The Polarizing Pandemic
May 21, 2020
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
We are living in a highly polarized society. Disagreeing opinions have very little overlap, making compromise difficult. People talk more than they hear, and they hear more than they listen. People rally and argue and protest, but they rarely build bridges across the divides. Political candidates represent the extreme ends of their party’s platform, and those in the middle are accused of being weak on issues. Opinions on social media are strongly worded and leave no room for useful discussion. Family members have broken fellowship over the Trump v. Clinton election. Friendships are strained over differing definitions of social distancing. The world we live in is broken, and people are afraid. Fear, in fact, is the most insidious form of brokenness. It penetrates the very marrow of our character and changes our motivations. The values and ideals we hold dear are corrupted by fear such that we no longer act based on what we believe, but rather out of avoidance of what we fear.
A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has certainly not lessened polarization and fear. Patients fear their cough and fever is due to COVID-19. Friends fear they have been exposed and don’t know what to do. Family members fear their vulnerability due to chronic illness. Small business owners fear they won’t be able to weather the economic impact. Young adults fear not being able to return to college. Working parents fear the impact of their kids not returning to school in the fall. Many people fear the government and its motivations. Shoppers fear the person down the aisle who didn’t wear a mask. Physicians fear other essential workers will be rewarded and they will be left out. Nurses fear they will have to follow orders that put them in danger of infection. Administrators fear their hospitals will not remain solvent. And, if my Facebook feed is any indication, everyone fears everyone else who doesn’t agree with them.
And fear leads to lashing out. To blaming someone, justifiably or not. To believing, and even spreading, misinformation. Fear pushes people out of their window of self-control and politeness. Fear is the underlying cause of bigotry, hatred, shaming and judgment. Fear is the reason your friends on Facebook are fighting with each other in the comments on your post. Fear is the reason otherwise socially appropriate people become venomous when referencing a leader who they believe is handling COVID-19 incorrectly. In contrast, a person who has peace and confidence in his beliefs doesn’t need to hate or judge. Other people’s wrongs don’t threaten the truth he holds. Those who are so caustically and strenuously defending truth as they see it are doing so out of fear on some level.
Finding ourselves in this society polarized by fear, how should we then live? Francis Shaeffer asked this question in 1976, but mankind has been asking it since the dawn of time. I have found myself asking this age-old question as I have sought to find a way to live in the tensions of the time, acknowledging my own fears, facing my own doubts and doing what I can to support others in doing the same. It is incumbent upon me, both as a physician, in possession of scientific truth, and as a Christian, in possession of spiritual truth, to spread truth to those around me. Knowing the truth and keeping it quietly to myself makes me complicit in the problem. On the other hand, as Pope Benedict XVI said, “Truth may be vital, but without love, it is unbearable.” I will never successfully shame, criticize or judge another person into believing truth, regardless of how true it is. Shame, criticism and judgment only magnify fear. Sometimes, as we walk through life with others in our community, there is a truth deeper than the facts. That is the truth of God’s grace.
Don’t mistake me here. I am not talking about blithely letting people continue in error in an attempt not to shame or judge. I am not talking about affirming error—scientific, theological or otherwise—as a way to make people feel better. That’s not what God’s grace does. God’s grace is manifest in that He knows that we are all broken, fearful and ashamed, that He loves us as we are and that He refuses to leave us this way. He loves us in our brokenness and error, and then, step by step, He lifts us out of them. God’s redemption story is a story of redeeming our lives here on Earth, even as He prepares us for eternal life in heaven. And as we wait for heaven, God pours heaven out onto the world through us—through the broken people who have communion with Him. And through us, He helps other broken people become full and restored.
If we are vessels of God’s grace and voices of God’s truth to the world, it’s important we reflect God, both in what we say and in how we say it. Through John the Apostle, God told us that there is no greater joy than to hear his children are walking in truth (3 John 1:4). Jesus Himself said we would know the truth and the truth will set us free (John 8:32). And Paul commands us to think on whatever is true, as well as noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). Jesus always spoke truth in every conversation He had during his earthly ministry. But truth used as a weapon is not noble, right, pure or really even true anymore, because we are speaking those true facts in a way that is not consistent with God’s heart. For example, Jesus didn’t give the woman at the well a discourse on respecting the institution of marriage, though it would certainly have been true. He gave her an opportunity for relationship with Him. In the same way, every time we speak, we should stop and think about the fact that we are speaking to a fellow child of God, equally precious to Him. As we encourage one another in life with God, we build relationships that allow truth to be shared in a meaningful and helpful way.
In the New Testament, there are only two ways Jesus says His followers can be identified: by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20) and by their love (John 13:35). How well are we doing at fruit and love during these strange days? The COVID-19 pandemic is, in many ways, a grand adventure of faith. It is an opportunity to leave our comfortable day-to-day routines, in which our busyness numbs us to our pain, and to see ourselves for the fallible, yet precious children of God we really are. For only through that accurate view of ourselves can we see God for who He is and see others for who they are. As we continue to care for others in an era dominated by COVID-19, we can be open to the repeated reminders of who we are and who the people around us are, in God’s eyes. Our fruit and our love can flourish and become more visible to others, opening their hearts to the truth we have to share. Or we can ignore the reminders and let our perspectives be dominated by fear, thereby decreasing our positive impact on those around us.
Reflecting on the opportunities inherent in the pandemic, I find myself wanting to grab hold of the adventure and let this deepen and mold my faith in new ways. In a year, when I ask myself how I have grown, I want the fruit of my faith and the love I display to be more visible and more steady. I want those around me to hold truth more tightly because of the time they have spent with me. I want this time to mean something in my own life, but also in my contribution to eternity.
How are you viewing the polarization in your world? How are you interacting with those who discard the science of public health and the pandemic? How are you interacting with those who disregard the God whose sovereignty extends even to Coronavirus? How are you dealing with your own fears? If, like me, you have a lot of room to grow in each of these areas, I challenge you to join me in embracing the grand adventure of faith as we live as Christ-followers in polarized and highly uncertain times. I challenge you to join me in planning and living out the answer you want to have when you ask yourself in May 2021, “How has my heart grown in the last 12 months?”