Monday, February 22, 2021

We must obey God rather than men

 I don't know who has or has not heard about this already, but Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is in jail for holding church meetings contrary to the current Covid regulations there. Here is just one MSM story about it. Here is a story about the shocking fact that the church met again this morning in defiance of the orders and in support of its jailed pastor. Good for them!

Pastor Coates will not be released pending trial because he isn't willing to agree to the extreme restrictions. More on just how extreme in a moment. Also, because he has been "caught" (by Mounties attending his suspicious church to check up on them several Sundays in a row), he himself wouldn't be allowed to go to the church at all until his trial, even if he were to grovel and submit, which he won't do. I'm going to link several Tweets here showing screen-capped statements by his wife, Erin Coates, about the nature of the restrictions and the conditions put upon him for release. Herehereherehere, and here.

One of the most distressing aspects for those of us who aren't actually in jail or related to anyone in jail (they have more distressing aspects to contend with) is hearing all the mealy-mouthed Christians talking about how now, now, this isn't really religious persecution, it's not really so bad. Some of these Twitter scolds appear to think that's the most important thing to say--It's not really persecution--while trying to pretend that they are sympathetic to Pastor Coates in jail. No you're not. Stop pretending while you race to distance yourself! If that's what you think is most important to say, you really think he's a pretty bad guy, risking blah-blah.

So here's the first point I want to make: Yes, this really is religious persecution. No, it absolutely is not necessary for the jailing of a pastor to result from a specifically anti-religious animus in order for it to be an instance of persecution.

This shouldn't be necessary to spell out. I would like to think that two years ago, pre-Covid, anyone would have understood this. But now it is necessary to spell out: When core religious activities such as meeting as the physical Body of Christ, talking to one another about deeply personal matters in person, in groups, and singing (and I could name more) are prohibited by the government, on pain of fines and/or jail, then that is religious persecution, regardless of the motive.

All we need to see this is to ask this: What if it were permanent? What if we had a government so germophobic that it banned all clubs as well as all church gatherings, all in-person group meetings where people talk to one another, all children's ministry, Sunday School, youth group, forever, but did this because of a fear of germs, not because of a hatred of religious meetings more than, say, knitting clubs? Then would we admit that the newly-jailed pastors who defy this are suffering from religious persecution?

I dunno. Maybe not. Having staked out the ridiculous, untenable position that the government can literally ban public gatherings to worship God and jail pastors but that this doesn't count as persecution as long as the powers that be are also banning public gatherings to worship Satan or football, perhaps these scolds would bite the bullet and say this even if the bans were made permanent--you know, just in case another virus that kills people should enter the world, or get passed around. Someone who holds such a position would not recognize religious persecution if it bit him in the posterior. And I hope that all the brave Baptists who went to the Gulags for holding Sunday School or meeting as church bodies in the Russian woods are rolling in their graves at such statements.

Oh, by the way, Russia bans churches from meeting as an anti-terrorist measure, if they don't have government sanction. That's a "secular" motive, so I guess that isn't religious persecution either. Also by the way, the recent ban on praying for people to help them change their sexual orientation, enacted in Victoria, Australia, is presumably motivated by a desire to curtail all activities designed to change a sexual orientation. The prayer ban is just an example of what is banned. Secular "conversion therapy" is also banned. So I guess if someone goes to jail there for trying to help someone spiritually with his unwanted same-sex desires, that won't be religious persecution either, right? I may write more about that law in another post if I have time, but we need to be aware that it's going on and that almost any ban on religious activities has some wider motive.

So the real question is whether these rules ban any truly essential religious activities, which of course takes us to the substantive question of what counts as the essence of Christianity and what activities are core. Those who think that all "church" can be "done on-line" will think that Pastor Coates is making a martyr of himself for nothing.

At this point I should probably discuss what the regulations in question actually are. All churches are required to limit attendance to 15% of fire capacity in the building, which Erin Coates says is about 1/5 to 1/6 of their congregation. She continues, "This would mean no visitors, no out-reach, no being a light to this city. Mandatory masks, social distancing, no singing…no conversing with anyone outside your home…Livestream is available but you are not allowed to have anyone into your home. These restrictions hinder James from being able to converse with the people on GLC on a Sunday as they immediately have to leave the service. We are prohibited from practising the one another’s in the gathering. Or in person at all. These have been in place since early December. Alberta has had 2 extreme lockdowns but has had restrictions on the gathering for almost [a] year. He could not sign these conditions."

No kidding. Pastor Coates has my full support.

