A Plea for Shalom: An Open Letter to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors
April 26, 2020
Dear Members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors,
My name is Dean Davis. I am a 72-year-old retired pastor. My wife and I have lived in Sonoma County for nearly 40 years. We love our home and our community. I am writing to thank you for your efforts to protect our county during COVID-19 epidemic, but also to express some deep and growing concerns.
Let me begin with the thanksgiving. The coronavirus was indeed “novel.” Back in January we knew little about its behavior or degree of lethality. Reports from Wuhan, Italy, and later New York, were alarming. It is understandable that leaders at all levels of government would turn to epidemiologists and public health officers for counsel, and that, at least for a season, they would follow their advice implicitly. I believe all involved acted in good faith, seeking to protect the citizenry. In the absence of better information, stern protocols, including SIP guidelines/orders, made sense. Having some personal experience with the challenges of leadership, I am well acquainted with “the lonely howl of the top dog.” So I sincerely thank you for leading us as diligently, patiently, and conscientiously as you have sought to do.
That said, my primary purpose in this letter is to express a deep concern. Stated simply, it is this: I now believe that the continued shuttering of small businesses, the closing of schools and parks, and the prohibition of gatherings for worship, service, and recreation, is doing great harm to what the Bible refers to as the shalom of our community: its overall physical and spiritual well-being. In other words, I believe that there is more than one way to sicken and die, and that lasting victory in this battle will only be secured if we constantly keep this crucial fact in full view.
Permit me to unpack that last paragraph a little further.
While I make no claim to expert medical knowledge, it seems clear enough now that the COVID-19 virus—as opposed, say, to the Spanish flu, the Asian flu, or the Hong Kong flu—is not especially lethal. Yes, it definitely poses a serious threat to the elderly, and to younger victims with certain underlying conditions. Such persons should, of course, be conscientiously protected. But again, nationwide, and certainly in California, well over 99% of those who contract this virus will recover. Most will experience mild to moderate symptoms, and some will not even know they have it. As the young and healthy recover, herd immunity, our best defense against future epidemics, will be established; indeed, it is now clear that in California this has already been achieved to a significant extent. Happily, hospitals are now well equipped; a number of treatments are already preventing deaths and mitigating symptoms; others should soon be on line, including, we hope, a vaccine. Importantly, a comparative study of world and national data shows that we cannot necessarily ascribe low death rates to early lockdowns, or high death rates to late lockdowns. Other factors, such as weather, air quality, age of the local populace, the overall health of the community, and the extent of herd immunity, appear to be involved. On this score, California and Sonoma County seem especially blessed. We should take good advantage of this mercy.
More could be said on this point, but here is my conclusion: There may indeed be an occasional pandemic of such severity as to justify a severe and protracted economic lockdown, but this is not one of them. Accordingly, many are now asking, “In locking down the economy as we have, did we overreact?” Well, given that we knew so little about the virus, perhaps not. But now that we know so much more, we dare not continue down this path.
Permit me, then, to share a few personal thoughts about how we might best preserve the temporal shalom of Sonoma County. In sharing them, I will refer to some of the basic teachings of the Bible. This will give you a window into the thinking of the thousands of Christians living in our area. It will also reveal how sweetly biblical teaching accords with common sense notions of human flourishing.
Shalom requires work. God himself worked when he created the universe. In Paradise he gave mankind work to do. In the Mosaic Law he ordained that his people work for six days of the week, then rest on the seventh. Christ entered the world to work for our redemption. The message of Scripture is: Work is essential for human flourishing. The implication is: Forcing people to remain idle at home can only undermine their shalom.
Shalom requires commerce. God created mankind to be a family, and each family member to have gifts and talents that the others need. The health of the family depends upon the free exercise of these gifts, and also on the free exchange of goods and services that results from them. If an entrepreneur or proprietor follows his dream and starts a business which contributes in any way to the shalom of his community, who is to say it is “nonessential”? Most assuredly it is essential to him and his family, and may well be to others as well. God means healthy commerce to create wealth, security, and peace of mind for one and all. Therefore, to forbid commerce is to destroy personal and corporate shalom.
