Risk and Faith in a Pandemic

We are notoriously bad at thinking about risk. For example, I avoid surfing for fear of sharks. However, I’m embarrassingly less afraid of checking my phone notifications while I’m driving. My chances of dying in a car accident? 1 in 100. My chances of a shark attack? 1 in 11 million.

Right thinking about risk, however, is essential as we come to accept that we’re still only in the beginning stages of a long pandemic. It’s too late to bring the virus down to Taiwan or New Zealand levels. A vaccine isn’t expected until next year, at the earliest. And with only 5-7% of the population infected, we are years away from herd immunity. As they say: Pandemic is the new normal.

So should we keep sheltering-in-place until we find a vaccine? No. Lockdowns are important but short-term measures to curb a pandemic. An indefinite lockdown is not only unrealistic, but as a Christian, I believe it’s unjust. It’s a luxury for only a percentage of privileged white collar workers. And, over time, it severely stifles human flourishing for all.

So should we shrug off the pandemic and “go back to normal” instead? Also, no. Even if we feel sturdy enough to stand up to COVID, we may spread COVID to others who may not stand the same chance: the sick, elderly, incarcerated, and the poor—basically everyone that Jesus calls us to show extra concern for. Going back would not only be foolish, it would be unethical.

During the HIV epidemic, people knew that while unrestrained promiscuity was a death sentence, abstinence-only until there was a cure or vaccine wasn’t realistic either. So instead, advocates and virologists developed a foundational guide for the gay community: “How to Have Sex in a Epidemic.” Now, I know it’s strange for a Christian pastor to draw on such an example, but if we are to live in between lockdown and back-to-normal that is precisely the sort of guidance we need today.

First, this will mean staying informed about the science of COVID. COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus—meaning it’s new! So scientists are constantly in the midst of learning, debating, and correcting themselves—not because they are unqualified or partisan, but because we are living in the science experiment.

Thanks to science, we now know some important things about COVID we didn’t know even a few months ago. For example:

  • it’s spread through airborne particles more than surfaces
  • you can be contagious before you’re symptomatic
  • masks do help
  • most catch it through super-spreaders
  • it’s a vascular infection (blood vessels) not just respiratory
  • it’s especially deadly for those with certain underlying conditions.

And in time, we will learn even more.

Since most of us aren’t scientists, though, best practice is to listen to experts and established consensus more than viral posts or breaking news.

Second, we must each learn to evaluate risk. In a recent debate about reopening schools, there was a meme going around saying that the only number of deaths that was acceptable was zero. While I sympathize with the sentiment and would absolutely not want any of my three boys to die, is that really reasonable? When I asked if classrooms could keep doors and windows remain open for cross-ventilation, I was told no, for fear of school shooters. Schools have never been risk-free places. And as resurrection-believing Christians who don’t believe God has guaranteed us a risk-free life, should we be perpetuate such thinking? The question shouldn’t be if there’s risk, but how risky is it.

On the flip side, faith doesn’t mean we rush foolishly into risky situations either. People who say we don’t need masks if we have Jesus don’t really understand what biblical faith is. Risk-aversion or risk-tolerance has to be more than just a feeling; it must be informed by facts. But how we use those fact—that requires wisdom.

We are fortunate that intelligent guides are finally being published. For example, Dr. Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, suggests we evaluate risk along several spectrums:

  • Contact Intensity
    • Close —— Distanced
    • Prolonged contact —— Brief
  • Number of Contacts
    • Many households —— Few
    • Mixed circles —— Stable bubble
    • Presence of at-risk people
  • Mitigation
    • Indoor —— Outdoors
    • Enclosed space —— Ventilated
    • Wearing a mask
    • Hand washing
  • Community Spread
    • High infection rates —— Low

Of course, guides like these will change. And I hope we will learn more about what other things can help lower risks for socializing, reopening schools, churches and businesses.

