Priorities in a Time of Pandemic

The director of the Massachusetts Bible Society discusses the first in a new series of Bible studies on the Ten Commandments.

Stores with bare shelves where toilet paper, diapers, food staples, and cleaning supplies should be. Healthcare workers without personal protective equipment. States struggling to make do with scarce resources. Empty streets where people should be. Tents in Central Park. Mass graves in Iran. Victims of domestic violence trapped at home with abusers and sex trafficking survivors vulnerable again to traffickers.

These are the images of the coronavirus pandemic playing out around the world. The virus has laid bare all of our illusions of peace and comfort and exposing the massive holes in the fabric of our society. Those who were comfortable two months ago are able to ride out social distancing while those who were vulnerable two months ago are even more vulnerable now.

What this pandemic has shown is how misplaced so many of our collective and personal priorities have been and the damage that’s caused. But what should those priorities be?

Rev. Anne Robertson, the executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, has some helpful ideas. She’s written a small group study series called Exploring Justice: The Ten Commandments. Though the first volume, aptly named Priorities, was written to address some of the division and polarization facing our public life, the study encourages participants to consider how to put their faith in action through keeping the Ten Commandments. If people are looking for activities to Zoom during social distancing, they would do well to start a discussion group using this helpful curriculum.

The first volume looks at the first three commandments as laid out in the Methodist tradition (Rev. Robertson is a Methodist pastor):

  • You shall have no other gods before me.
  • You shall not make idols.
  • You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.

Robertson named this first volume Priorities because these three commandments are meant to show us where our heart lies and whether that is with God or some other idol.

“What I want people to do is to think, ‘Who is this God I’m putting first?,'” Robertson says. “‘What are the values that this God represents? What are the priorities that go first if the God of Jesus Christ is the one that’s supposed to be at the top of the ladder? How do I know when I’ve slipped and let some other thing take on priority, rather than the God of Jesus Christ?’”

In this unique and unprecedented time, all of us to some extent are reckoning with idols. Maybe it’s comfort, driving one to hoard resources, which prevents others from obtaining them. Maybe it’s money or political power, driving business leaders and elected officials to consider endangering human lives in order to restart the economy. For others, maybe it’s idolatry over liturgies, communal worship, or even their church buildings. Some pastors are openly flouting social distancing, choosing to open their churches and hold services though it would endanger their community. Some are suggesting that we’ve made an idol of “saving lives” by forgoing Mass and dinner parties.

In this study, Rev. Robertson identifies three priorities based on the first three commandments that have real resonance right now. They are informed by the Ten Commandments, The Great Commandment, and Micah 6:8:

  1. Be Part of Something Bigger.
  2. Let the Test Be Love.
  3. Don’t Make it About You.


The study then lays out practical ways to identify idols, how those idols compete for our allegiances and divide us, and how to get rid of those idols. Rev. Robertson’s voice throughout the study is warm, gentle, and conversational. Her writing style invites dialogue instead of offering a scolding. She uses history to help inform the present and to cause the reader to think critically about why so many aspects of our shared public life are divisive, rather than unifying.

She told me, “I tried to keep it from devolving into finger-pointing, but to have everybody reflect inward. Because we could be totally right in terms of the ideology or belief we have and still be totally wrong in the way we try to persuade or engage. … We should ask, ‘What does my God represent and the priorities I’m advocating for?’”

In our conversation, Robertson also offered some interesting ways to consider the Ten Commandments and how to keep them.

“I’ve come to see the Ten Commandments as both a ladder and a safety net. Starting from the top, with no other gods and not taking God’s name in vain, if you do that, it’s much easier to keep the rest of the commandments. When that’s in place, other things fall in line. Each commandment is also designed to catch you if you fall from the top. Can you at least be content with what you have? Commandment number 10 becomes the first step back up. Can you quit lying? Can you be faithful to one person as practice to being faithful to God? I see a very intentional ordering of the commandments that can help us to lead an ethical life.”

The study is available through Amazon. An audio version will be available in the second half of the year.

This article is not a paid advertisement or sponsored content. However, the Center for Christian Civics may receive a nominal fee for purchases made using the above link.

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  • Juliet Vedral is a Washington, DC-based writer and consultant, specializing in faith outreach and writing short, pithy bios. Before striking out on her own, she worked at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, Sojourners, and the ONE Campaign. You can find out more about her at julietvedral.com.

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