The COVID-19 Pandemic is, for good reason, consuming much of our attention and fostering justified concern about the rapid spread of coronavirus. People are seeking answers to questions about how to best protect themselves and guard against transmission. Two suggestions from health professionals are consistent: hand washing, and social distancing are two of the most effective ways to slow the spread of the virus.
It seems that hand washing is something most of us can understand and do easily. Social distancing is a bit more complex. We are social beings. We are hard-wired for community. Most of us seek social connection, and mental health professionals across the board agree that human connection is vital to our well- being. We need touch, we need affection, we need to feel connected to other around us, so the idea of distancing ourselves from one another is discomforting. Thankfully, we live in a time when social media, email and other forms of electronic video communication are literally at our fingertips. However, these new ways of staying connected do not allow for the physical connection that is essential to our overall mental, spiritual and physical well-being. Nothing can replace a gentle touch, a loving hug, a warm handshake. Feeling that we are all part of a community and that we are cared for and supported by that community is critical. However, that has not been the experience for far too many people.
The term “social distancing” is now part of our lexicon. It may seem new and awkward in practice. However, it is not new, and the truth is, we are disturbingly comfortable with it. If we look around and are truly honest with ourselves, we will see that in many ways we have been practicing “social distancing” for quite some time. Think of the HIV-AIDS crisis of the 80’s that was largely ignored and the LGBT community was vilified and condemned as the virus ravaged their community – our community. Many died alone. Many did not and still do not understand our LGBT brothers and sisters as “our community.” This is the problem of social distancing in its worse form.
We have also practiced social distancing with our systems of mass incarceration where we try to hide our social failings because of our inability or unwillingness to properly deal with social issues such as drug addiction, poverty, mental health, homelessness, education and all forms of violence – domestic or otherwise. We distance ourselves by throwing people in jail instead of giving them the help they really need, hoping that the problems will disappear, but the only thing that disappears is the human being. We are comfortable with this sort of social distancing when we should be ashamed.
The Church has also been guilty of social distancing through our silence during the sin of racism in our country from early nineteenth century slavery, to Jim Crow segregation, and now through mass incarceration of people of color. The church has largely been silent as the atrocities of racism continue even today. We can do better. We need to do better.
This problem of social distancing is not one just buried in the past, or locked behind bars in jails or prisons, or shelters, or mental health facilities. It is as near as the person exiled to a street corner with a sign, as close as the neighbor woman imprisoned by the hands of physical and emotional abuse, as close as the child sitting off in the corner by themselves in the school cafeteria. However, we all too often ignore these issues. We may justify our social distancing by saying to ourselves: “It’s not my problem.” But it is our problem. In fact, a big problem. Social distancing is as close as the moment we breeze by a homeless sister or brother because we feel “uncomfortable,” so we turn our head just enough to avoid the connection, in doing so we deny the person valuable – even life-saving connection – because we have what we need and after all, we have somewhere to go.
I just cannot believe that this version of social distancing is the life that God wants for us. It just cannot be. What I can believe in is a God who is for all people, a God that guides us into life-giving community, a God that affirms the humanity and dignity of all people and is with us as we reach out, reach in, and experience the intimate touch of compassion and love with one another.
One thing that is evident about this time of the coronavirus pandemic is that there is – as is often the case with major crisis – a growing sense that we are all in this together, that our way through this moment in our common life is as a unified people. I pray that this moment will help us grow closer together in ways that we may never had imagined. My hope is that the lessons learned through this will include a growing awareness of how we have truly distanced ourselves from one another because of the illusion that someone else’s struggle is somehow not our own. I pray that we will be emboldened to tear away the walls of social distancing constructed by the corrosive threads of fear, prejudice ego and entitlement. I hope that we will truly become more connected to one another in compassionate, life-giving and loving ways.
Our very lives depend on it.