What kind of a vision of church gathering does Alberta's government have? It's a vision in which the "gathering" part is pretty much nothing. Each little family unit arrives in the building (nobody knows why they are bothering to come into the same building at all, given what follows), just a few of them. They all sit apart. They all stare at the masked guy standing up front. He says some stuff. They pray and sing silently in their hearts. They act like a bunch of strangers coming to a movie. Maybe they wave at each other or say a few words at the outset, like, "Hi, so-and-so," but not for very long. We can't have any of that dangerous socializing or mutual support going around. They do some religious ritual-y stuff that doesn't involve touching anybody or getting within six feet of anybody for a while (not including singing), then they all must leave immediately, without stopping to converse, and go off to their separate homes, separately. If you want pastoral counsel, by golly, do it by Zoom or telephone. Same-same for if you need to talk with a friend. And above all, you can't see anybody else's face while you're in the same physical space.

In that type of "church," the entire enterprise is almost by definition members-only. How you're supposed to get new members is left unstated. You sign up for a place to make sure "too many" people don't show up. You certainly don't engage in anything like outreach or evangelistic services, sermons, or gatherings. Nobody comes spontaneously. Everything has to be carefully planned so that the people who were already, for some reason or other, members of these strange little clubs can be in the same room with each other a few at a time occasionally and exchange a wave or a few hastily-shouted words and sit and watch the same little lecture together.

If you think this is sufficient for carrying out the core mission of the Christian church for a year, or even for a couple of months, much less indefinitely (as is now the case), I cannot help you. You are beyond help. If you don't claim to be a Christian, perhaps I can suggest to you that you should permit Pastor Coates and the members of GraceLife Church to disagree with you on the embodied nature of their own religion. If you do claim to be a Christian, you are a living, breathing (through a mask) frustration to Christians like me. Just please know that. Because we have a pretty shrewd idea of what the Apostle Paul, the author of Hebrews, and a plethora of saints and martyrs through the centuries, right up through 2019, would have had to say to that. It probably starts with, "What the heck is the matter with you people?"

Mrs. Coates gets it. She's still living in a world that is so 2019, in which churches actually wanted people to come, wanted to evangelize, wanted to be there for people, wanted to be a light to their community, and believed that they met so that people could connect with each other and share their hearts.

The question of the Sacraments (or as Pastor Coates would probably call them, the Ordinances) is an interesting one. Here we have need of some harmonization. Erin Coates says that they have been forbidden to hold Communion. Wyatt Graham, the author of this notably tepid "support" (sort of?) post about Pastor Coates, says that they are allowed to carry out both Communion and baptism. I'll get to baptism in a minute.

Harmonization is my jam, so here goes: Anybody who has lived through the past year and paid attention knows that enforcement varies tremendously from case to case and locale to locale. Even from sheriff to sheriff, in the U.S. It's entirely possible that Wyatt Graham is privy to some situation where some sort of Communion is allowed, while Mrs. Coates knows full-well that it isn't being allowed at GraceLife Church. That is not even remotely implausible.

But there's also the possibility that the government is arrogating to itself the right to decide what does or doesn't count as Communion, and that Pastor Coates and GraceLife Church disagree on that. I can well imagine Roman Catholics who would not agree that the little individually-vacuum-sealed packets of juice or wine and wafers, which you pick up from some separate location rather than taking from a human being, and which you then carry away and consume when you're "socially distanced" from everybody else, count as valid Communion. While Pastor Coates doubtless wouldn't use either the term "valid" or the concept as Catholics do, I can remember plenty of Baptists from my youth who would probably have been dubious about this as well. Communion is a communal activity. So perhaps it's that GraceLife insists (gasp!) on carrying out Communion in the way they did before, which (if my Baptist background is any guide) would have involved passing around plates with broken cracker bits and plates with individual tiny cups of grape juice (already more hygienic than a common cup, for that matter) and then eating them all at the same time. Or who knows? Maybe they actually do come up to a rail. Either way, I fully believe Mrs. Coates that their Communion is not being allowed.

Mrs. Coates doesn't mention baptism one way or another, but here Wyatt Graham is on prima facie shaky ground. I seriously doubt that he or anyone else is literally carrying out baptism by using a long-distance water gun (super soaker?), and it literally is not possible to baptize another individual (adult or child, by sprinkling or immersion) from a distance of six feet. So I can only guess this: Perhaps churches that bow the neck to Caesar and agree to engage in all the other restrictions and security theater (see above) are graciously permitted to have the pastor come within six feet of one single individual, perhaps wearing some elaborate PPE, and sprinkle a little water on him very quickly, and then back off again. As long as everyone is made sufficiently uncomfortable and the operation is carried out in a way sufficiently different from the way it was done pre-pandemic, this will doubtless scare away the Covid germs. Or if it doesn't, the Government will have to rescind that permission, too.