But as we continue living in this pandemic, each of us will need to make individual and family decisions about what risks we are comfortable taking—or have little choice but to take. And we will not all make the same decisions depending on whether we live with elderly parents, have children with special needs, can work from home, live paycheck to paycheck, have stronger social needs, or live in a densely populated area. We all live different lives and must make different decisions. But I pray they will be well-informed.

Third: How will my risk-taking impact my neighbor? Some young adults have been flagrantly ignoring physical distancing orders, going to bars, throwing COVID parties, believing they can handle the virus (by the way, this is nothing new: college students have been doing dumb things for generations). While most young people will probably be fine, they are unknowingly increasing community spread to vulnerable populations.

Now, community factors can’t completely control our decisions, but it’d be wrong to ignore our neighbors’ well-being altogether. Outside of the West, what we call individualism is called selfishness: putting yourself before your community. This is particularly important for us to consider as Christians. The Apostle Paul teaches us that our freedom must be guided by love: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10)

Fourth, this perspective should tone down COVID-shaming. Occasionally, people act in extremely fearful or foolish ways. But most of the time, people are acting just a few degrees more or less risky than we’re comfortable with. If risk isn’t binary but a spectrum, is there always one right or wrong way? And again, we all have different factors we are balancing. In general, I find most people think they are being reasonable—whether I think they are or not. Plus, shaming boosts our self-righteousness more than it changes people. Try an actual conversation, suggest some mitigation, or just hang out with others instead.

Also, COVID-shaming can lead people to stay silent if they contract COVID, making contact tracing difficult and isolating them from much needed support.

Fifth, we must take informed risks not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors too. As Christians, we of all people know that safety is not the ultimate goal in life. We have been saved for a purpose. And so while love in a pandemic usually means staying distanced, it will sometimes mean taking calculated risks for the sake of others. To put it another way, followers of Jesus shouldn’t just be finding the most responsible way to attend a family BBQ, but also the most responsible way to share meals with the poor. And sometimes, it may mean taking even greater risks, by faith.

This is especially important as the poor are disproportionately hit by this pandemic but have much less support; after all, most of us are simply too afraid to volunteer anymore. For those of us who can, following the example of our spiritual ancestors, including Jesus himself, we should consider what calculated risks we can take to serve the least of these.

More than Charity, We Need Justice

Most of us get the importance of charity. But charity alone is not enough. And that’s become even clearer in the wake of this pandemic.

This week, I had the privilege of serving as a chaplain to low-income families while they came in to receive free meals & groceries through the CompassionNetwork. Upon receiving their groceries, I sat down to ask how I could pray for them. Most were polite, giving answers like they were just trying to get through the conversation. But two themes emerged:

  1. Most had lost their low-wage jobs as cooks or cleaners as result of sheltering-in-place and are now being evicted for not making rent. I suspect most were undocumented, which means they were ineligible for the $1000s of federal stimulus and unemployment checks.
  2. Once I began praying with them, nearly all of them began weeping. I was caught off guard, considering our masks and distance, but sometimes that happens when we feel God really is near. Their helplessness, though, was palpable. Who was I to receive these tears?

That afternoon, the bags of groceries we were offering felt insultingly small. Groceries don’t pay rent. And even if we wanted to help with rent, when rent in the Bay Area starts at $2,000/month, how many families could we reasonably help—and for how long? Our charity was needed, but it was woefully insufficient.

I also serve on the board of Missio Dei Oakland, a group of house churches dedicated to sharing Jesus with the poor. Recently, the pastor shared about being poor during COVID:

One of the biggest ways the poor live through this pandemic differently from those who have wealth is around employment and safety. Most of my friends outside of Oakland still have their jobs. Most of them also get to telecommute/work from home. And that’s really great. Truly. But I don’t know one family in our whole church who hasn’t had a family member fired, laid off, furloughed, or might have to close down their family business permanently right now. Not one.

