GREENWOOD — For the first 300 years of Christianity, it was mortally dangerous to profess to be a believer in Jesus Christ’s divinity and to practice the faith.
Those who did so risked being tortured and killed by the Romans, who viewed Christianity as an incomprehensible superstition that threatened the social order and angered the pagan gods.
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the type of cruelty Christians could expect at the hands of the emperor Nero if they were publicly identified or acknowledged being Christian. “Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed.”
Yet, despite these horrific dangers, Christianity prospered and grew, maybe because these followers had the example of Jesus’ martyrdom and those of his earliest disciples foremost in their mind.
One has to wonder whether these early Christians would think that we have lost our way, have gotten soft in our faith, when a 1-in-10,000 chance of catching and dying from COVID-19 has caused us to run away from church in fear.
Although I have gotten accustomed to most of the suspensions on communal life that the new coronavirus has caused, I remain saddened by the ceasing of public worship services that most denominations, including my own Roman Catholic one, have decided to implement.
If there is a time that people need the spiritual nourishment and affirmation that gathering together as a faith community brings, it would be during times of crisis, including a pandemic.
We need to be reminded that this life is not the last one; that we should share, not hoard; that we should love the afflicted, not regard them as a peril; that we are supposed to hope, not despair, in times of trouble.
Ministers here and everywhere else are trying to compensate for the cancellation of in-person church services by live-streaming them or delivering devotionals via the internet. Even if well done, it’s not the same experience.
What is special about church is not just what happens on the altar or at the pulpit, but what happens in the pews. The act of being in the same physical worship space with others is a public acknowledgement that your faith is not an individualized experience but a shared one.
Church via computer, tablet or smartphone doesn’t make the same statement. Just like being friended on Facebook is not the same as having a friend. Just like distance learning is not the same as being in a classroom with a teacher and fellow students. Just like working from home is not the same as going into the office to carry out a shared objective with your co-workers.
Electronic alternatives, as clever as some of them are, are substitutes for real human interaction, and inferior ones at that. It may have been medically prudent to forgo most of these interactions for a while so as to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Giving up, however, the experience of church — an experience that is already in troubling decline — feels like a betrayal of faith.
I can’t speak for other denominations, but I can speak for my own.
Catholics are raised from the cradle to take Sunday church attendance (or the vigil Mass on Saturday) very seriously. It is supposed to be the primary way in which they honor the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath. Missing Mass intentionally is supposed to be a grievous sin that should be confessed before participating in Holy Communion.
Although many Catholics have gotten casual about that requirement, the teaching has not changed.
Last weekend, as concerns about the coronavirus increased, the bishop for the diocese that covers most of Mississippi announced — as did many bishops around the United States — that there would be dispensation for the Mass obligation. Those most at risk from the disease — the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions — were free to stay at home in good conscience. Others would continue to celebrate the Mass but with added restrictions so as to minimize the chance of transmission of the virus.
It was a reasonable approach, but it lasted only one weekend. Once President Trump asked Americans to limit gatherings to 10 or less, the bishop followed along and suspended all public Masses.
Perhaps that has made Catholics safer in body, but at what cost to their spirit?
Christians are not supposed to be scared of death. They are told that, if they have followed Christ’s teachings, they will enjoy for eternity a life that is infinitely better than the one in this world. Self-sacrifice, not self-preservation, is supposed to be the Christian ideal.
The early Christians, who had much more to worry about than the coronavirus, seemed to have understood that. As for us, maybe not so much.
Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.