Cole Hartin: A lesson from scripture for the GraceLife protesters

While the restrictions to human freedoms are immoral in a general sense, in the context of a pandemic, it is permissible to impose them to stop a genuine threat.

By: Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin

The muscle-flexing contest between GraceLife Church and the Alberta Health Services has become a performative microcosm of the larger rift in Canadian society over the balance between public health and human freedoms. It is difficult to separate the seed of disagreement from the surrounding drama because everything is taking place on stage, in full view of news cameras and on social media accounts. The bold rhetoric of Pastor James Coates and the strong-armed enforcement by the RCMP do little more than elate the competing mobs. The escalating tensions are only fueled by the media’s coverage, taking the focus off the basic infringement of human freedoms and turning it toward a whole legion of legal, religious, and civil issues. 

I am using the term “human freedoms” rather than “civil liberties” because I believe that this is the crux of this issue. This goes deeper than legal rights and civil liberties. Each human being is born with inalienable freedoms inherent to their personhood, whether or not they are recognized by the law. While I have religious reasons for believing this, I think even a crowd-sourced morality points us in this direction. All things being equal, human beings have the freedom to gather with others. They have the freedom to gather to worship. We all intuitively know this is true in a general sense. To deny these freedoms to another human being is deeply immoral. 

The problem with the current pandemic restrictions is that they are felt to be a violation of these human freedoms, and are thus anti-human, at least in a general sense. Without any context, to be told that one is now restricted from gathering with friends and family, or that one is restricted from gathering for worship, is to feel the injustice of these denials. 

Yet another human freedom, of course, is the freedom from bodily harm. In a general sense we recognize it is immoral to harm another human being. Now, when we actually look at concrete instances, we recognize that sometimes harming another human being is not only permissible, but necessary: though one is infringing upon their human freedom, one is doing so in order to preserve life in the face of a legitimate threat. In the specific case of the current pandemic, we feel our human freedoms being violated. When we look at the reasons for their violation, however, we can see at least ostensibly, they are being violated in this situation to preserve life. Government-imposed restrictions suspend inherent freedoms for a period of time in order to care for the vulnerable. 

I write this as a parish priest, in a province (New Brunswick) that has been relatively unscathed by COVID-19. I can truly identify with the frustration of Pastor Coates in grappling with the infringement upon my human freedoms, and those of my congregation. My knee-jerk reaction is to reject these limitations, and to push back. However, when I think of the threat to the vulnerable in my community, and recognize that I do not have the expertise of those in public health, I am willing to abide by those restrictions and encourage others to do so as well. Using Ken Boessenkool’s fourfold classification, I have voiced my qualms privately (with friends) and politically (in letters to elected officials). Publicly, I have advocated for public health and have scrupulously followed their directives.  And this is in a province with a relatively low incidence of COVID-19.

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I am reminded of Jesus’s teaching in Mark 7:9-13. He is addressing deeply religious Pharisees, confronting them for their willingness to uphold the minutiae of their religious tradition at the expense of the well-being of their families. Jesus accused the Pharisees of giving their money to God rather than using it to support their own parents in need, thus missing the commandment to honour one’s parents. In light of this, Jesus said to them that they were “thus making void the word of God through [their] tradition.” To prioritize religious observance of a certain kind (whether monetary donations or gathering in large numbers) at the expense of the safety of one’s community is to risk becoming a religious fanatic, elevating tradition above the people whom God loves.

This is all to say that while the restrictions to human freedoms are immoral in a general sense, when we take into consideration competing goods like community safety in the context of a pandemic, it is permissible to impose them to stop a genuine threat. We are more than a year into this emergency. Alberta Health Services and other Canadian public health agencies must give a compelling, transparent, and evidence-based rationale for the current restrictions. The status-quo is not and never can be that Canadians live with government-imposed restrictions on their familial or religious gatherings. There must be an appropriate exit plan as vaccinations increase and the threat-level diminishes. 

In the meantime, the gesturing of GraceLife and their detractors do little to serve the common good or protect the vulnerable. We should not lose sight of that.

The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke's Anglican Church in the Parish of Portland.

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