Shalom requires freedom. God has created us with the gift of freedom and personal responsibility. In our hearts we know that we are, and should be, ultimately accountable to him. Sensitive to this important truth, our founding fathers affirmed that the Creator has endowed us with an inalienable right to liberty. Accordingly, they gave us a constitution and social order that sought to maximize human freedom, while minimizing the possibility of soul-crushing tyranny. All across the country people are now resisting the heavy hand of government as experienced in these shutdowns. They feel, correctly, that draconian regulations are depriving citizens of their personal freedom and responsibility to make wise, balanced, and loving decisions in response to this virus. In curtailing our freedoms, such regulations injure our shalom.
Shalom requires recreation. The Bible teaches that God graciously reveals himself to us in nature, thereby refreshing our spirits. It also states that we need time away from work in order to eat, play, celebrate, and otherwise interact so as to be renewed for further work. Such recreation is essential. You cannot close parks and beaches, eliminate sporting events, or forbid the various forms of social gathering, and hope to preserve shalom.
Shalom requires worship. This is, of course, of special concern to Christians. The Bible instructs us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. It tells us to receive Holy Communion together. It brings us together to celebrate baptisms. It encourages leaders to practice hospitality, and to lay hands on the sick and pray for them. It even tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss! Christians cannot believe that God would cancel his own holy ordinances by means of a virus. Nor can they believe that government has the right to do so. Indeed, the Bible tells them that from time to time they may be required to practice civil disobedience; to “obey God rather than man.” Already, Christian leaders around the country are challenging local governments in court over this issue. Other people of faith will surely do the same. Christians cannot allow a virus or an ordinance of man to deprive them of the unique species of shalom that flows to them through the corporate worship of God.
I am mindful that some of our leaders, and many of the citizens of Sonoma County, do not share my faith. However, the purely secular and scientific literature, as well as common sense, affirms the point I am making here: Shutting down the economy destroys personal and corporate shalom. Objectively, it entails the loss of employment, income, health insurance, savings, pensions, investments, property, and access to such basic necessities as food, water, electricity, medical care, and safe transportation. Subjectively, it leads to fear, loneliness, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, crime, and suicide. This is why I fear that in the end the consequences of a protracted economic shutdown will prove more lethal than this virus itself. And as time passes, the destruction will increase exponentially. For multitudes there will be little chance of a swift recovery; for many there will be no chance of recovery at all.
Here, then, based on the concerns listed above, are some recommendations that make sense to me:
1. In your deliberations, seek balance. By all means remain attentive to protecting citizens from the virus, but also consider how to protect them from the dangerous consequences of a protracted shutdown. For every one (older) person who dies from this flu, there are now nearly a thousand (younger) persons who are unemployed: I would urge you to remember them all. Accordingly, I recommend that you set up a Coronavirus Recovery Task Force that will include not only health officers, but also businessmen, economists, psychologists, teachers, law enforcement personnel, and clergy. Wisdom and victory come with a multitude of counselors.
2. Avoid edicts and threats of punishment, but instead issue recommended guidelines. Give individuals, businesses, churches, and other voluntary associations the liberty to embrace, modify, and/or implement these guidelines as they think best. Trust in the wisdom and good will of your fellow citizens as much as you do in your own.
3. After publicizing reasonable guidelines, reopen the parks, beaches, and golf courses to the public.
4. Given that Sonoma County is in an excellent position to reopen its economy, join together in asking Governor Newsom to give greater freedom to each county to do as they think best for their own unique situation.
5. Consider asking all county employees to take a cut in salary, in order to express solidarity with the unemployed.
6. Consider the possibility that in allowing a pandemic to visit our community, God is calling us not destroy our shalom by shutting down our life together, but rather to examine our hearts, behavior, priorities, and public policies, to see if they have been infected by sin.
7. Consider also the possibility that one of the great privileges and responsibilities of governmental leaders is to call the citizenry to personal soul-searching, prayer, repentance, and a deeper relationship with God as best they understand him. Our forefathers did this for generations. Should not our city fathers do so today?
I want to close by saying yet again that I am are grateful for your service, praying for you daily, and eager to help in any way I can. Thank you so much for hearing my heart and considering my thoughts.
Note: I would like to thank Calvin Beisner for vetting this letter and making helpful suggestions. d
Note: Here are several links to articles and video clips that I have found helpful in sorting out a Christian response to this epidemic