I was taught many years ago that when debating someone that I should be able to present my opponents’ argument in a way that they would recognise and be able to own as their own point of view. Indeed, they should be able to say “You’ve put it better than I could myself.” From there, the job was to take apart their best argument whilst defending my position against their best attack on it.
With that in mind, I want to present two examples of online Christian engagement with the COVID-19 pandemic yesterday.
Exhibit A -which will be the main focus of our attention is an article from Matthew Roberts, co-author of last week’s letter to the PM. In it he says:
“Our government has rightly sought to mitigate the effects of the disease, by social guidance and medical research. But increasingly it seems to have set itself on a course of saving us from death entirely. Everything must fall before the one aim of eliminating the virus right now. The problem is that salvation from the grave is not something it is in the power of government to do. Deliverance from death is in the gift of God, not of men.”
Exhibit B isthis tweet from a pastor in the States which formed part of the social media reaction to Robert’s article.
Now, let me start first of all with the use of statistics. A 99% survival rate sounds pretty good doesn’t it? However, as we used to say during Six Sigma training, imagine if I told you that one in a hundred bottles of milk had poison in them or that 1% of drinking water was contaminated, would you drink milk or water after that? A 99% survival rate is fine if only a small proportion of the population catch the disease. However, from what we know so far, this is a virus that spreads quickly and without measures taken could infect much of the population. In other words, the survival rate in a small borough like Sandwell would result in about 2,500 deaths, in the West Midlands, we would be talking about 25,000 deaths and over 500,000 across the UK. From that perspective we are not talking about paranoia about a few deaths but recognition that the virus had the potential to cause massive devastation and disruption to families, communities, businesses and health care services.
Secondly, to take the substantive point of both tweet and article. Would people across the country or in Government recognise the claim that they believe deliverance from death is within their gift and within the Government’s gift? From the many conversations I have with people, the answer has to be no. As much as it makes for a great apologetic point in evangelism, the claim simply does not hold up. This is not what people are thinking.
What people are thinking is that they would like to live a long life, to be able to see their children grow up, to enjoy time with their grandchildren. They know they must die some day and many are afraid of what lies beyond the grave. However, they would like to live as long as possible and enjoy life as much as possible. They don’t want to suffer an untimely death, especially if unnecessary and they don’t want to suffer horribly. This is not just about the perfectly understandable desire not to experience overwhelming pain but also concern that their relatives will be able to treasure those last days with them rather than being haunted by the horror of the end. I can understand that. I have sat with people at the end of life where they have slipped away peacefully and I have sat in a hospital room where the patient is no longer receiving food, water or medication, where death took a significant period of time and where both patient and relatives were obviously in deep distress. I know which of the two options I would prefer for my family and for me.
Secondly, there is a clue to be found in the rhetoric of those disagreeing with the Government’s approach. You will notice that the Government is being attacked by what we might call the “Sweden lobby.” That is, by those who believe that the measures taken and proposed are far too draconian, that we should have allowed a greater level of normality and that the pandemic is being over hyped. However, they are also getting a good kicking from the other side. For every person who thinks the Government rushed to implement draconian measures, there is someone who thinks that they did too little too late, that lockdown should have started earlier, been enforced more strictly and kept in place for longer.
Thirdly, the Prime Minister last week stated very clearly that the Government’s aim was to steer a middle course between complacency and hysteria. That does seem to have been the aim throughout. The Government appear to be concerned both about the impact on health of the virus and the impact on the economy of measures taken. Now, this does not mean that the middle ground is always the best place to be. I find it unwise to take a centrist position between floating and drowning. However, what it does mean is that the claim that the Government has developed a hubristic belief in its ability to defeat death simply isn’t the case.
It is important, not just for our public response to the virus but for our engagement in apologetics and also debate about theology and error that we don’t put words in the mouths and beliefs in the heads of those we disagree with. This may reduce the number of easy targets but it does make it more likely that we will get to the actual truth.