COVID at Two Years of Age: Charting a Path Forward for Followers of King Jesus

by John Ellis

Standing on the Cady Way Trail’s walking bridge spanning Semoran Blvd, I watched the cars streaming under me and thought, “Are we ready for what’s about to happen?”

It was mid-March of 2020, and COVID’s effects were already starting to ripple out. The news out of Italy was horrendous, but distant. The NBA’s shuttering combined with the news that Tom and Rita Hanks had been infected by this new mysterious virus were seemingly the first dominoes to fall for the pandemic in this country – definitely existentially so. The traffic on Semoran that day was lighter than usual, but a far cry from the barren desert that the highway was to become in short order. Standing on that bridge, society seemed to be poised to step out of the calm and into the storm. While I didn’t know how much and to what extent nor for how long the coming effects would be, it was apparent to anyone paying even partial attention that all our lives were about to change.

A long couple of weeks later, with the world shut down, someone begin spray painting the staggering number of jobs lost on the wooden fence lining the Cady Way Trail ramp just after the bridge. Running past that fence every day, the rising tally of lives upended was a reminder that the pandemic was devasting the lives of many who had yet to be infected with COVID.

For my family, over the previous year our lives had been upended in several negatively dramatic ways. The COVID caused shutdown of the world was a welcomed pause for us. With our finances secure and our cupboards and beer fridge well stocked[1], the first few months of the pandemic were a necessary time of healing for my family. To be clear, we didn’t take for granted our privilege. We understood the immense toll the pandemic was extracting from many others. The suffering and loss of millions of image bearers was not lost on us. And I knew that no matter what happened, this was one of those cataclysmic events that would permanently alter the world.  

Everyone reading this lived through 2020[2], so there is little need for me to construct a timeline of events. Y’all know it as well as I do. However, I do want to revisit the pandemic’s effect on evangelicalism. Doing so is pertinent because I’m afraid that many well-intentioned pastors, church lay leaders, as well as many Christians in general have failed to adequately comprehend what happened. In turn, this has led to a doomed desire to move past and heal in ways that unwittingly deny the truths revealed over the last two years.

While not the sole catalyst for this article, a recent conversation I was privy to reveals the need for my cartography. In answer to the question, “what have you learned during these past two turbulent years?”, the response was gentle, loving, and kind. It was also naively wrong.

The gist of the answer was that Christians can learn to agree to disagree over things like masks, social distancing, and vaccines. The speaker confessed that the ways in which he, alongside many of us, approached these topics was too dogmatic; that we didn’t allow for different opinions that, in the grand scheme of things, aren’t gospel issues.

While technically true, the answer, in failing to diagnose the actual problem, merely interacted with the symptoms.

You see, this has never been about masks or vaccines or lockdowns. This has been, and continues to be, about conflicting definitions of flourishing. Taking a deeper dive, it’s a war between competing worldviews. Competing worldviews within our churches that many of us, myself included, failed to recognize existed. 2020 didn’t cause disunity; it revealed that it was already there.

(Caveat: I have friends who aren’t vaccinated or didn’t wear masks but who made those choices for vastly different reasons that what my concern is addressing here. While I disagree with those friends, I have a category for them that’s outside of white evangelicals (Christian nationalists). I’m saying that not everyone who isn’t vaccinated or didn’t wear a mask is on the other side of the divide I’m talking about from memost are, but not all.)

Early in 2021, while in conversation with a man whose wisdom I immensely respect and have benefited from over the last decade and a half, I asked the rhetorical question, “How do you forgive those who believe that they’ve done nothing to apologize for?”

While sitting on his back deck, appropriately social distanced, we had been lamenting the state of evangelicalism, broken trusts, and lost friendships. My rhetorical question gets at the heart of 2020: when you believe that you are the sole arbiter of your definitions and expectations for flourishing in the here and now, you reveal that you are sitting on the throne of your heart. And I believe (and have been arguing on this blog and in conversations for two years) that white evangelicalism (Christian nationalism)[3] is a man-centered religion that coopts Biblical language and iconography for anthropocentric (and idolatrous) reasons.

