You can’t tell me what to do!
Sounds like something a five-year old would say. But protesters all over the country are pouting like five-year old children because they are being told to shelter in place or wear a mask in public. They use more sophisticated words (slightly) and couch their arguments in terms of being denied personal freedom, but the truth is these protests are largely the result of a five-year old temper tantrum. “You can’t tell me what to do!” Yet, our society tells people ALL THE TIME what they can and cannot do. It’s just that these people don’t like THIS one. We develop rules and guidelines in the form of laws and regulations to protect the community at large. We have stop signs and crosswalks and lane lines to guide people in traffic. I’ve never heard someone argue successfully they didn’t need to obey them because it infringes on their personal freedom. We have statutes in place preventing people from shouting fire in a theater or selling fake COVID-19 medicine and again, no one has argued successfully they didn’t need to obey them because it infringes on their personal freedom.
I have a lot more sympathy for people making the economic argument.
There are businesses out there, mostly mom and pop businesses, that will likely not be able to recover from this disaster. The pandemic has highlighted some serious problems in our system of government and the way we take care of each other that scholars and advocates have been shouting about for decades but have now come screaming into the light. Access to decent healthcare, how we take care of the elderly, and an inability to effectively distribute food and supplies where it is needed come to mind. And of course, a crisis not only brings out the best in people, but the worst, too. We are having to adapt on the fly to new forms of predatory lending, unscrupulous companies taking advantage of government programs designed to help the little guy, and people hoarding essential supplies and then reselling them at outrageous prices. When we add the unprecedented sudden high rate of unemployment on top of all the other issues we’re facing, it’s no wonder people are crying out for relief. Certainly, we have to find a better way to prevent food and housing insecurity during this crisis. But risking people’s death because we don’t like people telling us what to do seems to be the ultimate in selfish behavior.
There’s no denying we value freedom.
Freedom is one of the most important values our country was founded upon. The freedom of choice, freedom of the press, freedom of self-expression are those for which we have fought and died for. But sometimes the most brilliant, loving, and self-sacrificial way we can show how much we value that freedom is when we choose not to use it. Paul talks about it explicitly in his first letter to the church at Corinth. He spends a great deal of time talking about freedom and the freedom he is given as a believer in Christ. But he also believes how we CHOOSE to use that freedom says a lot about our faith. Here’s what Paul has to say:
Sounds a bit like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
“You can’t handle the truth!” Maybe we can’t. Maybe we struggle with this idea that freedom isn’t just the right to do what we want, but is also the right to choose not to. Just because we have the right doesn’t mean we ought to do it. That’s what Paul is arguing here. There were people complaining about him and the other disciples not “earning their keep” so Paul launches into this argument about it. First, he establishes his credentials. Number one: He’s an apostle. He’s not just some schmuck out there, peddling a false gospel. HE actually saw and spoke to Jesus Christ himself! Now if THAT doesn’t earn you some street cred, I don’t know what does. But more than that, he actually founded the church at Corinth. It was because of his work that they even exist. So he tells them, “Look, other people may doubt my credibility, but none of you would be here if it wasn’t for the work I put in.” So then he moves into the argument that all that work deserves some reward. They are in the business of saving people’s souls after all and if THAT doesn’t deserve the occasional In-N-Out Double-Double, what does? There are other people out there doing work a lot less significant who get compensated for their time, so don’t those who are working hard to spread the Gospel deserve something for their effort? Paul argues they do.
But what makes Paul’s argument the most convincing is what he writes next.
He goes on to say that even though they HAVE the right, they choose not to use it to make sure no one can question their motives. They want to make sure no one can accuse them of impropriety. They want to make sure everything they do is above reproach to protect the sanctity of the gospel message. Later on, in the same letter to the church at Corinth he writes, “23 ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. That is the barometer Paul uses to measure the proper use of freedom. It’s not about what we get out of it, but about what we do that adds to the good of others. If eating at home instead of in a restaurant can save a life, if wearing a mask when you go to the store can save a life, isn’t that worth giving up a tiny bit of your freedom?
We seem to be so focused on ourselves we fail to see the impact we are having on people around us.
The divisiveness. The bitterness. The irrational hatred aimed at people who are only trying to save our lives. I saw a picture online the other day from the Los Angeles Times about this group of protesters up in Sacramento. Fifteen hundred people protesting the stay-at-home orders, all crowded together like it was a Trump rally, none of them in the picture wearing masks or social distancing. People carrying signs that read “Death happens / Open CA now” and “Our Constitutional rights are ESSENTIAL.” One person was holding a sign that read, “California’s Civil War starts today.” Are people really equating an order to stay at home with institutional slavery? Are they so far detached from reality that they think the two are anywhere in the same ball park? Most ironic of all was this one guy in the crowd wearing a shirt that says, “Truth matters.” Ironic because it does and yet these people seem to be ignoring it. More than 1.3 million cases have been reported of COVID-19 in America with over 80,000 deaths. And while the number of new cases is declining, it’s still in excess of 20,000 per day with more than 1,000 people dying every 24 hours from this coronavirus, and that’s with social distancing in place. The truth, if it matters, is that these policies have helped to “flatten the curve” and to slow down the spread of the virus, but it hasn’t gone away. Is it unreasonable to take precautions like keeping your distance and wearing a face mask in public if it might help save someone’s life?
But this goes beyond face masks and social distancing.
It says a lot about who we are as a people. Christ challenges us to love one another. Paul writes to the church that we need to seek the good of others and not of ourselves. How can we best do THAT? We need to rise above the narrow, small-minded way of looking at the world as revolving around our wants and our needs and instead embrace the challenge Christ puts before us and love others. Instead of attending rallies to open up the economy let’s find ways to open up our hearts toward our fellow neighbor. Instead of shouting out about being denied civil rights, let’s find a way to stop denying people food and shelter. There are plenty of problems in the world and wearing a face mask isn’t one of them. We have much bigger fish to fry.
Just a little over a week ago something tragic happened.
It was the sad ultimate expression of that five-year old temper tantrum. “You can’t tell me what to do!” And even though it happened in Flint, Michigan, I am reminded of something Dr. King wrote in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” He wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” So I grieve over the death of Calvin Munerlyn. Calvin didn’t die of COVID-19. Instead, Calvin was a security guard at a local Family Dollar store and when he went up to Sharmel Teague and informed her that her nine-year old daughter needed to wear a face mask to shop in the store they got into it and Sharmel ended up spitting at Calvin before leaving with her daughter. Twenty minutes later, Sharmel’s husband Larry, and her son Ramonyea Bishop came in and confronted Calvin about “disrespecting” Sharmel. It was at that point Ramonyea blew a hole in the back of Calvin’s head. The most tragic expression of “You can’t tell me what to do!” Calvin Munerlyn, age 43, husband and father of nince, died that day. Over a face mask.
We are living in scary times.
And with so much uncertainty and so many problems coming to light, it’s easy to become self-absorbed and self-involved when the world seems to be collapsing in on us. It’s easy to become impatient and anxious. But now more than ever we have to remember Christ’s command to turn that around and love one another. We have to challenge ourselves to remember the great impact we have on the world around us. How the actions of one person can have devastating or uplifting effects on those around us. If we’re going to get through this well, it has to be together. So practice patience, perseverance, and love. Lay down your anger and your fear at the feet of Christ. Turn to him in prayer. And let God help shoulder the burden. We need to remember that sometimes the greatest act of love is not in the use of our freedom but in choosing not to. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.