Striving for a Higher Law and #CopingwithCOVID19
My family’s social worker called yesterday. We’re a foster family and she was compiling a list of names of people willing to take in children who temporarily don’t have caregivers because their parent(s) are hospitalized with COVID-19. Not many people want to take in these children because of their exposure and possible infection. Were we willing to go on the list? The call broke me all over again. While I had heard about the rise in domestic abuse and worried about children stuck at home and away from the eyes of their teachers and other safe adults, I had not considered this situation. The demons of this virus are Legion.
That call prompted me to think again about how our society is reacting to the call for social distancing. Some people are living the letter of the law: complying with the rules but taking advantage of loopholes when they can. I’ll admit that my own inclinations have leaned this way several times: when I heard that my county was issuing a “shelter in place” order, one of my first thoughts was that I should run out and get some things for house projects at the hardware store so that I wouldn’t be bored in the coming weeks. When I’m missing an ingredient I’d like to have for dinner prep, it’s hard to not just run out and grab what I need. I would, after all, still be technically following the rules about essential businesses.
What I’m trying to remember this Holy Week is that I believe in striving to live a higher law. Jesus taught the idea of creating a life built around love, not the law. It’s possible to follow the Law of Moses without truly turning toward God; this is how the law becomes a burden rather than a tool for drawing closer to the Divine. It’s also why “obedience” as an end in itself has been hard for me to grasp as a believer; Christ acted out of love for the people and understanding of God’s plan, not simply out of adherence to the law.
In terms of the COVID-19 crisis, the higher law is to socially distance out of a desire to protect other people, not because the law limits certain behaviors. Following the letter of the law lets us ask ourselves what we can get or get away with. For those of us with the ability and means to practice strict social distancing, the higher law means asking ourselves, “How can I use the privilege I have to keep my community safe? What can I contribute to this effort?” This is an example of why the word “sacrifice” is linked to the word “sacred”: in giving up something that is dear to us, we engage in a higher law, one in which we are protecting “the least of these.” In this case, that means the elderly, the immunocompromised, and essential workers.
LDS historian Ardis E. Parshall has suggested an excellent way of daily renewing one’s commitment to strict social distancing. In her #dedicatetheday effort, she reminds Mormons of how we typically dedicate our monthly fast to a person or issue and pray for that person through the day. Parshall proposes each of us daily dedicating our fast to someone who needs us to do our part in flattening the COVID-19 curve: consecrate your isolation that day to a nurse, grandparent, cancer patient, or someone else at risk. I’ve found this idea wonderfully effective in curbing my own tendencies to justify bending the rules or giving in to despair. It reminds me that I’m making a choice, and that choice is rooted in radical love.
This kind of framing also can function as a template for longer-term thinking about our role in society. Considering what privileges we can voluntarily offer up for the good of others is the work not just of the current moment, but of the long arc of building beloved community. As Elder Jeffrey Holland said at General Conference this weekend:
“When we have conquered this—and we will—may we be equally committed to freeing the world from the virus of hunger, freeing neighborhoods and nations from the virus of poverty. May we hope for schools where students are taught—not terrified they will be shot—and for the gift of personal dignity for every child of God, unmarred by any form of racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice. Undergirding all of this is our relentless hope for greater devotion to the two greatest of all commandments: to love God by keeping His counsel and to love our neighbors by showing kindness and compassion, patience and forgiveness. These two divine directives are still—and forever will be—the only real hope we have for giving our children a better world than the one they now know.” (1)
Strict social distancing will be temporary, but learning to sacrifice out of love for others is the work of all of our lifetimes. I’m praying that this short term effort, so hard and exhausting and heartbreaking, will reach “the fleshy tables of my heart”(2) and give me the skills and mindset to more fully live the higher law in the long term.
At the end of the Sunday morning session of General Conference, my family stood in our family room and participated in the Hosannah Shout. The words spoke to me in a way that I’d never before experienced. Hosannah. In a liturgical context, it is an appeal for divine help: Lord, save us! And as I said those words, I thought about the most marginalized in our world—the poor, the sick, the hungry, the afraid. Children temporarily orphaned by COVID-19. Migrant workers whose labor is exploited. Bodies that suffer from the pernicious sin of racism. Hosannah. God save us. May we speak the words, then do the work to build a better world. Hosannah. Not just this Easter, when we need it so desperately, but always.
- Jeffrey R. Holland. “A Perfect Brightness of Hope.” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/04/43holland?lang=eng
- 2 Corinthians 3:3