Knowing Better

James Coates, a Canadian pastor, finds himself incarcerated. I found out about this development on social media, and now I’m trying to write a half decent commentary on the situation. Kinda like making dinner from dumpster pickings.

The most uncomfortable thing I have done so far today was roll out of my king-sized bed at 6:30am. Did you know Ugg makes blankets? They are just a cozy as the boots. I made my own breakfast (favorite cereal and full cream milk), bemoaning the fact that we had run out of orange juice. And now?

Now I am settled into my La-Z-Boy recliner ready to spew forth either sage wisdom or drivel, depending on the reader’s sensibilities. Nothing like jail, I suspect.

For the record, I may not have all the hard facts straight, but if I state something as fact, it’s because I’ve researched it and verified it to the best of my ability.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, here is what I know as of 7:15am, Saturday February 20, gleaned from multiple news sources, police reports and the church’s own website.

James Coates is the Pastor at Grace Life Church in Alberta, Canada.

Grace Life Church followed most recommended health protocols in the first months of the COVID pandemic. Since June 2020 they have held nearly normal gatherings, except for a 14-day period in July where they voluntarily shut down all in-person ministry when they discovered two people had attended their gatherings and subsequently tested positive for COVID.

Dec 17, 2020- Grace Life Church was ordered to abide by Alberta’s public health guidelines and fined $1200.

Jan 29, 2021- AHS ordered Grace Life Church to close its doors until all violations of the Public Health Act were addressed.

Feb 7, 2021- Pastor James Coates was charged with one count of violating the Public Health Act and released with conditions.

Feb 16, 2021- Pastor James Coates turned himself into police, where he was “arrest[ed] on two counts of contravening the Public Health Act and on one criminal charge for failing to comply with a condition of an undertaking.” My understanding is that he breached the conditions of his February 7th release.

Feb 17, 2021- A meme floated across William Scarrott’s social media feed about Pastor James being led away in cuffs and ankle chains, arrested for preaching. William rolled his eyes.

Feb 17, 2021 William Scarrott was unfriended and blocked for suggesting the meme might not be totally accurate. (Which is weird, because it was from a right-wing friend, and his right-wing friends all agree that they are totally reasonable, open to dialogue and only left-wing liberal wackos are closeminded).

Feb 18, 2021 An online petition floated across William’s social media feed, attempting to garner support for freeing Pastor James. He reposted the link, stating that he would not sign the petition. And just like that, his week becomes less boring.

So, my position is this: Pastor James is in jail because of his own decisions, and as such he should stay there until he makes different decisions, or he is released through the regular workings of the justice system.

Having listened to the entirety of Pastor James’ last sermon, entitled “Directing Government to It’s Duty”, I suspect he might agree with me. In his lecture he explicitly states that civil disobedience must be done while still maintaining a posture of submission to the god-ordained authorities, which he says we accomplish by “humbly and graciously accepting” the consequences associated with our actions. He has modelled this in the most courageous way possible, by turning himself in to the police voluntarily. He could also be out on bail, but one of the conditions, I understand, is that he is to cease holding church services, and he has stated that in good conscience he cannot abide by those restrictions.

Pastor James has explicitly said that one of the reasons his church is refusing to follow public health orders, is to practice civil disobedience in the hope that the government might refocus on defending the “inalienable rights” of their citizens. Basically, Grace Life Church thinks lockdowns should end, and citizens should be responsible to mitigate the risk for themselves. In his last sermon, Pastor James was clear that he is doing this in the hopes that all Albertans might soon be free to get back to their lives. Fair enough. And if their actions can somehow focus on the rights of all Albertans, then that will be cool. But this has quickly become hijacked as a fight for our own little right to do church.

For the record, I think lockdowns should end too. I do not think that they are a sustainable means of mitigating the risk that this virus poses to society. I suspect that lockdowns are likely doing more long-term damage to society than the virus is, but that too much political capital has been invested for any but the most courageous elected officials to chart a different course.

I also believe the government is limping along as best they can. I believe medical professionals know more about viruses and the health care system than I do, and I do not believe that I’m being maliciously hoodwinked. I will extend them as much patience and grace as possible. I just hope they are aware that the grace and patience of the public cannot be assumed to be infinite.

I believe that most of the leaders of our faith communities are brave and weary. The work they do makes them, for the most part, worthy of our respect. I believe we place too much of a burden on them, and they are too willing to bear it.

From what I can glean, Pastor James Coates is a man of deep convictions and courage, and as such he deserves an apology from me. I implicitly pegged him – and his congregation’s attempts at advancing the kingdom of God – as lazy, unimaginative, and cheap. The road they have chosen is anything but cheap.

And this is where things get difficult, because one should never say “I’m sorry, but…”

But I have been asked for my thoughts on the whole matter, and so I will provide a commentary on what, to me, does matter. To that end, I am going to use Grace Life Church as a caricature to articulate my angst with broader church culture as it faces increasing and inevitable marginalization.

Okay then, as Christians, let’s talk about rights.

We have none.

The Apostle Paul wrote that our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. What rights do you suppose God has? Perhaps all of them? Yet Jesus humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. The secular writers of the time barely had the words to describe the utter contempt they had for crucifixion. It stripped its victims of everything that made them human.

That is to be our position and posture.

I was reminded recently that this same Apostle Paul made use of his rights as a citizen of Rome, but a reading of the account and its context suggests that his motivation is the advancement of the kingdom of God.

This situation is not about the advancement of the kingdom of God. At best it’s a big kerfuffle because we’re heartbroken over having to pull the plug on our little version of it.

The government of Alberta is in no way hindering us from following the Way of Jesus. The current restrictions are… the strongest word I can come up with is… inconvenient, in this respect. Let me clarify: it’s hell on our Sunday Morning endeavours, but does not restrict us in any way from following the Way of Jesus. We were not prepared for this. We were still enjoying the afterglow of Christendom, when from the Roman Emperor Constantine right up until maybe a generation ago the church was at the center of western civilization. Count yourself blessed to be able to speak with your elected officials at all. If something supposedly granted only by God – the right to worship – is taken away so easily, could it be that it isn’t the right to worship we’ve been practicing in the first place? Perhaps we’ve been settling for shadows and forms.

One of the things Grace Life Church has said they’re fighting for is the right to worship “as we always have”. What is that exactly? One and a half hours a week? Oh boo frickin’ hoo. Most Sunday mornings have little to do at all with strategically advancing the kingdom of God. We’re spending crazy money and dolling out ridiculous volunteer hours building grain bins while the crops go rotten in the fields. How many parishioners, myself included, have critiqued another worship set, another sermon, under the guise of “Worship can be better if we do such and such’, when what we really mean is “What I like is…”? And we’re entitled, because we’ve paid for it after all. And how many pastors have I met who left the distinct impression that the church exists to help them fulfill their calling? Too many.

I wish I could cradle the face of the church in my hands, look into her eyes as her rights and privileges in society fall away and say to her, “It’ll be okay. Those weren’t yours to begin with.”

I wish we had the humility to discern when there’s a difference between knowing Jesus and knowing better.