It was, after all, the glorious health ministry of British Columbia that advised its citizens to make sexual contact with each other through holes in barriers, such as walls (yes, walls) that "allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact" in order to have "safer sex" during Covid. (You think I'm making this up, don't you? Don't Google it to verify, you'll regret it. I believe health officials in New York City made the same suggestion.) So, as with sex-through-a-wall in British Columbia, perhaps the health ministers of Alberta are suggesting/allowing baptism-through-a-wall. You never know. Anyway, Graham assures us that baptism of some sort is allowed along with having 15% of your congregation come to church, so I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief and allow ourselves to feel a tad impatient with Pastor Coates for being in jail.

This brings me to my second point: You can't avoid substantive issues here. Graham tries pretty hard to walk a tightrope of feeling or expressing some sort of sympathy toward Coates and some sort of alarm about his imprisonment, but I'm going to say right up front: It gives me a chill. The tone of the article is odd and constrained, and this is one of the more supportive pieces. I gather a lot more pastors aren't even willing to go this far. The letter to the premier of the province that he suggests that pastors sign is more strongly worded, thankfully.

But here's what I mean by saying that you cannot avoid substantive issues: There are cases where we all would not support a pastor for breaking some rule. It depends on the rule. (Compare freedom of speech. How many of us can get really enthusiastic about making sure that there is full freedom of speech for a group advocating the legalization of pedophilia? We're just not going to be that concerned, and understandably so.) So generally appeals to those who “disagree” with Coates to “support” him nonetheless require that the people hearing the appeals, who do disagree, see that disagreement as falling into a highly specific range--something like, "I disagree with Pastor Coates, but I don't disagree with him so far that I have lost sympathy for him. In general I think the authorities/cancelers/persecutors are overreacting because what he did fell into a range that should be allowed, even if I wouldn't have done it."

What we are finding in 2021 is that far fewer things fall into that highly specific range than we might have thought. Hence our appeals might as well be nakedly and openly to substance, stating outright in this case that what Pastor Coates did does not merit punishment, that it lies in the area where differences of action should be permitted. But most people who “disagree” with him are by no means sure of that. After all, the provincial officials gave him and his congregation lots of warnings, and the Mounties showed up again and again to see if they could induce him and his congregation to change their ways. The church was even fined. If you believe wholeheartedly in the wisdom of the regulations, at some point you are going to say, “What else could they do? They have to do something to try to enforce this.” In other words, if you support Pastor Coates at all, you should face it: In your heart you don't really think that these draconian, 15%, no-talking-after-the-service guidelines should be in place! Because you don't think they should be enforced. Without penalty there is no law. You think people should be allowed to flout them.

How many people who disagree with Pastor Coates sincerely think that? Admit it: Not a whole lot.

I was brought up against this rather sharply when a good friend of mine on social media, who fully supports Pastor Coates's actions, shared an open letter from a Canadian calling for people to support Pastor Coates even if they disagree with him. One of her friends then showed up in the thread and asked, all ingenuous curiosity, what is really being asked of him? How, he asked, can he go about supporting Pastor Coates while disagreeing with him? He asked, suavely, whether it would count as "support" if he were to suggest to the government that they fine Pastor Coates rather than imprisoning him.

Well, no. No, that wouldn't count. But it strikingly illustrates the point: At some point, pretty much all procedural disagreements, especially about matters of policy, end up being disagreements about substance. You can't avoid it, so we might as well not try. Pure neutrality is not possible in policy, and often not even desirable. (This looks like a really good article along these lines by Ryan Anderson, tho' unfortunately I'm able to read only the opening, because I'm not a subscriber.)

I'm really glad that GraceLife chose to meet today. That may show that the attempt to crack down and enforce these regulations is not entirely working out as intended. In fact, another church is also standing up. God bless Pastor Tim Stephens. We should admit the sobering fact, however, that probably the intent is to terrify others into complying, and that may be working to a large extent. Even if GraceLife isn't shut down, many other churches may be shutting down because their pastors, priests, or bishops don't have the courage of Pastor Coates.

(And where are the Catholics, by the way, in these locations? I don't mean to be un-ecumenical, and I love my Catholic friends, but it's a crying shame that the official non-sacramentalists are taking Catholic bishops to school on the importance of Incarnation and physical Presence in worship. From what I'm hearing, most Catholic bishops seem to be out there telling their flocks to stay at home, watch a livestream, and have "spiritual Communion" and forbidding their priests to visit even the dying, while Baptists are going to jail for the right to have Communion in person.)

May God richly bless Pastor Coates, his wife, and his children, Pastor Stephens, and all the other pastors, priests, and Christian ministers throughout the world who are keeping the flame of Christianity, which is by definition in-person Christianity, alive through this very dark time.

Cross-posted at W4

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