America: An Inside/Outside Perspective (Part II, The Panedmic)

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I called a friend the other day, a pastor in California. He told me, “The church has been on Zoom since March 15. We took the view that the virus is real and we should take precautions.” He described churches that took a different view: that churches should remain open for in-person services, that masking is optional (and frowned-upon), and social distancing is really unnecessary.

The striking thing is that each church and each individual had to choose a side. That has not been the case here in Belgium. The pandemic has revealed realities that already existed; one of those realities in America is division. The decisions one takes regarding mask-wearing and distancing is inseparably tied to a bundle of science, religion, and politics. Somehow, they are all seen to go together.

Unlike in Europe where there are multiple political parties, in the US there are only two possibilities, and everything is reduced and funneled into these two channels. For a country that emphasizes freedom so much, where is the independence of thinking? As I hinted yesterday, my moral and political views don’t align very nicely with either of the two parties. But apart from a couple tiny parties, those are all we’ve got.

So division is one thing I notice in the light of the pandemic. The next is compliance.

The most obvious difference here is that the vast majority of people here simply do what the government says. So as a church we were online only during the first lockdown, then things opened up in stages (limited numbers, masks, and at first no singing). Now during the second lockdown we are back to livestream only. Most people complain about the rules, but most people follow them.

I called the COVID regulation hotline once to ask whether we could take a day trip somewhere in our own car. “Let me check,” the young man said. If the people working the hotline don’t know the answer, then the regulations are too complicated. We did not take the trip. A current rule is that each household is allowed a single visitor. This created the strange case where a single person could visit a large family, but that family could not visit the single person.

Whether or not the rules are sensible or science-based, most Belgians are inclined to follow the rules. We know an older woman who lives alone. She was planning to host her son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren for Christmas. This was allowed, as people who live alone were permitted two visitors during the holidays. But then at the last minute it was announced that children were included in the number. The son called and said, “Sorry mom, we can’t come. It’s against the rules.” But she could still go to them. Not everyone has been such a stickler for the rules, but my guess is that far more Belgians than Americans have followed the rules. There is a different mentality at work.

For example, a Belgian and one of the few Americans in our church were the first to join an online meeting some months ago. As we waited for others to join, I mentioned that I noticed that Belgians tend to follow the pandemic rules carefully. The Belgian nodded, “Of course!” The American, who is married to a Belgian said, “I think Belgians almost follow the rules too much. They don’t ask questions.” I said, “Spoken like a true American.”

We are taught to question authority. Belgians may not be taught to respect authority, but they are taught to accept authority. Not that this is explicitly taught in school or anything, but it is implicit in the structure and expectations of the education system and society as a whole. Likewise in America, we breathe in certain ideas about freedom without even realizing it.

The church here is made up of many nationalities. This is very exciting and very challenging. But from what I have heard from pastors in the US, dealing with 40 nationalities is not as difficult as dealing with just one deeply divided nationality. I have come to recognize that people from different nations tend to take different views on how we should respond to the pandemic, just as they tend to take different views on other issues.

The Dutch are laid-back about it. This shows up in the government’s response, as they reluctantly introduced an “intelligent lockdown.” According to the prime minister, they are a “grown-up country.” Apparently grown-up intelligence isn’t enough to stop the spread of the virus; the government implemented a stricter lockdown when infections raged.

Compared to Italy and France, where many children didn’t leave their apartments for over 60 days in the spring, the Belgian approach has seemed moderate. Since our church has small groups from many countries, no one viewpoint can dominate. It seems appropriate to honor the perspective of the society we live in, so we lean towards the Belgian viewpoint.

Overall, I have been glad to live in Belgium during the pandemic. Most impressive is that Belgium handled it without a national government in place. The country went something like 600 days without a government. The political parties that won seats in the last election couldn’t agree on enough points to form a coalition government. A larger number of parties sometimes means less gets done. Some people feel that this is actually an advantage. I make no judgment whether it is better than the American two-party system. I’m just observing the differences.

I mentioned the different responses coming from the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and France. The UK, Sweden, Germany, and the rest of the European countries have also responded differently. There is a diagram that jokingly shows how different countries solve problems. (You can see it at this link, but you might have to look up some flags to decipher it. To understand the joke about Belgium, you need to know the Belgian flag is black-yellow-red). I showed this to an older Belgian couple. They love their country in their modest way, as most Belgians do. They laughed, recognizing that there is some truth to the stereotypes here.

If all the European countries were trying to come up with a unified response to the pandemic, it would be exactly like the situation in America; in other words, utter chaos. In the US, each state, county, and city has implemented its own rules, like the nations of Europe have done. The diagram of problem-solving shows the EU’s approach on the bottom: reams of paperwork.

I guess what I’m saying is that more diversity of opinion can actually mean there is less division. The European countries aren’t even trying to come up with a unified approach. But as the US is a single country, some sort of unified approach seems necessary. So I’m not prescribing a solution, simply pointing out what I see.

Another thing I see is what appears to me an absolute disaster: education. Five-year-olds are attempting online education from home. Or they are in homeschooling “pods” (if their families can afford it). Or they are in school a couple days a week. One friend says some of her high school students have not done a single assignment since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, in Belgium, schools are open and it doesn’t seem to be contributing much to the infection rate.

The COVID mortality rate in Belgium has been high. Check out worldometers if you want to compare. The government here insists the numbers are high only because of more accurate reporting. Instead of counting only verified COVID deaths, they include suspected cases as well. This may be true, as I have watched the deaths per million in other countries gradually rise towards Belgium’s rate over the months. Despite the fairly high rate of infection and mortality here, there hasn’t been much of a sense of alarm. And certainly not the kind of division that I see in the United States.

I have heard of large groups leaving American churches in protest over the issue of mask-wearing. I don’t offer any solution to the political divisions in the United States. I do have something to say about division in churches. As Americans, we love freedom. I do too. Christians have very clear guidance, however, on how to use our freedom.

Instead of insisting on our rights, we freely choose to give up our rights out of love for others. The Apostle Paul explained, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone” (1 Corinthians 9:19). And again, “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

The only way freedom works is when it is freely used in love for others.

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