Joy to the World for Public Health

Why your private theology may have public consequences

My favorite verse of “Joy to the World” is the one most people skip:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found!

Those who know me know that the missing third verse of “Joy to the World” is a favorite complaint of mine each Advent and Christmas season. But my love for that neglected verse is more than mere preference. I still hold to what I said when I wrote about this song back in 2011:

When we say “Joy the world,” we don’t just mean people, we also mean the earth. Christ’s coming signals the coming of His Kingdom, which extends to every bit of creation that has been tainted by sin and the fall. His blessings flow to the most wounded individual as well as to the most hurt part of the earth.

This year, it’s easy to see just how far we need God’s blessings to flow, as “the curse” of sin and death takes such a horrible toll through the Coronavirus pandemic. The third verse of “Joy to the World” reminds me that salvation is not only about an individual’s relationship with God, but about God’s plan for redemption for all of the fallen creation, including those parts affected by physical disease. When we skip that third verse, it’s easy to skip over the global part of Christian theology in favor of the merely individual.

When we think of Christ’s redemption only in individualistic terms, it may have consequences for how we consider other parts of life that have both an individual and communal aspect. The most immediately relevant part of life in light of the Covid-19 pandemic is that of public health. Last week, an NPR story on the history of American reactions to public health made an explicit connection between theological beliefs and beliefs about public health. David Rosner, medical historian, said

In the 1918 pandemic, in the 1831 cholera epidemic and the smallpox epidemics, everyone feels that somehow, either they’re personally immune because they’re living a moral life or, secondly, they have no control over it, that it’s something that’s going to be decided by God. And that’s a very dangerous combination when you have that kind of strong tradition that really counteracts all public health communal activity because public health is a communal act. I mean, it’s an act on part of the public, of all of us.

Rosner’s point is that a belief system that emphasizes personal morality or personal trust in God over a responsibility to a community can lead people to behave in ways that put the community at risk. Whenever people conceive of a threat to public health as something to be handled individually — crucially, in those examples, as part of an established theological framework — everyone suffers. A person’s private faith may have very public consequences.

But if our private faith includes an understanding that Christ’s redemption includes every inch of the creation affected by the fall, then we may see our responsibility to others a little differently. Yes, we should still share the gospel of personal peace and reconciliation through Christ, but we should also become partners with Christ in bringing peace and reconciliation to every part of the world that has been infected by sin. That means we should care about making a world with less disease and suffering. And it should go without saying that we should wish for our fellow man to experience physical health and well-being and to do our part to save their lives from a premature death by engaging in practices such as mask-wearing and vaccination that aid in public health for the common good.

Unfortunately, 2020 has shown that such ideas do not go without saying. There’s a range of reasons that have led many Christians to shun common-sense public health behavior, from political allegiances to the proliferation of faulty information and conspiracy theories. But the one that concerns me today is the theology that makes salvation so purely personal and so purely other-worldly that it leads us to neglect concrete opportunities to love our neighbors and cultivate “peace on earth, goodwill to men” in the here and now.

We love to sing the words, “let every heart prepare Him room,” but if we truly want to hear “heaven and nature sing,” we must also spread Christ’s blessings in every corner of our influence, including through a commitment to the best practices to ensure public health for the entire community.