I’ve charted that past in multiple articles on this blog; I’ve laid out several arguments for why I believe white evangelicalism (Christian nationalism) is idolatry. I’m not going to reargue my claim here (if you’re interested, you can easily find my arguments in articles on this blog).[4] I do want to seize on my claim that 2020 revealed the divide(s) that was(were) already there and what I believe is coming next (a partial prediction, to be sure, not a full-throated prophecy … cause I’m not a prophet). And it’ll be short – this will be short because I believe the conversation is intuitive. The question is how willing are people to recognize and accept it? To start, though, I’m going to make what appears to be a counter-intuitive claim: Most of the anti-maskers are as pro-science as the maskers.

We all trust science in our day-to-day lives. We all depend on science to far greater degrees than we are cognizant of. The famed chemist turned famed philosopher Michael Polanyi speaks to this with his epistemology of “subsidiary-focal integration.” The knower always has a relationship with the known, and much of that relationship is hidden. For example, and I’m stealing this from Esther Lightcap Meek, when we rid a bicycle there are many epistemic activities that take place that have become so instinctual for us that we no longer think about them. Over the course of years, riding a bike has involved relationships of knowing with the bike that has created an intimacy which allows us to take for granted much of that relationship. Obviously, our relationship with a bicycle is far down the list of covenantal importance, but the example can be easily translated (although not necessarily easily articulated) to more important relationships, including our relationship with science.  

The question isn’t “do I trust/believe science?”, because you do. The question is (should be), “what paradigm informs my relationship with science?” The word “paradigm” is Thomas Khun’s word[5], I prefer the term “narrative.”

As Van Til pointed out, there are no uninterpreted facts. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere. Our knowledge (our relationship with the thing known) is constructed by our point of view. Heidegger’s “dasein” has this implicitly at its core: our experiences can’t be divorced from our (epistemic) questions of being. I understand that this is a long and difficult philosophical bridge to cross for those steeped in the objectivism/foundationalism of our post-Enlightenment modernist society, which ironically proves my point. No one can read my arguments without having their previous experiences (including explicit and implicit worldview training) shape their interpretation and acceptance. This brings me back to the question, what paradigm/narrative informs my relationship with science? Or theology? Or politics?

What COVID has revealed is how almost deterministically contra-biblical philosophies and ideologies are the shaping experiences for many of those who take communion alongside of us. It’s not about masks; it’s about how masks challenge their anthropocentric (idolatrous) definitions of liberty and freedom. When masks and social distancing and COVID vaccines are long out of sight of our rearview mirror, the real problem – the real divide – will still exist. You can be as charitable as you want (and, for the record, you should be charitable) with those you disagree with regarding things like masks, social distancing, and vaccines, but any good covenantal relationship will be merely a pretense: the divide remains hidden but is a real divide nonetheless. And this has ominous rumblings for the (very near) future.

I’ve had many friends, pastors and non-pastors alike, breath a sigh of relief that 2020 is over. “We’ve made it through,” they rejoice. “Now all that’s needed is healing.”

Nope. It ain’t over, I’m afraid. And it’s going to get worse, I believe.

If you want to think of it as the “eye of the hurricane” metaphor, feel free to do so. I’m not sure that adequately explains it, though. I think it’s probably more akin to when adversaries in a movie are forced to stop firing because their weapons have run out of ammo. As they reload, they engage in witty and seemingly friendly banter. Make no mistake, though, that aspect of their relationship is only temporary – witty banter isn’t as real as the bullets that will soon rip their flesh. And that is the point where we currently find ourselves in the movie (continuing narrative). Whatever peace you may believe has been achieved is merely a lull in the action.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of smarts to be able to read the cultural tea leaves. Questions of politics, including questions involving things like CRT, austerity measures, economics, etc., are not just brewing; the teapot is singing. And that singing is only going to get louder to the point of unbearable screaming. At its most obvious level, midterms are looming, as is the 2024 presidential election. Those who operate with Kingdom ethics integrity will be further ostracized. Denunciations on the level of anathemas will be pronounced over those who refuse to bow before the idol of Trump and the so-called American Dream’s definitions and expectations for flourishing in the here and now. Religious persecution is coming, just not from the hands of those whom it is most popular to believe.   

