Rosaria Butterfield is a former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University and author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown & Covenant, 2012) and Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ (Crown & Covenant, 2015). Her new book is The Gospel Comes with a House Key (Crossway, 2018).
Recently, after COVID-19 was declared a rapidly spreading pandemic ravaging every nation on earth, the president declared the United States in a state of emergency, public schools shut down interminably, colleges abruptly released their students for home, and social distancing became the new norm.
Although these were clearly extraordinary times—I twice disinfected doorknobs, bathrooms, light switches, and all surfaces that didn’t have a cat sleeping on them—my doorbell continued to ring. Homeless dogs, college students, and neighbors with pressing needs stood on the porch like it was any other Saturday. But the pandemic had displaced them (some physically, some emotionally), and a single question filled the six feet between us: “How does this change things? What does radical, Christian hospitality look like under COVID-19?”
My husband, Kent, came to the door with an answer: “We aren’t sure yet. Are you feeling healthy? Would you like to join us for lunch? Or would you like us to share what we have for you to take with you?”
Kent’s unrehearsed response helped answer the question for me and clarified four important truths.
1. Practicing the Christian ethic of hospitality under COVID-19 demonstrates Christian brotherhood and good Samaritan care for those whose lives are upended and who need help.
With schools closed, students often have nowhere to spend their days. Both college students and school kids need tangible help, and in a climate of social distancing, this may feel like risky business. We need to assess the situation carefully, but giving traveling students and displaced public-schooled children temporary shelter while they get home or while their parents make suitable arrangements during times of unprecedented crisis is not the same thing as “arranging play dates.”
What does Christian hospitality look like under COVID-19?
Older and immunocompromised neighbors need help getting groceries and medication. The risk of infection is too high to send them out for basic needs. Yesterday morning, I went shopping to gather supplies for our house as well as the homes of two neighbors. Some of the rules about grocery shopping are new: at Costco yesterday, we had to obey the rules about rationing (only one gallon of milk and one rotisserie chicken per cart), accept the reality of empty shelves (no rice, no Clorox wipes, no baby wipes), and practice patience as the store limited the number of shoppers in the warehouse.
Providing immediate, tangible care for our neighbors demonstrates our love for them and our desire to do good for their bodies and souls. Mark 12:30 reminds us: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength . . . and love your neighbor as yourself.” God’s command on our life leaves no room for hoarding or panic. Text frequently and pray daily for people whose health or age makes them most vulnerable both to COVID-19 and to gripping fear. Learn their needs. Make their comfort your priority.
2. Practicing the Christian ethic of hospitality under COVID-19 demonstrates our fear of God, not of men (and the virus they may carry). We are to live coram Deo—before the face of God.
Practicing hospitality when we could be killed by (or kill) a person standing a few feet away boggles the mind and wearies the soul. Psalm 150:6 declares, “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!” But we live in a world where the very act of breathing is dangerous.
Christians must look to God—and his glory—more than we look to the physical danger around us. As John Calvin writes:
“God expects a very different kind of practical wisdom from us [Christians], namely that we should meditate on his judgments in a time of adversity and on his goodness in delivering us from danger. For surely it is not by mere chance that a person falls into the hands of enemies or robbers; neither is it by chance that a person is rescued from them. But what we must constantly keep in mind is that all afflictions are God’s rod, and therefore there is no remedy for them other than God’s grace.”
Precautions, medical interventions, and vaccines have value, but our ultimate hope is not in any of them. God is sovereign over every breath we take, even the breath of someone who carries disease and enters our six-foot bubble. If “all afflictions are God’s rod,” our task is to fear God more than man and the virus he may carry.
Providing immediate, tangible care for our neighbors demonstrates our love for them and our desire to do good for their bodies and souls.
Christian ethics during plague years requires Christian wisdom and much of it. And Christian wisdom often looks different from the world’s wisdom. While the world screams “run and hide,” the Lord often calls us to stay and help. In 1527, Martin Luther authored an essay titled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” Its practical wisdom is a balm for our day:
“Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone. . . . It takes more than a milk faith to await a death before which most of the saints themselves have been and still are in dread.”
Pastors and other people in leadership, says Luther, must not flee the plague, but instead should remain in the community to help others until the dread has passed. Because we fear God and live before his face, we will often prioritize unseen and spiritual things—things our world knows nothing of. Christians know that the dread of death can only be met by the redemption in Jesus Christ, so we need to proclaim Christ to a COVID-19 world with urgency, fervency, and compassion.
Luther understood that the physical and spiritual stakes are high—and we should too. Should we risk bringing people into our home who are stranded? Christians will arrive at different positions based on our circumstances. One family will make phone calls, another will deliver groceries, another will welcome the stranger to sleep on the couch. Each household may serve its neighbors in different ways, but each should intend serve. Faced with temptation to fear men, we seek to grow our “milk faith” into a “meat faith” that looks to God alone.
