From Cooperation to Contention

Week number eight of physical isolation. We go from stay at home to safer at home in order to beat the coronavirus. My fear is that we are also going from cooperation to contention. As usual, social media is the new battleground. Like almost everyone else, I have had to fight the battle in my own soul regarding jumping into the fray. And I have to admit that I have lost a few of those battles.

Cooperation

After we got past the initial phase of panic and stampeding the grocery stores to hoard supplies, most of us settled into a pattern of cooperation. Aside from the posturing of our politicians, most of us were kind to one another. There was a sense that we were all in this together. People showed deference to one another. And with a few exceptions, we respected the call for “social distancing.” I know that I found myself smiling at people more. Thanking the workers at my local Publix for all they were doing to keep us fed and safe. Doing my part to cooperate.

Even in the early days of the “stay at home” order in Alabama, people seemed to be willing to do their part. We were adjusting to our new abnormal (I refuse to call it our new normal, because it isn’t normal. And it doesn’t need to become normal).

Contention

And then we began to shift from cooperation to contention. The experts had said that if we would follow the guidelines, we could help to flatten the curve and prevent an overload of our hospital systems. As someone who is an “at-risk” person, I appreciated this. If I were to get sick and need a ventilator, I would certainly want one to be available!

I am not a statistician, and this is not intended to create an argument. But the guidelines did what they were supposed to do. The models said the curve would flatten, and it did. Did the results match the model predictions? Not exactly. Remember, these were models. No one said they were perfect. In fact, models are not designed to predict absolute outcomes, especially when dealing with so many unknowns. Think about the weather forecast. Anything beyond ten days is what James Spann calls “voodoo land.” The closer you get, the more accurate the model becomes.

The models and the guidelines were doing what they were intended to do. Slow the spread. But rather than celebrating the success, some claim the whole thing is a hoax. Conspiracy theories abound. People are protesting. Folks are getting snarky on social media and publicly voicing their criticisms. This is true among those who want more controls to stop the virus. And among those who want less controls.

Considerations

This post is not intended to challenge anyone. Honestly, I understand the criticisms. I find myself torn between protecting health and protecting liberty. I am a fan of both! As for protesters… Some of what I have seen in other states deserves to be protested. But since I don’t live in those states, I will not weigh-in on specifics.

This post is intended to outline the way that I am attempting to approach these uncertain days. I don’t want to go from cooperation to contention in my own soul. These are my considerations. As I mentioned above, sometimes I live up to these lofty aspirations. And sometimes I don’t. If these work for you, then by all means adapt and adopt them for yourself.

Keep in mind that I write these considerations from the perspective of an individual who loves liberty and the pursuit of health and well-being. And I write them from the perspective of a leader who will one day give account to God for the way that I shepherded the flock that he entrusted to my care.

1. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights

Our Constitution guarantees us the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And this pandemic places us in the middle of a conundrum. The unregulated pursuit of liberty and happiness appears to be somewhat at odds with sustaining life.

Now, some will say that “the science doesn’t support” that statement. I am not a scientist anymore than I am a statistician. But I am aware of two instances in rural Alabama and Georgia that support the science. In both cases people gathered in large groups. One for church services and the other for a funeral. As a result, two counties became hotspots of sickness and death. The Chambers County outbreak is documented in this article from WSFA TV in Montgomery. The Dougherty County outbreak is documented in this Washington Post article. These two instances alone are enough to convince me that there is a threat to life.

Both of these situations speak to the need to regulate all large gatherings of people until it is safe. In my state, public officials have attempted to weigh the balance between the pursuit of liberty and happiness with sustaining life. Have they gotten it 100% correct. Probably not. But I believe they have honestly wrestled with the data and the decisions and have acted in the best interest of our collective whole.

Specifically, they have been very careful in their wording towards churches. They take the First Amendment seriously. I appreciate that.  This opinion piece in the New York Times, does a really nice job of explaining the balance that is necessary.

2. Supporting and Submitting to Civil Authorities

I will pray for our leaders. Encourage them. And follow their guidelines and orders, as long as they are attempting to balance the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. I have not always agreed with every detail of every health order or city council decision. But I refuse to move from cooperation to contention just because I disagree. I believe they are operating with our collective best interest in mind. Therefore, I will support and submit to their authority and will lead our church to do the same.

Now, before anyone throws the “absolute authority corrupts absolutely” card on the table. Let me clarify. If any civil authority ceases to balance the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, I will speak out. Recently, I spoke out against an elected official in our state. In my humble but correct opinion (smile and wink), he sought political gain over the common good. He was playing the contentious sides against each other.

3. Showing Respect and Being a Good Neighbor

I called out this elected official on social media more than once. The first was when he criticized the governor of our state for not closing everything down quickly. He said that she was being irresponsible and was going to cause people to die. A month later, after the curve had started to flatten, he criticized her for not reopening the state immediately. His contradictory positions smacked of political posturing. So I called him out. Most of my criticisms toward him were direct but respectful. One was not. As I said earlier, sometimes I win the battle. And sometimes I don’t.

Romans 12:18 instructs me, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” That means being respectful. It means being “slow to speak [or post], slow to anger” (James 1:19).

Likewise, I am called to be a good neighbor. That means looking “not only to [my] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). If my local supermarket asks me to move only in one direction on a designated aisle, I’m going to do what I can to oblige. I may not fully understand their reasoning. But I believe they have my best interests at heart. As well as the best interest of my neighbor.

I refuse to give in to the battle to move from cooperation to contention. I will not willingly fan the flames of building discontent. Nor will I intentionally throw a match on a powder keg waiting to explode. I will seek to live by Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” May it be so. God help me!

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Rob Paul is a church revitalization strategist with over three decades of experience serving established Southern Baptist churches in pastoral ministry. He has helped churches in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia to experience revival and revitalization by God’s grace and for His glory. He is also the senior pastor of Huffman Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. To find out more about Rob Paul Ministries and the work of church revitalization, visit https://robpaul.net

5 thoughts on “From Cooperation to Contention”

  1. Well written Rob. I find myself having to bite my lip to keep from getting involved in some of the social media arguments. We live in a nation that has become spoiled by our freedoms. We take for granted many of our habits and routines and cry persecution at the drop of a hat. We have lost the ability to have civil discourse and respect for opinions other than our own. I pray we will learn from this and become more cooperative. We need to learn to be calm, patient, and experience the peace of God. If we don’t humble ourselves, He will humble us.

  2. Excellent article sir, you stated things well and expressed many of my same observations and tendencies. Being an old football coach and very competitive individual I have allowed myself to get pulled into the fray of political contention. It is very difficult to express oneself in a Christian manner when others do and say things that should get under your skin and even angry if one loves this country of ours. I am very patriotic and love my country with all my heart, but love God much more. I agree with all that you said and I try to always remember I am a representative of my Lord and Savior and still find it difficult to live by Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Sometimes my soft words don’t come across as very soft. But I keep trying to be the proper Christian and stand up for beliefs on what’s right for government as well. Sometimes a delicate tightrope! Love your blogs and writings, help keep me straight!

  3. I’ll be interested to know if you received a response from the public official. I once wrote a letter to Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee–whom you remember from your ministry in SE Louisiana–and got a reply from him. He was challenging me, which I appreciated. I wrote him back one verse of scripture and never heard any more. How much good did I do? No way to know. — Keep up the good work, Rob.

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