Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | April 18, 2020

Snake handling and COVID-19

I grew up in East Tennessee, not far from where snake handling was popularized in the US. Snake handlers believe that they should be able to pick up poisonous snakes and pass them around as a sort of worship rite. Those who trust in God, they say, will not be bitten. Even if bitten, the faithful believe they will not die and so they refuse treatments and antidotes. Every few years at least, one of these communities makes the news when someone is bitten in a service and later dies.

Lately, I’ve thought of snake handlers as I hear news reports of faith communities that choose to gather even as the coronavirus pandemic is making its way through their communities. In some places, people have died as a result, and many have been sickened. Even so, they and others rush to defend their right to come together in one place for worship as a First Amendment issue, saying the government of their state has no right to tell them not to meet. Public health be damned, they can only be faithful if they defy science, common sense, and their call to care for each other and the larger community. A few are filing lawsuits. Some have even proclaimed some version of “God commands us to gather.”

Just so you know, God commands no such thing.

Though I’m using a lot of words here, I admit to almost being at a loss for words when describing such religious idiocy. In many ways, these gatherings are worse than those whose religious practices include the handling of poisonous snakes; faith communities that gather during the pandemic of a highly infectious virus would be more akin to people releasing rattlesnakes and copperheads in stores and neighborhoods. It isn’t just themselves they put at risk—it’s the larger community. And Jesus had a lot to say about caring for all our neighbors.

This week the lectionary text (John 20:19-31) is the story of the small, faithful community of Jesus’ friends gathered after the crucifixion. He appears to them, then later to Thomas. I think there are a few things in this story that apply to the theme of my blog:

  • They are gathering to guard their safety, not to risk it;
  • Jesus brings them peace, not fear;
  • Jesus honors their doubts and calls them to faith.

Faith, here or anywhere, is never tied to specific acts of worship. Jesus was especially gentle about the faith of Thomas, the one who was absent.

Absence from in-person worship gathering does not mean one isn’t faithful. As a matter of fact, faithfulness expresses itself most in concern for the whole community, for our neighbors and strangers alike.

Taking up snakes is an act of haughtiness, of believing that the acts we choose to perform are more important than what God has in mind for us—healthy minds, spirits, and bodies, as well as healthy communities.

Worshiping in person during a stay-at-home order is the same thing—saying that what these leaders choose to subject their members to is somehow holy, when at the least it defies God’s goodness and peace. At the most, such congregations claim a power that doesn’t belong to them, or to anyone: the power to overcome the science of God’s creation.

God charges us to do what is healthy and right, because God cares. We should care, too.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2020


  1. Your lots of words about being at a loss for words is beautifully worded.
    Much Love from Florida

  2. Thanks, Sue!

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