There is a church 16 kilometres south of me that, in the middle of a pandemic, is breaking public health guidelines and continuing to meet.
It’s frustrating. I get it, but here’s the thing: that church is playing us all like fiddles. Our reactions to its rule-breaking is exactly what it wants.
Are we spreading its message? Yes. Every time we share one of its unorthodox videos, every time we comment on its social media posts, every time we print what its leaders are saying, we are giving it an audience. Even hate-posting increases the number of people who are aware of it.
Should the province issue fines? Yes, but even that’s a problem. Since this church believes government is over-reaching its power and infringing on its rights to gather, the fines actually serve as a reinforcement of this belief rather than a deterrent. The RCMP showing up, giving out fines is exactly what its leadership wants.
I’m pretty sure those fined will consider themselves martyrs and gladly keep paying them, or just move meetings to undisclosed locations.
What if they don’t pay the fines? Are we going to arrest them?
Again, this proves their point about government over-reach. We don’t have enough room in our jails, and arresting parents in front of their children isn’t exactly a good look.
Are there other options?
We could try reasoning, but in media interviews church leaders have referenced conspiracy theories involving Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates. Since we’re not exactly on the same plane of reality here, I’m quite sure reasoning has its limitations.
Can neighbouring faith communities reach out across the divide?
That would be good, but it assumes the church is part of ecumenical conversations — which it is not. And a church like this places a rather high value on independence.
Can we do a deep dive and expose its teachings as ridiculous? Sure. But again, it reinforces the persecution complex — and, really, how many change our minds over a stranger dunking on us via Twitter?
Can we quote Bible verses, and use sacred scriptures against them? I wouldn’t bother; their minds seem made up.
So what do we do?
Maybe we can just ignore them.
I know we’re in a pandemic and this congregation's behaviour threatens us all, but what other choices are there?
The province knows they’re breaking the rules and has asked them to stop meeting. The RCMP know they’re breaking the rules and has asked them to stop meeting. The Rural Municipality of Hanover knows they’re breaking the rules and has asked them to stop meeting.
Other local churches, including one in their village, are doing their part during the pandemic and staying closed.
So maybe the move here is to just ignore them and stop giving the attention they crave.
What about the public health risk?
Maybe it’s not as great as we fear, since this group of 100 or so inward-looking people have limited contact with the rest of society. They may not have the potential to be a super-spreader event in rural Manitoba.
Churches aren’t death cults. If COVID-19 comes to that group, maybe then they will see it is real and change their behaviour.
It’s a conundrum, that’s for sure, but for now, I think our best bet is to ignore them.
Kyle Penner is associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach