FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC: JOSIAH TRENHAM AND “CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE” by Jan Michael Ostrowski

Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s readers will recall from “You Are Not Worthy. Not Now. Not Ever.” Some Positive Movement on the Josiah Trenham File Father Trenham’s cavalier disregard for public health—and the health of his own wife, children, and parishioners, apparently—as a metric of “faith.” Here Mr. Ostrowski responds to Trenham’s open defiance of his own hierarchs.

pjimage (24)

Metropolitan Joseph (L) and Archpriest Josiah Trenham (R)
Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese

Father Josiah Trenham’s latest video for Patristic Nectar Films, entitled Civil Disobedience, is enlightening if unsurprising: enlightening in that he has dispensed with any pastoral pretenses in favor of a political rant, and unsurprising given that his political bent has been known for a long time. In this video Trenham tries to make the case that the closing of churches due to the coronavirus crisis is unjustifiable governmental overreach and a violation of the First Amendment. He seems unaware that responding to the crisis should not be a political issue, as it is a medical and public health issue. Given that, as of this date, the US death toll from the virus is approaching 100,000, his assertion is irresponsible and dangerous.

Though there are antecedents throughout history, the term civil disobedience is generally thought to have been popularized by Henry David Thoreau’s essay of the same name. Thoreau’s contention was that, if a government is culpable of egregious injustice—in his context, slavery and the Mexican-American War—the people should not let their conscience be overruled by decrees of the state. Thoreau refused to pay the poll tax as a means of withdrawing support for what he considered to be a repugnant, if legal, institution and an unjust war.

Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King famously employed the practice to protest the British Occupation of India and segregation laws in the US, respectively. 

All three recognized that unpardonable injustice committed against an entire class of people is worthy of contempt, and that breaking unjust laws actually reveres the rule of law. They accepted the penalties for their acts of disobedience. All three were also imprisoned for such activities at one time or another.

Trenham begins his video sounding like the voice of reason, stating that the proper disposition of Christians would be “submission and humble obedience” to the dictates of the state. I would argue that neither submission nor obedience is expected of citizens in a representative democracy where the people are sovereign, but I took it as a turn of phrase meaning respect for the rule of law. He then turns to biblical precursors of civil disobedience to illustrate circumstances where defying authority is justified. The midwives in Exodus, Shiphrah and Puah, disobeyed the directives of the Pharaoh to kill all male Hebrew babies at birth, as they held that adherence to moral principles outweighed the clearly immoral legal commands of the Egyptian state. This is truly one of the earliest examples of resistance to the unreasonable demands of a murderous government.

He further suggests, somewhat more tenuously, that Peter and John’s defiance of Annas, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin in Acts 4 could be seen as a similar act of resistance. Whether a dispute within a local council could be construed as civil disobedience would be open to debate, however.

At this point, Trenham enters shakier territory. In describing the events leading up to American independence as acts of civil disobedience he postulates that “no man would sell his liberty to have a little more security,” a statement that relies more on jargon than reason, and is clearly a reference to the slogans of the “open-it-up” demonstrations.

The fact is, security is the very purpose of the state. Local governments run the police and fire departments and enact speed limits, gun regulations, and health codes, all of which are specifically designed to protect the public. The federal government directs our military and foreign affairs. It is the expectation of the people that the government provide for our security, and we accept that laws place limits on our behavior for that very reason.

He then criticizes the policies of California Governor Newsom—including his stances on immigration and marriage equality—and suggests that his directives to close the beaches in Orange County were acts of retribution against a conservative community.

None of this is relevant to the ostensible subject of the video, i.e., the legality of church closings, but are rather strawmen and hot button issues to provoke his followers.

Trenham’s assertions that restricting church services is tantamount to religious persecution are as disingenuous as they are hyperbolic. The restrictions are not directed solely at houses of worship but at all places involving large congregations of people, including the workplace, stores, and public spaces. They are not designed to impede religious observance but to protect members of a congregation. These are not permanent curtailments but temporary measures to reduce the transmission of a highly communicable virus that has already caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people. 

