The public has had to make sacrifices for the common good during times of crises throughout American history.
President Woodrow Wilson on Jan. 18, 1918, issued a formal proclamation calling upon U.S. citizens “to reduce consumption of wheat and meat products.”
While informal policies had been in effect due to supply issues related to the war effort, Wilson formally requested companies and individuals only buy 70% of their normal wheat and meat consumption.
He declared two days a week should be “wheatless” and one day should be “meatless.”
Christian churches responded with enthusiasm.
The North Carolina religious periodical, The Biblical Recorder, encouraged its readers to participate, with the editorial staff suggesting the country needed “a law so drastic that food speculators could be put behind bars.”
This governmental request was not seen an infringement upon their liberty or their practice of religion, in contrast to how some have viewed our current restrictions.
“It is not a movement dissociated from religion. It affects our life as a people. It has in it the improvement of moral and social conditions,” the editors reasoned. “There is every reason why, as Christian citizens, we should take food conservation to heart.”
One year later the Spanish flu ravaged the globe. Churches were now well experienced in the practice of sacrificing for the common good.
When The Biblical Recorder published the U.S. Health Department’s guidelines on avoiding crowds, churches obliged by canceling services without complaint.
Amid the “sadness and sorrow” of the pandemic, one woman wrote to the periodical explaining the contagion had brought one blessing.
It caused American citizens to both recognize and “demonstrate their belief that they are their brothers’ keeper,” she wrote.
In March, President Trump put the U.S. on a wartime footing against the novel coronavirus.
And this “war” is only heating up.
On Monday, June 8, the World Health Organization reported the current pandemic is only intensifying, explaining more than 100,000 new cases have occurred in nine out of the last 10 days.
At the same time, numerous states within the United States are reopening their economies with varying levels of restrictions.
Questions remain: What does our warlike posturing look like as the nation emerges from lockdown? What is required of the public to combat this pandemic?
Government officials are still encouraging hand washing, social distancing, limiting the size of gatherings and wearing face masks in public.
While some Americans are adhering to this advice, other have pushed back and refused to cooperate.
For some, individual freedom trumps efforts to enact collective public safety.
Perhaps, after years of being at war in Afghanistan (still ongoing) and other parts of the Middle East, the idea of going to war against anything feels hollow.
Perhaps with police officers flooding our streets with military grade equipment and weapons of war, our idea of war has become so common and mundane it requires no change in public behavior.
In the coming months, our “war” with the coronavirus will continue to strain the American public.
As governmental leaders seek to steer the country toward safety, it will be incumbent upon the American public to rise to the challenge and make sacrifices for the greater good.
Christian churches and ministers have a powerful role to play in continuing to encourage their congregants to rise to this occasion and make necessary sacrifices.
First, as the editors of The Biblical Recorder pointed out in 1917, Christians should call out the sinfulness of those individuals profiting from the national crisis.
While millions are unemployed, many of the wealthiest Americans have added to their wealth over the past few months. Such exploitation and greed run counter to the gospel of Jesus.
Second, we must not be so selfish as to neglect public safety recommendations for the sake of experiencing some semblance of normalcy.
As the editors of The Biblical Recorder wrote, such recommendations are for “the improvement of moral and social condition.”
This is a time to think about the type of people we ought to be and the type of society we want to create.
It is a time to think about the conditions of our neighbors, to think about those individuals who society deems insignificant because of race or class or gender identity.
I have hope the COVID-19 policies and guidelines are working.
According to an article published on Monday in “Nature,” scientists estimate anti-contagion policies like social distancing, mask wearing and lockdown have reduced the number of confirmed cases by 4.8 million in the United States.
In the coming months, may we remember we are our brother’s keeper so we can join together and make the sacrifices necessary for the common good.
Andrew Gardner holds a PhD in American Religious History and is the author of “Reimagining Zion: A History of the Alliance of Baptists” (Nurturing Faith Publishing).