There are things I keep hearing said, mantras repeated like assumptions, and taken so for granted that we don’t realize how we’re indoctrinating ourselves against a different way of thinking. Over time I’ve come to develop responses in my head to some of these mantras, and to other things I hear in passing conversation. I decided it was time to start writing them down.
“Health is not the priority of the Church.”
Do you wear warm clothes in winter? Do you live in a home with four walls and a roof? When you go to the bathroom, do you wash your hands afterwards?
These seem like ridiculous questions because they are things that everyone does, or at least that we expect everyone to do if they’re able. We don’t question the presence of sinks and soap dispensers in public bathrooms, the need for housing, or the fashion trend of scarves in November. These acts certainly keep us comfortable and clean. But more than that they also keep us safe. Dressing warmly and sheltering in protective cover prevents serious illness like pneumonia or hypothermia; washing our hands in the bathroom prevents the spread of germs like the more virulent strains of E. coli; and for that matter, the fact that those bathrooms have toilets which flush instead of chamber pots keeps us from living with excrement in the street.
We don’t question these small, everyday acts of protection. Yet strangely, when a serious pandemic arrives and people are asked to take on the small, everyday act of wearing masks, and the minor inconvenience of two vaccination appointments weeks apart…a large number of us proclaim loudly that they are not afraid of disease, or of dying, or of “a measly cold.” More disturbingly, I have heard a few Christians who claim that in their theology earthly life is unimportant and our survival shouldn’t be a matter of concern. “Health is not a priority of the Church,” said one of my acquaintances.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of such statements. On the one hand, I know they’re saying something they honestly feel; on the other hand, it also comes off as somewhat hypocritical. When they say these things, and begin to give theological arguments to support them, they sound ridiculous without meaning to. It isn’t because they lack intelligence or they don’t think things through — many of the Christians I know attend a serious academic graduate school — so I can only put it down to the fact that we do and say and think ridiculous things during a time of crisis. Crisis often reveals, even to ourselves, our own true priorities.
Why does it sound ridiculous? Because virtually the whole of Christian theology shows that human survival is at least one of Christ’s priorities; when death comes, His response is resurrection. We must acknowledge that, or the whole concept of salvation might as well go in the scrap heap, and with it everything else we believe. Why does it sound hypocritical? Because I see how these Christians live: sheltering in houses, wearing rain coats, washing their hands. Proclaiming that health is not a Christian priority through teeth which you brushed that morning demonstrates at the very least a disconnect between what you say you believe and how you actually live.
Denying the basic maintenance and protection of our bodies on the basis that we’re simply going to die anyway seems to verge on a kind of Christian nihilism (if such an oxymoron is possible). The insistence that death is not something Christians — who look forward to resurrection — need to fear is true in itself, but when it’s couched in the denial of life’s importance it takes on even darker undertones. And to eagerly seek martyrdom, as some ancient Christians did, sounds disturbingly close to the worst kinds of religious fundamentalism. There is a reason that Christians don’t generally strap bomb vests to ourselves and detonate them in public places: Scripture describes death as the “wages of sin,” the result of the Fall, and an enemy that will be destroyed at the second coming. Death may not be something to fear, but that doesn’t mean it is a friend to be embraced. Death is certainly not a priority of the Church.
“Health” might be defined as our combined physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. In short, total health is a state of life in which we don’t often find ourselves. It is, in fact, life itself: a whole life, a full life. Life at its greatest potential. When we are truly healthy, we are whole. And our wholeness is the very telos of Christ and the Gospel. “I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance.” If we are being moved toward anything, it is this fullness and abundance. Even mere existence is entirely a gift of our Creator, not something that could ever be earned — only accepted or rejected. This means that wearing coats or washing hands is not a foolish attempt to seize control of life from God. It is the acceptance of His gift for ourselves, and the expression of grace towards others.
Far from not being a priority, one could easily say that health is the only reason the Church exists.
As I write this, I’m looking forward to my second vaccination tomorrow afternoon. I do it not because I’m afraid of death, nor because I idolize modern progress, nor because I’ve bought into a political agenda. I do it, in fact, because I am a Christian.