“God told me your aunt will get better.”
Three months before my beloved aunt died of cancer, a pastor from my home church gave me these words of reassurance. I held on to these words in faith as I prayed each night for the aunt I could always count on to hug me when it felt like no one else wanted me. I would always cherish the love she showed me while I lived with her as a child. My aunt was a wonderful person — there was no way God would allow her to die, especially since I was praying with all the faith and love I had in my heart.
After an eight-month battle with cancer, my aunt died, and the pastor’s once-promising words haunted me. For years I would continue to lie awake at night, wondering, If I’d had more faith, would my aunt have recovered? Is God not powerful or sovereign? Does faith even matter in the end? Why should I even bother to pray?
What tempts Christians to offer platitudes or unfounded reassurances? It is the same temptation that the loud, white, male pastors we see in the media are currently succumbing to during the coronavirus pandemic. It is the temptation to avoid the reality of suffering. And it stems from a gross misunderstanding of what faith in Jesus actually means.
Our U.S. version of Christianity is the great-grandchild of the Constantinian Empire and American white supremacy. Upon defeating the Spanish armada, England became enamored with the idea that they were God’s chosen. This theology transported to the North American continent, giving birth to Manifest Destiny, Native American genocide, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The theology birthed out of this heritage is one that privileges some over others, then calls the wealthy and powerful blessed by God, while blaming those who are suffering for their lack of faith. This theology left room for racial injustice to run not just unchecked by pulpits but reinforced by white preachers. White Christian preachers and leaders justified transporting and murdering or enslaving 12.5 million Africans by claiming that people with black skin bore the “Mark of Cain” and were chosen to suffer. This pattern of using Christianity to justify injustice was not just limited to North America. It echoed throughout the world as conquistadores and colonizers carried this toxic theology with them everywhere they went. They saw themselves as chosen by God to rule over other people and take any land they so desired. Indigenous, African, Latinx, Middle-Eastern, and Asian peoples were seen as faithless and therefore not deserving of land, families, citizenship, or basic human rights.
This perverted theology is the complete opposite of what Jesus preached. In Luke 6:20-22 (NIV), Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” These words are meant as a promise for those whose humanity is being denied, who are starving and suffering loss. In Jesus’ holy community, those who are being persecuted are the most honored.
Jesus had choice words for the powerful and wealthy in our world — and it was not, You are blessed and chosen, you are my city upon a hill. No, Jesus’ words for the powerful served as a warning, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24-25, NIV).
Pausing to let these words sink in, I recognize these words of woe are also for me. I have a graduate degree, which only the top 1 percent of the world has. I have a job that I can do from home, which less than 30 percent of American workers can do. My only inconvenience with getting food is deciding how to shop so I don’t have to wait in line or expose myself unnecessarily to the coronavirus. Woe to me for obsessing more over how I can maintain my comfortable life — no really, where can I buy some kimchi, because H-Mart’s next delivery window is two months away? — than over how I can comfort those in my community who are really suffering. Jesus’ words wake me up in a not-so-gentle way to how my lack of comfort is nowhere near the same as actual suffering.
These words of woe also have a message for the 7 percent of church leaders who have continued to meet during the coronavirus pandemic, many of whom seem to be extra-loud megachurch leaders. Woe to you who think you’re invincible. Woe to you who have the overabundance of privilege to be able to spout reckless, unfounded lies and still have thousands of people listen to you. Woe to you who laugh at those who are suffering and mourning those we’ve lost to COVID, for you too will mourn and weep.
These reckless pastors are guilty of a thousand crimes, including but not limited to spiritual manipulation of their congregants, making them think that choosing to not physically attend church marks a lack of faith in God’s power. These pastors are guilty of bullying their congregants into risking their lives. These crimes reveal deep insecurity, weak faith, and wrong theology. These reckless pastors have a faith that is filled with the fear of suffering. And the only tool they have to address suffering is denial. So they cover over the death and suffering with platitudes that sound benign but spiritually weigh down their congregations: God doesn’t give you a spirit of fear, so don’t be afraid to come to church. God promises to protect you, so if you truly believed God’s promises, then you wouldn’t be afraid of getting the coronavirus.
These statements are not true. It is the megachurch leaders who are truly afraid, who, by telling their congregants to stay at home, would lose donations, prestige, and their image as bold, strong, and chosen leaders. They are afraid to admit they are not like God, that they do not have control over the world. A truly faithful action for them is to admit that they are only human, yes, created in God’s image and loved by God, but no more. They do not have the power to protect people from coronavirus by their sheer say-so. To be faithful is to repent, admit our limitations, and cry out for God’s mercy.
As a newly minted executive pastor, I will confess that I was uncertain about calling off our in-person church service on March 15. We were already practicing a “responsible radius” at church with no hugs or handshakes and prepackaged snacks. Would we lose the momentum we were building with our congregation? Would our plans for holy week fall apart? We were already a church that struggled with connectivity since we were physically spread out across the boroughs and beyond. In the end, I am incredibly grateful to say that the last time we met in person was March 8. As of May 22, I have learned of nine of our regular attenders who have gone through COVID and are thankfully either recovered or recovering. If we had continued to meet, it is likely that the spread would have been much, much worse. For us, choosing to stay at home was a faithful choice so we could protect the most vulnerable in our congregation, even at the cost of the “business” of church.
Since then, we have seen our congregation woven together more tightly than before. We gather virtually to pray together two to three times a day, have seen higher church attendance, and rejoiced as new people have joined our community and the body of Christ. We have found comfort in the mystery of being loved by a God who suffers along with us. As many of us mourn the loss of neighbors, family members, mentors, and loved ones, we discover God’s comfort and tenderness in new ways. As we call out the injustices against our homeless or undocumented neighbors and against Black and Latinx communities, we cannot find comfort until we see a God who not only says, “Woe to those who are rich,” but also dismantles the evil systems around us. This is the God who has already come and for whom we continue to wait.
I have forgiven the misguided pastor who made a mistake, trying to show her faith by making a bold and reckless statement. I know she was struggling to prove her faith in God’s power and took a risk to demonstrate that faith. Her risk caused me to have a crisis of faith for a couple of years, but I eventually recovered. The risk certain pastors are taking right now is killing grandparents, parents, siblings, police officers, teachers, community leaders, doctors, nurses, janitors, civic servants, and so many others in their communities. These are losses that can never be recovered.
Let us all repent from the toxic theology that is afraid of admitting we are all merely human and susceptible to suffering in this life. For those of us who are suffering, let us take comfort in Jesus who suffered and the God who fights for us in the midst of our suffering. For those of us who are comfortable, let us take up the practice of fasting and release our addiction to comfort. Who knows? Maybe God will have mercy on us despite the ways our comfort and complacency have and continue to perpetuate injustice in our world.