3. Practicing the Christian ethic of hospitality under COVID-19 means soaking yourselves in the means of grace; it means feasting on Scripture, not CNN.
The psalmist says that through the means of grace, we go “from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion” (Ps. 84:7). The Word, prayer, and sacraments give us the fortitude we need for today’s task.
At the Butterfield house, we are fasting and praying in repentance for the private sins of selfishness and lacking true love of enemies (and a host of many others). And we are repenting of the public sins of abortion and sexual licentiousness and greed (and a host of many others).
We are singing psalms from The Book of Psalms for Worship, notably Psalm 46 (“God is our refuge and our strength / A present help in our distress”), Psalm 91 (“who with God Most High finds shelter / In th’ Almighty shadow hides”), and Psalm 98 (“For he shall come, he surely comes / The judge of earth to be / He’ll judge the world with righteousness, and all with equity”).
Singing psalms is powerful spiritual medicine; by using our mouths and lungs to proclaim the Word in the hearing of others, we embody the way that the Word of God acts in our lives and in the world. Psalm-singing is an aid to repentance and spiritual clarity, and it provides the Christian with a bounty of strength, fortitude, and courage in the face of danger. We pray as COVID-19 is rapidly spreading through every nation and tongue, that true and heartfelt repentance will usher in revival. We pray that Christian revival will spread faster than COVID-19.
Daniel Defoe, most famous for writing Robinson Crusoe, penned a small book years earlier titled A Journal of the Plague Year. This is Crusoe’s historical-fictional journal of life under the bubonic plague of 1665. Crusoe was 5 years old when the bubonic plague laid waste to his world. His insightful book begins with thanks to God for something that made me laugh out loud. Defoe expresses thanks that no newspaper—or other means of spreading “newsworthy information” about the bubonic plague—existed in 1665. Crusoe writes: “We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumors and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men.”
The dread of death can only be met by the redemption in Jesus Christ, so we need to proclaim Christ to a COVID-19 world with urgency, fervency, and compassion.
Wisely, Crusoe understood that the plague is bad enough; we ought not add emotional manipulation to it. In 2020, we can scarcely escape media coverage of COVID-19—nor can we seem to distinguish information from the vile stream of gossip and slander that passes as “information” from pundits and crackpots. If we ourselves haven’t succumbed to obsessive checking of CNN or other newsfeeds, someone in our intimate circle has and is more than willing to share new (bad) news. We understandably desire to gain knowledge about this novel virus, but new viruses never come with user manuals.
Some of us are old enough to remember what life was like when the Centers for Disease Control reported in 1981 the first five cases of Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP) in young men who practiced homosexuality in Los Angeles, and how this seemingly isolated event became the global crisis known as the HIV pandemic. Then, as now, dire news reports become a ready excuse to distance ourselves from our neighbors out of fear.
When we feast on CNN instead of Scripture to ease the existential dread that captures our souls, we become useless, unable to help ourselves or our neighbors. Ephesians 2:10 reminds us that we are Christ’s workmanship, that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” No matter what you read or hear on the news, you are to take heart. Before COVID-19 became part of our vocabulary and nightmare, God prepared good works for the Christian to do.
Jesus warns: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed” (Matt. 24:6). But how? How do we turn off this ever-raging panic alarm or the never-ending newsfeed? By feasting on the Word of God, by appealing to God in long seasons of prayer (the kind that pulls down the power of heaven to bear on the pain of today), and by loving your neighbors well enough to share the gospel and invite them to put their hope and trust in Christ alone for salvation.
4. Practicing the Christian ethic of hospitality under COVID-19 means obeying the civil magistrate’s efforts to “flatten the curve” and honoring the sixth commandment.
The sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” reminds Christians of both our positive and negative duties in times of plague. Faced with COVID-19, there are things we should do, and there are things we should not do. In all things, we seek the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, one of the historic confessions of the Reformed church, helpfully illuminates this commandment. The sixth commandment, the catechism says, requires us to “to preserve the life of ourselves and others.” We do this in many ways:
“by . . . avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any, [by] patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit, a sober use of meat, drink, medicine, sleep, labor, and recreations, [and by] comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.”
By generally avoiding gatherings and close contact, by taking care of our own bodies, and by giving help to others, we uphold the sixth commandment.
Thinking Christians do not want to unintentionally cause the death of others by spreading a virus that spares some and kills others. Obeying the civil magistrate’s order to distance, isolation, or quarantine is obedience to God’s law.
In practical ways, in our neighborhood, this means that while our neighbors who are doctors and nurses are working long hours, we are serving them by walking their dogs and sharing our provisions with them. They have to go out (dogs and doctors); we don’t.
In the weeks and months ahead, our lives may change in ways we cannot now imagine. And our faith may grow in ways we couldn’t have imagined without the testing of COVID-19. Christian hospitality shines brightest in days of persecution and plague. During hard times—dangerous times—when Christians demonstrate that real love takes courage, we model Christ to a watching world.
COVID-19 is not going to overcome the world. Christ is. “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4).