And ultimately they do not prevent the exercise of religious observance, but merely regulate one aspect of it, albeit a very important one. It is understood that the faithful would like to attend services for the full expression of their convictions, but the faithful also understand that, under the current situation, that would be extremely risky.  In rural Arkansas, far from the coastal hot spots, 92 attendees of a church service developed Covid and three have died; an additional 26 cases have been linked to the church. Nine new cases of Covid have been linked to a May 10 service held in an Assembly of God church in Mendocino County. A choir rehearsal in Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in Washington State led to 45 people falling ill, two of whom have died. A pastor in Virginia who resisted calls for social distancing because he felt the danger was over-hyped died from the virus in April after holding packed services. People who attend these services go out into the community, and therefore are posing risks not only to themselves but to those around them. An increase in infections puts stresses on an already overwhelmed healthcare system unprepared for this type of pandemic, and puts our healthcare workers in danger.

Trenham’s contention that the faithful shouldn’t “compromise the law of God to accommodate the laws of men” is a false choice. Observing public health restrictions for the benefit of the community in no way compromises one’s religious convictions, but rather it would be morally indefensible to put the safety of others at risk unnecessarily. And in fact, there have been novel alternatives to attending in-person services. Some churches have used video conferencing software to make services accessible to their congregants. The drive-in movie theater, that onetime shrine to the automobile consumer fetish, has been reimagined for church meetings in order to conform to social distancing guidelines.

It is worth noting that the bishops of the Antiochian Archdiocese to which Trenham himself belongs have made their directives very clear (here), and they are in fact “committed to halting church services” for the safely of their flock and their communities. They propose viewing the stay-at-home orders as an opportunity to transform each household into “little churches,” to use the time gained to engage in daily prayer and reading of Scripture, and importantly, to pray for the scientists, healthcare providers, and frontline essential workers who put their lives on the line each day by virtue of going to work in the morning. The Archdiocese has been unambiguous in its support of “strict adherence” of the social distancing protocols issued by the government and health departments, which makes Trenham’s stance all the more puzzling. By defying his own bishops’ directives to fully cooperate with the stay-at-home procedures, Trenham is certainly not modeling the “submission and humble obedience” he stated was the proper disposition of Christians vis-à-vis the authorities.

By even using the term “civil disobedience” in this context Trenham is rhetorically linking temporary restrictions on church gatherings to egregious government policies of the past, and thereby diminishes the suffering that resulted from the evils of slavery, colonialism, and racial segregation. He exhibits none of the conscience or conviction of Shiphrah and Puah, nor the righteousness of Peter and John.

Everyone wants churches to reopen, but it needs to be done in a manner that guarantees the safety of the congregation and of the surrounding community.  Inciting people to disregard public health policy designed to save lives puts everyone at risk, and is the very antithesis of Christian principles.

See our Archives 2020 for previous titles in both our Coronavirus/Faith in a Time of Pandemic and Josiah Trenham: The Scandal series, and our Call for Articles if you would like to write for the former.

Jan Michael Ostrowski spent his entire career in the private sector working in graphic design and marketing. Currently he teaches English to help those in immigrant communities transition and integrate more easily into their new surroundings in the US. His interests include the early Church, social justice, and humanitarian issues. He enjoys relaxing by reading French literature in the original.

Please see Opportunities for Giving for ways that our readers can help some of those most in need at this time.
See our Patrons page for how to become a monthly, occasional, or one-time supporter of Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s work.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.
Join the conversation on Facebook and/or Twitter or in an article of your own or a letter to the editors.
Sign up for email notifications in the upper right column of this page.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

One thought on “FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC: JOSIAH TRENHAM AND “CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE” by Jan Michael Ostrowski

  1. Pingback: IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: MAY | ORTHODOXY IN DIALOGUE

Comments are closed.