The article is similar to many that are coming out these days: vignettes of hope and despair in the face of tragedy. In this case it’s a Reuters special report on a COVID-19 outbreak in a small meatpacking town. It’s close to home geographically: Guymon is in the area where the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles meet. And among all the story beats that have become de rigueur — local tragedy, family statement, company statement, town leaders’ statement — is the inevitable comment from a person of faith who in this case is also close to home theologically.
Suzanne Bryan runs a food and gift shop — a business far removed from the slaughterhouse — and in her three allotted paragraphs we learn that she is a member of the Church of the Nazarene, that she thinks COVID-19 is no more deadly than the flu, and that her faith is not troubled by the crisis. “It’s part of God’s plan.”
That grinding sound you just heard was my teeth.
It’s easier to laugh off thoughtless misanthropy when it comes from those who don’t share your name. When Jonathan Ashbach, in a salvo in The Federalist, decries “the barbaric, panicky elevation of mere life as the only good worth conserving,” it merits a chuckle and a get-a-load-of-this-guy. When a Christian — yea, a Nazarene — like Suzanne Bryan speaks with similar indifference, all I can do is wonder what went wrong. How she can claim the suffering of others is “part of God’s plan”? Does she not realize that to say as much is to attribute evil to God? Does she think God planned or intended for COVID-19 to happen? Has she never considered the implications of what she is saying?
But when I finally unclench my jaw, I come to realize that what angers me is not so much that her theology is bad but that it is convenient. “COVID-19 is part of God’s plan” is an incredibly handy belief to hold if you happen to live in a small town in Oklahoma where a viral outbreak is in progress. When you believe that local events are all part of God’s plan, you are absolved from any responsibility for the outcome. You feel no duty to mitigate the suffering of the neighbor who works in the pork processing plant. You can withdraw, without penalty and without censure, into your food and gift shop and tell a Reuters news writer that your faith is serenely untroubled… and further, you can namedrop your (my!) church for Sunday applause.
The theology of convenience is everywhere. Its hallmark is that it gives aid and comfort only to the person or church who holds it. Its intention is to limit the amount of time that another’s sin or suffering might make demands on the holder; it converts chronic problems into small, manageable crises; it shunts the burden of effort onto the sufferer as quickly as possible. And of course it is rewarding; for only a tiny amount of effort, anyone can reap a reputation for being pious and high-minded. But the theology of convenience is hollow. Any true crisis quickly shows it to be what it is: a veneer of holiness covering self-protection and self-satisfaction.
This post is the first of a series on statements that I believe are tenets of the theology of convenience. I’m discussing them now because 1) this blog has given me a platform and 2) they need to be acknowledged by persons of faith. The Lord we claim promoted and followed a theology of inconvenience. Can we do less and still be worthy of his name?