Yes, Church Is Essential!
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the definition of what constitutes “essential services” has been a matter of continued public discussion. Different emphases and various controversies have erupted across multiple political jurisdictions. Whether purposely forgotten or just assigned to bureaucratic limbo, churches have mostly had all the appearances of a cultural afterthought — sanctuary worship being placed behind other public gathering points as diverse as grocery stores and alcohol outlets.
In some jurisdictions, government regulation has truly looked ham-handed, insensitive, and even prejudicial. Oregon singled-out Christian schools for closure before public ones. British Columbia oddly prioritized marijuana dispensaries. San Diego was so lenient on strip clubs that one church decided to open and declare itself a “family friendly strip club” in order to protest the bizarre governmental bias.
Confusing ‘Essential’ With ‘Immediate’
Last spring, church probably didn’t look all that “essential” to government, but the subsequent ebb-and-flow of an epidemic inevitably causes people to reflect more upon the phrase, “essential service.” Quite arguably, in the minds of today’s governance the word “essential” has become a synonym for “immediate” — in a kind of “Maslow’s Hierarchy” of epidemic response.
Maslow’s famous diagram considered such things as food, water, and reproduction to be “first order” — the “foundation stones” at the base of his famous triangle. However, even Maslow admitted that other needs were still human “needs” — unlike some COVID-driven public policy, which seems stuck on the lowest level of the pyramid.
In the immediate, of course, people do need water and they do need food. And they do need to avoid a contagious disease. So, there are good reasons to keep Costco open during a pandemic while shuttering “non-essential” institutions and businesses. But the longer a crisis continues the more other things begin to look essential in nature.
The pyramid hasn’t stood up as the hierarchy Maslow thought it was, but it’s still useful as a way of thinking about human needs. We don’t approach our needs in that order, and neither should public policy.
‘Man Shall Not Live By Bread Alone’
At first glance, a mother’s love may not be as essential as a toddler’s food and water, but the truth is that the longer a child goes without love the more devastating the absence. Thirteenth century emperor Frederick II reportedly once tried to keep infants alive without affection and without communication — without “the word,” a pastor might say.
The infants were dutifully fed and changed. Yet, all the children involved died, according to a Franciscan monk and contemporary of the Emperor. Admittedly, there is some doubt whether this horrific experimentation took place, but there is zero doubt of the veracity of its conclusion. We know from more modern sources that emotional deprivation has serious and potentially lethal, human consequences.
Frederick’s experiment is still alluded to in some forms of medical training. Interestingly, it can become a metaphor applicable even to the Church. For some people, a trip to Costco might look more important during COVID than a trip to church. In the immediate sense, these people might even be right.
The longer a community goes without its spiritual, moral and emotional support, thought, the worse off that community gets. Extend it for six months and there is greater anxiety. Extend it out a generation or two — deny the moral arguments, the ethical exemplars, the Christian culture of care, the existence of transcendent truth — and you will have serious community breakdown, guaranteed.
If politicians are correct in suggesting that “it takes a village,” that village must certainly include the village church.
‘Essential’ and ‘Immediate’ Are Not Synonyms
We cannot continue, therefore, to view “essential” as a mere synonym for “immediate.” We must think longer term. This is the issue that Christians must place before their government representatives at all levels. Government policy is often concerned with the immediately immediate. If necessary, government would prioritize oxygen over food — and rightly so. Still, the essential truth remains. Deny the value of food and people still die — just a bit slower than with asphyxiation.
As regards human needs, Jesus (like Maslow) also believed in a hierarchy of sorts. He knew that not all essential needs are immediate needs. Hence, Jesus wasn’t shy in reminding the Devil what Moses knew — that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Bread is important. It’s just not the only thing that’s important.
Hence, for Jesus, an open Costco without an open Church would never have been enough — past a point.