What does the coronavirus, “social distancing”, and self-quarantining mean for the Body of Christ? Scripture is clear about the communal nature of the Church; no single person can embody the Church. Such is idolatry or the beginnings of a cult. We find meaning and redemption in community with one another, through communal worship, through sharing lives, through working together on our tasks and vocations. The most sacred time of the week for a Christian is Sunday mornings, not just because we go to worship God, but because we go to worship God in the presence of one another.
Yet, coronavirus, and our response it, disrupts this. The most prudent step is distance oneself from others, in order to slow the spread of a sickness that requires literal human touch to propagate. How ironic this is. That which makes us human – our ability to work together with others, to love intentionally and communally – is that which this virus targets and disrupts most clearly. Coronavirus forces us to be apart from one another, to stay in our homes, and hoard what we have, and to survive, just barely. It forces us to consider that which the sick and alone need most – human touch – as something dirty, something we must avoid. It disrupts the work of being close to someone who needs proximity to be reminded of their worth and being.
Some commentators over the last couple of days have declared that this is the new normal for humanity going forward, that this incident will realign the nature of human connectedness, and make us all the more individualized, and distant, and unwilling to be close to others. Some have made this declaration as if this is the right thing to do. Social distancing is how to be a human being entering the second decade of the 21st century. It is right and good that we should pull back a little further from one another, in order to preserve our good health, and our individualism, and our own personal choices and ways of being. This, then, is the logical and desirable endpoint of the Enlightenment project. “I think, therefore I am,” declared Rousseau almost 500 years ago, setting every Ego apart from every other one. We distance, and therefore we are: distinct, and, singular, and fully actualized, and small, and sick, and alone.
What is the Church to do? How are Christians to be in this world? We have a duty to live responsibly, to not endanger those who this virus puts at risk, and that means to stay away from large crowds, to sanitize, to avoid contact with those we can harm through our touch. The critics are correct; to continue to go on as if nothing has changed is not just reckless or irresponsible; it is selfish and immoral. It is to refuse to do that most Christian of things, to think of others before ourselves. Our actions must consider the impact they have on the lives and well-being of others.
But locking our doors, and worshiping via live stream, and staying away from those who are still in need today, despite the coronavirus, that doesn’t seem very Christian either. Hunger still exists. The naked still need clothed, those in prison are still there, the stranger approaches, injustice still reigns, and perhaps even more so, as pandemic breeds fear, and xenophobia, and racism. The world still needs the Body of Christ to be what it is called to be. But how?
This is the question the Church should be grappling with, this First Sunday after Coronavirus. I wish I had answers this morning. I, too, sit at home, wishing to be out, wandering what horrors the next few days and weeks hold, wanting to do my part. But what is my part? I am young, and healthy, and seemingly unaffected at this point, and thus, a risk to those around me, who don’t have my age or immune system. My prayer of lament this day is, what is my duty? Where am I called, and how?
I am worried about the Church, even more so that I usually am. Any gathering of people is under suspicion right now, and rightfully so. And, beautifully, on this Sunday, pastors and leaders across the globe are still carrying on worship via the digital means we have to do so, a blessed gift to those who still need the Word today. But what about next week? What about next month? How long does this go on? And what about those who realize that staying home on a Sunday morning, laying in bed, worshiping at the altar of the IPhone screen, even after coronavirus, is easier, and less messy, and less awkward, and more desirable?
Human connection spreads more than viruses and disease. It requires vulnerability, it inevitably leads to conflict and uncomfortable conversations, and awkward moments. Staying home – social distancing – does more than stop the spread of disease. It makes it easy to pick and chose the form of our human contact, who we are in touch with, how, when. It makes it easy to avoid the the sick and the vulnerable, yes, but also the social awkward, the frustrating, the disagreeable, the old, the infirm, those who ask something of us. Social distancing, outside the context of disease prevention, is comfortable and appealing, and also a denial of the communal nature of God’s people, of the Body of Christ, which, as St. Paul reminds us, “has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body.”
My prayer today is two-fold: that coronavirus will pass, that we will do what we need as a people to fight it and defeat it, and be well; and also, that once we do, that we don’t use its lingering specter to retreat further into our individuality and distance ourselves from one another, but that instead, it reminds us of the limits of our own bodies, and the eternity embodied in the Body. Amen.