And if you’re lucky enough to still have a job you often have this choice to make: Do you want to work in unsafe conditions or do you want to get fired? Many of our members work in supermarkets, warehouses, shipping, restaurant/food delivery, security guards, fast food, Walmart/Target. You’re around dozens or hundreds of people everyday during this pandemic. You probably don’t own a car so you’re taking the bus, BART, or an Uber to work for even more exposure. On top of that you’re probably living in a crowded apartment with others who are out everyday.

Clear reasons why the virus is infecting so many people of color and the poor. There’s nothing hopeful here, it’s just hard. 

This is from a Bloomberg article, and the chart was titled “Only The Rich Work From Home.” Which is, of course, not true. But it’s a good headline grabber. Doctors, nurses, and so many others who are middle-class/wealthy are out there working and serving like crazy. But in general, the more you make, the more likely you’re working at home and social distancing is pretty easy. If you’re at the bottom of the income percentile, you have really hard choices to make. If you have a choice at all.

The mantra I keep hearing these days is: We’re all in this together. But take a few minutes to sit with someone who’s poor or undocumented. And it’s hard to not to walk away thinking: If we’re all in this together, we are in vastly different parts of the ship.

And how much can your or my charity really do to relieve the disproportionate burden that the poor and undocumented bear because we are sheltering-in-place (an order which I happen to support)?

I’m reading through the Book of Deuteronomy right now. And one thing that stands out to me is how God was trying to build a society that was not only charitable, but just.

Now we usually think of justice as ‘being fair’. We like to say justice should be ‘cold’ or ‘blind.’ And those notions of justice were certainly part of God’s vision for Israel as just city on a hill:

  • You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. (Deut 16:19)
  • Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deut 19:21)

But in his book, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Chris Wright shines the light on aspects of God’s conception of justice that are larger than our ideas of mere fairness or ‘blind justice’. For example:

  • If you lent to the poor, you were allowed to take various forms of collateral.
    • But not his millstones, because that would be taking a person’s livelihood as security‘ (Deut 24:6).
    • If you took their cloak, you were required to return it by sunset ‘so that your neighbor may sleep in it…and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God’ (Deut 24:13).
    • And for foreigners, or fatherless, or widows—you weren’t allowed to take their cloaks as pledges in the first place (Deut 24:17)!
  • In the context of just treatment of the poor, God also says: ‘When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this’ (Deut 24:21-22).

In both cases, the stronger party had the ‘right’ to take their security or fully harvest their fields. Yet it would’ve been unrighteous and sinful to do so. A just—not just a charitable—society is one that protects the dignity and basic needs of the poor.

Moreover, Israel was commanded to provide a basic safety net for immigrants and the poor through the tithe (similar to our taxes): ‘When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied’ (Deut 26:12). If God only cared about charity, he would’ve encouraged almsgiving—voluntary charity to the poor. But this was more than charity. It about building a society that promised to never let the floor fall out from under the poor.

Friends, what we have done to the poor in the midst of this pandemic is UNJUST. They must risk their health to work as ‘essential workers’ so the rest of us can shelter-in-place—while making barely livable wages (and their CEOs get praised for donating to charity). And those who are losing their jobs? People working in restaurants, hospitality, and construction—industries that require the undocumented—who we then let fall through the federal government’s pandemic safety net. I still have my job AND I get to work from home—and I got a stimulus check. Heck, the entire airline industry’s barely working and got a stimulus check. But the laid off cooks and cleaners I met this week? They got nothing. Not only are we not holding up the floor for the poor, we are pulling it out from under them.

And what can our charity do for these people? Only so much. The solution to injustice isn’t more charity. The solution is justice. It’s making things right so charity is no longer needed in the first place.

If you’re reading this, then I presume that you not only have some money, but you also have some power. I urge you to give money to either of the charities I’ve shared about above, knowing it provides short-term relief. But I urge you to also use your voice to advocate for a more just society. In particular, a society that works for the poor and the undocumented.