So, what’s to be done?

Well, prayer is a good place to start. And a dependence on the Spirit to instill a paradigm (narrative) that is eschatological and not temporal. We also need to be willing to embrace the understanding that those of us who follow Jesus serve a literal King, and our King has told us that the world (and that includes the United States of America) will hate us and seek to silence our witness to the Resurrection. If “Christianity” has a seat at the table of cultural and societal power, the question needs to be asked, “is it really Christianity?”

And this brings me to my final ethic: the necessity of separating from white evangelicalism (Christian nationalism).

Purity among God’s people is important because God said so. Make no mistake, purity among God’s people doesn’t call for a total relational separation from those who have yet to bow the knee in repentance and faith before Jesus. In fact, Kingdom ethics demand that we build and foster relationships with those who are still dead in their sins. Purity does require the willingness to recognize that our relationship with unbelievers is different – ontologically and eschatologically so – than our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It also demands that we protect the sacrament (or ordinance, if you prefer) of communion. Knowingly allowing those who worship themselves and refuse to bow the knee to King Jesus access to the Lord’s Table is a violation of our call to covenantal purity.  

I’m not claiming that everyone who supports Trump[6] or swallows QAnon conspiracies or thinks Dr. Fauci is an evil liar are not saved. I do believe, though, that discipling those who fall in the category of white evangelical (Christian nationalism) will ultimately reveal the truth; their true god(s) will be exposed. How they respond, is the important question and revealer.

Attempting to paper back over the glaring divide is not the solution. Acknowledging that the divide is real and carries great soteriological (as well as ecclesiastical and eschatological) weight may be a hard paradigm (narrative) to swallow, but it’s the paradigm from which God calls His people to interpret His world and His image bearers, and then to act (Kingdom ethics) accordingly. Once again, though, I find myself asking “Are we ready for what’s about to happen?”

Thankfully, we serve a God who will never forsake us nor leave us, no matter how turbulent, discomforting, and personally costly what happens next will be.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Beginning in early February of 2020, I told my wife to start stocking up on dry goods, disinfectant wipes, toilet paper, etc. By the time most everyone else was scrambling to find “essentials,” we were prepared to outlast the virus in the comfort of our home. That wasn’t really the result of prescience on my part. It was the result of listening to a young man from Wuhan – a grad student at UCF – who was a member of our church small group fearfully ask for prayer for his family and friends back home. Fighting back tears, he said, “[The Chinese government] is lying. It’s bad! People are dying! Please pray.” His prayer request was delivered in early January, and it caused me to begin to take notice of the news bulletins from around the world that I had previously been tuning out. Not long after, a friend warned me that things were about to get really bad, and we should start stocking up. Normally, I ignore the apocalyptic warnings from people, including friends, but this friend was different in that he had recently been very high up in the CIA and was still quite connected to that world. He had access to intel that very few did. During our phone call, he told me, “We’ve been stocking up since December.” It was after that phone call that my family began stocking up.

[2] 2020 is now an abstract concept and not just a calendar year.

[3] I want to make it clear: I use white evangelicalism and Christian nationalism as synonyms. Some have been confused on this point in the past, although I believe that the contexts in which I use the terms make my intent quite clear.

[4] This is important: it drives me crazy how often people interact with individual articles I’ve written as if that article exists in a vacuum. This blog – my writing – is my ongoing conversation with myself. My arguments in this article are dependent on previous arguments I’ve laid out. If you haven’t bothered to read my other articles, don’t presume to know what I believe and have argued. In other words, don’t presume to be able to correct my thinking if you’re not willing to engage the entirety of my conversations/arguments.

[5] See Khun’s masterful book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Also, it should be noted that it is arguable that Kuhn “stole” much of his thought from Polanyi.

[6] I also have separate categories for those who support Trump and those who hold their nose and vote for the “lesser of two evils.” Make no mistake, I believe that those in the latter category are still in violation of Kingdom ethics, but they answer to God for that; they don’t answer to me. The first category, though, should be asked to consider some serious soteriological questions. Faith without works is dead, after all. While the command to make disciples applies to my/our relationship to both categories, it applies differently.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s