Last week, President Donald Trump declared churches “essential” and ordered governors “to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now.” Make no mistake: This is a demand that in effect encourages congregations to kill people.
As the senior minister of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, I am all too familiar with the trauma houses of worship are experiencing right now — the past three months have been some of the most painful I’ve experienced in almost 30 years as a pastor. Separation and isolation inflict tremendous psychic agony on top of already dire circumstances; I so badly want to congregate in worship again. However, the science points to religious services as some of the gatherings most likely to spread Covid-19. The president’s attempt to forcibly reopen churches is more than simple ignorance. It’s part of a broader trend of lethal policy decisions.
Holding services puts our congregants at great risk. The combination of high-risk activities like singing, hugging, and shaking hands along with traditions like taking communion or hosting coffee hours indoors gives in-person services the potential to be superspreader events. Moreover, religious communities are often disproportionately elderly, making it even more likely that those who gather might get sick and die. To reopen in these circumstances is more than irresponsible, it’s downright blasphemous — a grotesque betrayal of our God who doesn’t actually live in our buildings (Acts 17.24).
The Bible is filled with exhortations to preserve life — it is our highest calling. The fifth commandment puts it plainly, “You shall not kill,” but this broader theme is a constant throughout Scripture. Indeed, the events at the heart of my Christian faith — Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection — depict life overcoming the Empire’s power to kill. How can those who profess to follow Jesus obey a political decree that will crucify our congregants? It violates the very heart of the gospel.
But I would be remiss to treat the president’s deadly order as if it were an anomaly. Truthfully, it’s part of a broader trend of policy choices — at all levels of government — and institutional biases that carry predictably fatal consequences. We must look beyond the individual outrage and recognize the undergirding patterns that disregard vulnerable lives as if they do not matter.
We are engulfed by evidence of systemic white supremacy. My heart is reeling in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal public execution, but it’s not enough to prosecute the officers who killed him — we must dismantle racist police systems that predictably and reliably kill Black people. It’s not enough to get mad at Amy Cooper — we need deeper change so white women like Cooper can no longer use police as a tool to threaten Black neighbors. And it’s not enough to condemn this particular presidential abuse without also naming how the president routinely kills and maims those on the margins through policy.
Tens of thousands of people are killed each year due to ridiculously lax gun legislation he defends. Child hunger is soaring because of our woefully anemic safety net and federal cruelty. Thousands have been kidnapped at our border at his command. And more than 16,000 people have already died in my city because the president failed to prepare for the coronavirus and did not prioritize giving New York the aid we needed.
So, while I’m horrified by the president’s callousness in demanding houses of worship be allowed to open, I cannot say I’m surprised. And I am not surprised by how many white Americans continue to support him — it is part of our country’s foundational white supremacy. Our social contract has always made its peace with brutality and death to secure the power of whiteness.
I will not reopen our church for this president. I love our congregants too much to risk their lives, and religious communities don’t need to hold services in a building to stay spiritually connected. Our church has been gathering online since mid-March; each week we find creative ways to make worship interactive and engaging. And we offer a plethora of other opportunities to congregate online, from weekly dinner parties and writing groups, to ukulele lessons and choir rehearsal. The Church is not a building. It is the people who worship inside it. If we endanger their lives just so we can walk through the church doors on Sunday, that building has become an idol.
But it’s not sufficient for individual faith leaders to make responsible choices. We desperately need a broader repentance to change this nation’s values. Love for our neighbors cannot remain an individual choice; it must be the guiding principle beneath laws, governance, and how we cast our votes. Pastors should not be “free” to infect their communities. People should not be “free” to purchase weapons that cause mass death. Police officers should not be “free” to murder Black people as they “protect and serve.”
These acts are not true freedom; they maim and kill. It’s time for the American people to rise up and reject the injustice we’ve been handed — the politics that treat mass suffering and death as if they were unavoidable. We must demand deep and radical change: It’s time to choose life.
Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, PhD, is the senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City’s East Village. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @RevJacquiLewis.