Last spring, as lockdown orders went out to American cities and states, many prominent Christian voices equated masking, social distancing, and staying home with the command to love neighbor, and the refusal to do so as tantamount to indifference to the lives of others. As the pandemic has rolled on, other church leaders have decried mask and vaccine mandates, school and church closures as unnecessary and insidious. Throughout, there has been little outcry from Christians on either side about what ought to be recognized as the flagship injustice of the pandemic: the widespread rule of many hospitals nationwide that terminally ill COVID patients must not have their loved ones or pastors beside them as they die.
Nothing ought to shock the Christian conscience more than a mandate that someone must die alone, but nevertheless, American churches have been largely silent on this matter. Quick to speak up for or against mask or vaccine mandates as concern for others’ health or liberty, opposition to refusing visitation to the dying has been muted and rare. American Christians have failed to recognize that pastoral accompaniment at the time of death amounts to the barest minimum of the second half of the great commandment.
Only a thoroughly atheized society could have put so far out of mind those who are taking their last breaths. My fear is that our churches have become so entrenched in the immanent frame of life that they have failed to even take notice of the needs of the dying. My suspicion is, despite the songs they sing, the creeds they confess, or the sermons they preach, American Christians today are largely not betting on the life of the world to come, and this has resulted in the dying becoming a class of people irrelevant to the matters that have preoccupied us over the last year. After all, racial justice and religious liberty primarily concern those still rooted in the present life, not those about to exit it. The message seems clear: hope is lost for those who have lost to the virus. Their consolation is not worth any risk, no matter how small, to the health and comfort of the still-living.
Indeed, comfort has been the theme of the past year and a half. Americans have flattered themselves by thinking they have been through an earthshattering ordeal. But in fact, COVID is not the Plague, nor Ebola, nor Cholera—and especially in a country as wealthy as ours—the disruptive impact has mostly been of our own making. Despite the tragic deaths, we do not have overwhelming numbers of COVID orphans, nor towns laid to waste, and we have many more resources than other places to treat and alleviate the suffering of the infected. These have not been extended to those who cannot recover from their affliction.
Americans have easily swallowed the notion that abandoning the dying remains a worthwhile practice, even this late into the pandemic, if it offers the still living even the slimmest extra margin of survival odds. Bodily presence with the sick and dying has been lumped in with those practices deemed irresponsible or selfish. Meanwhile, the sorts of actions that have been touted as loving neighbor conveniently tack with the comfortable habits of the bourgeois individual: working from home, ordering in, having others bag groceries for you and walk them out to your car (little wonder the pandemic has sparked a labor shortage). I suspect another motivation for staying away from the hospitals: it is both inconvenient and depressing to spend time with the dying, and most of us would rather have an excuse to skip it in the best of circumstances. The everwar against the virus has given us one.
The inevitable retort is that cordoning off the dying from the living helps to prevent more death as part of a macro-strategy of self-quarantine and rigorous social distancing. Whatever one thinks of such measures, it ought to be clear by now that such a strategy has failed to contain the virus, either because it is ineffective, unrealistic, or has not been evenly applied. In 2021, COVID is still endemic and containment is no longer a serious possibility. Medical professionals who continue to insist that those who happen to be dying of the disease-we-are-all-paying-attention-to must do so apart from human contact, have enlisted the dying against their will in the last hopeless front of a war already lost.
One must ask why hospitals continue to insist on these policies. While the reasoning varies from hospital to hospital, the medical establishment as a whole has moved aggressively in recent years toward greater control over end-of-life decisions both here and in other Western countries. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this latest development, as the COVID label has afforded them the opportunity to oversee the terms and timing of death without accountability.
It has become sadly routine that America’s practices of programmatic barbarism manage to escape the notice of the churches until they are already mandated and the practices are too well entrenched to easily dislodge. Slaying children in the womb went unopposed by the country’s evangelicals for years before and after it became guaranteed by constitutional law. Summary executions from the air of foreigners and citizens alike by executive fiat—including the frequent collateral incineration of children and other innocents—is now routine and unquestioned. Soon the mothers of the living will be compelled to take life and have theirs taken. All of this death is deemed worth even the most marginal benefits to the comfort and security of the living. Barring priests from the bedsides of their flock for last rites is only the latest of these.
Whatever mandates that governments and medical professionals may enact, the mandate of Jesus Christ to us his disciples is to love one another as he loved us, meaning unto death.