Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
-Ephesians 5:1-2 (NIV)
Having, as I do, Tennessee roots, I tend to want to believe the best of Tennesseans. So I’d love to think that the sign seen at a rally last week in Nashville was photoshopped. (It was not.) I’d love to believe that it was political satire of those who want to remove coronavirus lockdown restrictions immediately and completely (possible, but seems unlikely). Absent those two conditions, the sign has to be taken at face value, I guess:
I don’t know what this protester intended by this sign. I don’t know what she was thinking, or what was going on in her life. I have no desire to vilify her for a sign she held for a few minutes at a rally. I’m sure if I ever met her I’d think she was a delightful person. I’m going to assume that she wouldn’t advocate:
- taking her mom or dad with COPD off a ventilator.
- letting a child of hers with leukemia be exposed to the virus.
- being careless about passing the virus to a spouse who takes a medication that compromises their immune system.
- getting her favorite stores and restaurants reopened by letting a friend with high blood pressure die.
Sacrifices are easier to talk about hypothetically than specifically, for all of us. And, for all of us, “sacrifices” that don’t cost us anything personally are best.
I know that most people who would like to see the country go back to normal aren’t of the opinion that we should sacrifice the weak to get there. There are differing viewpoints that ought to be heard. People I love disagree with me, and maybe they’re right about some things. Maybe, since I live in a city with over 25,000 cases and 1200 deaths and counting, some of them might accept that I see it differently. We all agree that we’d love to get back to normal as soon as is safely possible.
I think that we’re hearing the old American debate about individual rights vs. the common good recast. There’s a sense, of course, in which those things aren’t opposed at all; all else being equal, it’s best for the common good when individual rights are protected. Maybe, though, the “fire in a crowded theater” argument holds here. All of us, whatever our politics, can think of situations in which the government must absolutely make tough decisions about limiting individual rights for the sake of the public good.
The stay-at-home orders in our nation (passed by individual states, by the way, not the federal government) touch on things that matter a lot to Americans: our livelihood, our right to assemble for worship, our rights to determine where we go, and when. It’s probably true that state governments have occasionally overreached. But the orders are akin to evacuation orders issued when an area is threatened by storms or floods, or the security measures put into place in airports after September 11th, or wartime restrictions for the sake of national security. Most of us don’t love those limits on our freedoms, but they aren’t intended to prevent any one person or group from doing anything. They’re to give a framework by which we can see how to give up some of our individual rights for a while in order to help take care of the public good, especially, in this case, the weakest and most vulnerable.
History is pockmarked with civilizations built on the sacrifice of the weak, the marginalized, the powerless and voiceless. Against ancient pagan cultures, the Old Testament sacrificial system explicitly disallowed human sacrifice, especially of children. Greco-Roman culture allowed for unwanted children to be left exposed to the elements. The Nazi party rose to power in Germany promising prosperity and security by removing the weak links: the sick, the handicapped, and those of “impure” heritage. Not to mention that Western culture was built on the enslavement of blacks and the disenfranchisement of indigenous cultures.
The tendency to think that we can fix our problems by sacrificing the weak is always there, isn’t it? It doesn’t take much for it to come bubbling, noxiously, to the surface. Sacrifice the weak, and whatever gods we worship will be appeased and we’ll all be prosperous and happy again.
Well, except for the weak. They can’t ever be prosperous and happy in a culture that requires their death.
Christians, of course, don’t worry about appeasing other gods. We want to obey Jesus. And what we learn from Jesus is most certainly not that the weak should be sacrificed for the strong.
What we learn from Jesus is that, to change the world for the better, we should sacrifice ourselves.
We learn from Jesus that, if a life needs to be on the line, then it should be mine. We learn that if someone needs to give up some rights for the sake of others, then I should be the first to give them up. We learn from him to give what we have when it’s needed. We learn to consider others more important than ourselves.
And we learn, especially, that God is especially concerned with the way we treat those who are weak, that in Christ he is inverting our ranking systems so that the first will be last and the last will be first. We learn it, of course, not because Jesus pointed his finger and said who should die for the kingdom of God.
We learn it by seeing him give himself to die for us.
Paul tells us to “walk in the way of love,” and the examples he gives us set a very high bar. “Follow God’s example,” he says. And, if we need help knowing what the way of love looks like, he says we can look at the way Jesus “gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
So there you go: if you want an example for how to behave in this difficult time for everyone, you have it. Love like God. Love like Jesus. Give yourself up as a sacrifice.
So yes, let’s sacrifice during this pandemic. Let’s sacrifice ourselves: our time, our energy, our resources. Let’s die to impatience and fear of loss. Let’s die to selfishness and greed. Let’s give ourselves in service of our neighbors who are in need. And, please, let’s give up our individual rights to help keep those among us who are in the most danger as safe as possible.
Yes. The weak. Let’s sacrifice ourselves for them.
That is, as we’ve learned from our Lord, the way to change the world.