I’m quitting social media. Tomorrow. Today, though, I’m noticing a trend: many Christians have taken to Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to pass judgment on each other over what we might call our “COVID-19 behavior.”
An example: recently I saw one Christian tweet that those who aren’t vaccinated don’t “love their neighbor.” Scrolling a little further (why can’t I quit?), another Christian accused fellow believers who wear masks or have been vaccinated of “giving in to fear” and “not trusting Jesus.”
It’s understandable that in the midst of a really big, scary thing like a pandemic, we’d find comfort in pointing fingers. Placing blame feels like control; and boy do we crave control. And it’s true that our behavior—even our COVID-19 behavior—is important and should align with the way we believe Jesus calls us to live. That means we have a responsibility to “value others above ourselves” (Phil. 2:3), to make morally sound decisions, and to do the homework required to make those decisions.
But our free-flying judgments—on social media and in churches and small groups and families—about COVID-19 behavior is a violation of both logic and charity. First, we’re making snap judgments about people’s character based on relatively tiny, brief glimpses of behavior (like whether there’s a mask on the face or a Band-Aid on the arm), and we might be just plain wrong. Second, treating others with a spirit of condemnation is sinfully ungracious.
I believe at the root of our judgments is a lack of imagination. When we judge a person’s character or claim to know motivation based entirely on one brief action, we’re engaging in a faulty set of assumptions: that the object of our scorn has all the information we do, shares our exact circumstances, and came to a different conclusion. That leaves only one explanation, we reason: this person is worse than me.
Here is a call to expand our imaginations. Jesus said the metric we use to judge others will be used against us. If we judge others without imagination—without the whole story—the same injustice could be done to us. Here’s a call to resurrect that ancient jewel of Christian charity: the benefit of the doubt.
1. Not everyone has the information you do.
It’s ugly, but it’s an open secret: your Google results depend on where you’re Googling from. Earlier this summer, two PhD students from MIT and Carnegie Mellon University debuted a web tool called Search Atlas, a search engine that greets Googlers with three columns of results instead of just one. The columns show the location-dependent results that queue for Googlers in various parts of the world—all prompted by the same search term. Search Atlas’s creators told Wired their site reveals Google’s “information borders.”
The passionate disagreements about COVID-19 behavior are a helpful illustration for our purposes here. Whether it’s masks, vaccines, treatment options, or the origins of the disease, your neighbor might not have the same information you do. Even if she does, the sources she trusts may be different, and there’s a grab bag of potential explanations for that. Maybe the bits of information that have been curated for her based on her social media algorithms have been different from yours.
Whether it’s masks, vaccines, treatment options or the origins of the disease, your neighbor might not have the same information you do.
Again: Christians have a responsibility, especially in making moral decisions, to do their homework. There’s a lot to criticize in an age of information borders, misinformation, and even a lack of motivation to find information. But remember this before judging a person’s ultimate decision: she might be working from a different playbook.
2. Not everyone shares your circumstances.
Consider someone who chooses to wear a mask. Has this person lost her trust in Jesus? Is she a hopeless virtue-signaler? Is she a government drone? What other possible explanations could we imagine for her behavior?
What other possible explanations could we imagine for someone’s COVID behavior?
Perhaps she has an immune deficiency and wasn’t able to take the vaccine herself and she would like to be extra cautious. Perhaps the mask just doesn’t really bother her all that much and she figures even the potential for benefit outweighs her discomfort—like a bandage to protect against infection of a scraped knee. Perhaps she was wearing her mask somewhere it was mandated and forgot to take it off. Could a woman like this still trust Jesus? (Yes.)
If a person has chosen not to be vaccinated, is that all the information required to judge that he doesn’t “love his neighbor”? What other possible explanations could we imagine for his behavior?
Perhaps he’s had COVID already and trusts his natural immunity. Perhaps he’s decided the minimal risks of the vaccine outweigh what he believes are the minimal risks to him (let’s imagine he’s young and healthy) of contracting the virus. Perhaps his doctor advised against his taking the vaccine. We can question the veracity of the information involved in his decision (though we’d be wise not to overstate our qualifications to do so). But could a man like this still be committed to loving his neighbor? (Yes.)
3. You’re not omniscient (sorry).
In Matthew 26, a woman poured out an alabaster jar of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. The disciples who saw her hopped right into her shoes and judged her accordingly. (“If I had done that, Lord, it would have been a huge waste. I could have given to the poor!”)
Jesus pulls back the curtain. “She has done a beautiful thing to me,” he says (Matt. 26:10). You have no idea what she just did; even though you just watched her do it. Jesus says she anointed him not because she doesn’t care about the poor, but because she understood who he was: “She did it to prepare me for burial” (Matt. 26:12). This holy insight, which had escaped even the most learned Jewish leaders of the day, is now this woman’s legacy. Jesus knew her whole story.
In Mark 12, a poor widow put a measly two copper coins into the temple treasury. Jesus immediately called his disciples over. “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others,” he said, knowing it would sound strange. “They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything” (Mark 12:44). Jesus knew the whole story, which revealed more than one brief glimpse could have possibly offered. The whole story was what was required to make a good and right judgment.
There’s good news here: giving the benefit of the doubt has become revolutionary. Intellectual charity makes us weird now. That means this radical act—the humility to refrain from judging others—is another way Christians’ Christlikeness can stand out.
Giving the benefit of the doubt has become revolutionary.
So when next you encounter someone who’s done things differently than you, have some imagination—and pray your brothers and sisters will spare some for you.