Now what should we advocate for? Extend federal safety net to the undocumented? Improve PPP? Stop privatizing gains and socializing losses?Adjust SIP orders to balance public health and economic impacts on the poor? Ensure a living wage and health insurance for ‘essential workers’? Recruit contact tracers first from communities of color? I don’t know. But whether you’re a conservative or progressive, if you care about justice, we’re all ears…

I Miss Small Talk

I’m an introvert. And I can’t believe I’m gonna say this—I miss small talk.

The other day, I had to drop off something at someone’s house. We ended up catching up, shooting the breeze on his front porch—at a responsible radius. He’s an even stronger introvert than I am. But we both sighed something rarely heard among introverts: It was nice to catch up. We miss small talk.

In churches and even society, we tend to prioritize, dare I say idolize closeness and intimacy. As an introvert, I prioritize meaningful conversation. And while we’re all sheltering-in-place, many of us have probably had more literal ‘face-to-face’ conversations than ever, especially over Zoom or FaceTime. 

But in his book The Search to Belong, Joseph R. Myers offers a fuller picture of belonging. Myers says that we experience belonging across four different spaces. And they are all important.

spaces of belonging

  • Public belonging is like being a fellow Warriors fan, a veteran, or member of the same church. We may not know each other’s names, but we aren’t strangers.
  • Social belonging is the connection we have with people we ‘socialize’ with. That could include coworkers, the barista; most small groups and Zoom calls are in social space. We know each other and regularly exchange ‘snapshots’ of our lives.
  • Personal belonging is what we share with close family and good friends. Some small groups are more personal than social. These are people that we wouldn’t mind FaceTiming with.
  • Intimate belonging is what we share in marriage or very close family or friends. It’s the relationship(s) where we can be ‘naked and not afraid’.

Myers’ first insight is that all four spaces are important to feel connected. We tend to think the only important connections are personal and intimate ones, especially if you’re introverted too. That’s why so many of us at first rushed to FaceTime and Zoom. But one of the things I used to denigrate—small talk—I now see with painful clarity just how important it is.

For example, I miss that time before and after worship and small group —when we’d catch up on seemingly ‘shallow’ aspects of our lives: what we did over the weekend, common gripes, funny stories, sports, shopping, upcoming plans. While ‘shallow’, it connects us even if we aren’t exchanging sins and social security numbers.

But it’s also where we would make bids for deeper connection. Most conversations last less than a minute. But I cannot tell you how many shallow conversations turned into deeper conversations. Or maybe follow up conversations: Hey, what was that restaurant you went to last week? Is your mom still sick? You free for lunch next week? How do we ‘accidentally’ make new bids for deeper connections?

But Myers has another insight: While we have a God given need for intimacy, the more public the belonging, the more we need of it. I need intimacy in my marriage and close friendships. But after a while, you can only take so much of it! Plus, do we really want to have deep intimacy with 100 people? No wonder so many of us feel there’s too much online ‘face’ time—it’s too much intimacy. Meanwhile, what greater feeling is there than being in a stadium full of your fellow sports fans? Or sharing in the cultural experience of watching Game of Thrones together? Our need for public belonging is fullest when shared with lots of people.

Small talk falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Now, being part of a church community, it turns out I have a reasonable amount of social connection—we have small group and ministry meetings over Zoom. And I need them all! But they all have a level of intensity and orderliness; they straddle the line between social and personal connection. But those side conversations at the dinner table, the freedom to move around to mingle, letting go of one conversation that’s going nowhere, going deeper with another that is, the cooler talk—I cannot think of a way these casual yet important connections happen in a socially-distanced world. And so it wasn’t until recently did I begin to miss them. Because I needed them. And still do. I don’t need tons of small talk. But I desire more than what I have these days.

There’s a part of me that’s thinking of ways to cultivate more small talk while we’re all keeping our distance. I can’t be the only one.

At the same time, I wonder if it is something whose absence we must simply accept and miss. Like so many things during this time.