from speaking out, but never can we forget that we are Christ’s, and that those around us know this very well. Our example is, whether we like it or not, a microcosm of Christianity to those around us and we must be attentive to this reality: people will judge Christ and the Church based on our example. If we recall this reality before we act we will likely do well.

Physical Distancing/Masking/Hand Washing: here I think we just need to look at the discussion of the “little ones” from Matthew – our Lord’s very words – above. This is not and cannot be a question of our convenience or rights. Since when is Christianity about convenience? The answer is never – it is not convenient to be a Christian. Nor should it be. Success comes before work only in the dictionary. In life, we must work before we have success. This is doubly true in the spiritual life. Therefore, we must, no matter our feelings about the virus, the society, or anything else, care first for the weak, the ill, and the aged first and foremost. If we do not follow the guidelines provided to us to protect the “little ones” we sin gravely. We show contempt not just for human life, but for the lives of the most vulnerable in society. As Pro-Life people this is simply unacceptable. We must be shining examples of Christian Love by following the published rules in this regard. “Thou shalt not kill” is not a recommendation or a suggestion, and we must err strongly on the side of caution for the vulnerable as we strive to fulfill this commandment.

Public Health vs. Economic Health: it is obvious that both are important for our society. What is more important? If we are honest, we will confess that there is no real way to know where the golden middle lies. The times we live in are unprecedented. We do not have a historical example to follow. Why then do so many act as if those that disagree with them on this topic are abjectly evil? Perhaps it is fear. Each side accuses the other of being driven by fear to be sure. I would submit that rather than the accusation of fear (which probably belies some of the fear we all share if we are honest about it), we should start with the understanding that our fellow men have the best interests of all at heart. Why would we believe otherwise? Does the Governor want to turn us all into some sort of slaves of a socialist utopia? Do the protesters at the Capitol want to kill all the old people? Why would we, as Christians, think such ridiculous things? Our default must be to assume that others are magnanimous until proven otherwise – whether we personally agree with them or not. This is the way all Michiganders used to see each other not that long ago. As Orthodox Christians we can make a large and positive impact in our state by living these words of the Lord in this regard: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35) Does the Lord hate the Governor? Does the Lord hate the protesters? Of course not, and if we think He does, we are just projecting our own fallen and sinful opinions on Him. Someone who disagrees with us is not evil – he is simply fallen and sinful, just as we are. We should pray for all the fallen and sinful: our neighbors first and then ourselves. We are all somewhat blind, groping in the dark of the pandemic together. And we are all a little afraid of the unknown. As Christians we cannot allow that fear do drive us to attack our fellow blind pilgrims on this uncharted path.

Here I would like to suggest that those of us who are old enough to remember the onset of HIV/AIDS share their recollections with those in our society who are too young to remember this fearful time. Although the Spanish Flu of the early 20th Century may be a better example of the virus-laden times we are presently living through, since that influenza and this coronavirus are both spread via respiration, there is not a critical mass of citizenry still alive that can remember this pandemic from 100 years ago. But there are many in our society that remember the beginning of the spread of HIV. At first we reacted wildly, out of fear. We knew essentially nothing about the virus, and our reactions were, looking back on them, sometimes even humorous in their ignorance. But HIV was not a humorous virus. Many people died. It was a very tragic time. And a fearful time too. We did not understand so we acted out of fear. Much as our society is doing now. My point is this: let us take a breath. Let us reflect on the dichotomy between the rampant fear of HIV and our fear-driven reactions then, and what we know now, all these years latter, about that virus. There will be a time when we will look back on today’s virus and chuckle at ourselves and our wild reactions too. I hope this will lead us to seek peace now, with the understanding that we will know more over time and that we cannot know more without at least some significant time passing. During that time it would be best to work on trusting God’s providence more than we have thus far – this will bring us more quickly to peace regarding the present situation and help us to be better examples to our neighbors of what a Christian is and how a Christian acts in a crisis.

Somehow we have become accustomed to, and perhaps even a little addicted to, conflict in our state regarding the virus, the quarantine, and all things surrounding our present struggle – both political and scientific. It may simply be that we are bored, in which case we should engage in significantly more spiritual reading to help occupy ourselves during the pandemic. Such reading will have many short and long-term benefits. In any case, we do not have to solve every problem surrounding this pandemic right this minute, this hour, today, or this week. We, as Christians, should assume that our leaders have our best interest at heart – no matter their political affiliation – until they prove otherwise. And that our scientists do too. And all people really. We should try to remember that ignorance is not malice, nor is an honest mistake evidence of a conspiracy. We pray for our leaders at every Divine Service. Not so that they will wise up and share our obviously superior opinions, but so that they will be motivated to provide us the peace we need to work out our salvation. And prayer for leaders has been the practice of the Church since apostolic times – since the time that those in power were part of an open conspiracy to destroy Christianity. We are not at such a point now. If that happens – if the pandemic turns into a persecution – we will need to adopt a different paradigm that will necessitate different actions. But this is not a persecution and we should not confuse these two things. The Church has a paradigm for how we act during persecutions. The Church has a paradigm for how we act during pandemics. They are not the same and we should be careful not co-mingle these paradigms, since doing so can lead us to act absolutely wrongly and deviate wildly from the advice the Church gives us for each of these very specific circumstances. Of course there are those who hate God and the Church who are trying to use the pressure of the pandemic to hurt the Church and the faithful. That doesn’t mean this is a persecution. That sort of behavior was happening before the pandemic on some level, and will no doubt happen during and after the pandemic too. We can invite more of that by acting like we don’t have to follow the rules the rest of society does during the pandemic. Or we can be good citizens and good servants, emulating the Lord and the Myrrh-Bearers that emulated Him. In the end that choice is solely yours of course. But I recommend the path of the Myrrh-Bearers: boldness and service driven by Orthodox Christianity. Let us adopt the paradigm that our party is Christ and we will have won half the battle already. Only then will we truly and rightly be able to emulate the boldness and the service of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Joseph, and Nicodemus. And then our example will lead others to Christ, just as the example of the Myrrh-Bearers has done for these last 2000 years.

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory