On March 12 customers line up outside of a local supermarket in central Rome, Italy. Only a few persons can enter at a time, and shall maintain a 1-meter distance, by government decree. GETTY/Special
“Social distancing” is a level of weirdness none of us probably expected this early into the 21st century, and yet here we are. We are making decisions about where to go or not go to avoid being agents of a societal viral contagion.
“Unprecedented” is a word I’ve thrown around a lot. I’m not ancient but I’m getting there. And I cannot ever remember this level of response to a health crisis before.
Churches have behaved, initially, a little as if this is a test of our faith. “If we keep meeting when everyone else has desisted, isn’t that a kind of courageous triumph for faith over wrong-headed cultural panic? Isn’t this a gross overreaction? If we capitulate and don’t meet won’t that be seen as a kind of selling out our belief in God’s protection?
It is a little confounding for Christians because we take public worship very seriously. The word ecclesia, from which we get the English word church, meant “a publicly gathered people.” So, gathering for worship with other Christians is a spiritual marker. It is an identifying reality and centering force in Christian practice. It is a central aspect to who we are.
Back to the phrase social distancing. Locally (Southeast Georgia) some people, connected to several local churches were exposed to the COVID-19 virus at a wedding. Some of those exposures were secondhand, but many of these churches – because of the seriousness our medical community and government have assigned to protecting against the spread of this virus – have opted not to meet for public worship. They are practicing social distancing, ironically, as a way of loving their neighbors.
Social distancing is already occurring in life all the time, by the way. But it’s not because of quarantine from a viral contagion. Rather, it’s caused by people “biting and devouring” one another (Galatians 5:15) by misusing their speech through gossip, slander, and verbal accusations on social media. In 28 years of vocational ministry I can say unequivocally that gossip and slander – misusing words to tear others down – is the most basic reason Christian community fails in creating meaningful social connection among members.
2 Corinthians 5:17-20 describes the incredible value that God places on reconciliation and connection between people and God and people with each other. Our ministry as servants of Christ is deeply rooted in our alertness and mindfulness around this indispensable principle. This medical crisis, it may be assumed, will soon pass. But the goal of shortening the distance that exists in our relationships by being kind and giving each other the benefit of the doubt will continue to be a significant need.