Jesus didn’t keep a social distance
Regular columnist Andrew Bryant is keeping his distance, but explains why he feels this should not become a permanent arrangement.
We are learning to keep apart, at least two metres apart. Ideally, we are staying locked down inside our own homes and only venturing out when essential and then always keeping a good social distance.
Right now, this is an essential message. This is the part we can all play in helping contain the spread of the virus. This is the way we can each help save lives and protect the NHS. We need to keep apart. And as and when the lockdown is gradually eased, we will still need to observe social distancing to ensure there is no new surge in infections. There can be no disputing the importance of this message; it is the necessary price that must be paid to bring infection under control.
But without wanting to take away from the vital importance of this message, we need to be alert to the conscious and unconscious ways in which humans being are being taught to be wary of one another, to see the other as a potential risk. This is a trend that was there before the present crisis, and we need to be careful that, as and when we emerge from lockdown, it is not made worse.
I had grown use to the fact that my dentist treats me wearing mask and gloves, something my childhood dentist never did. Visiting on hospital wards, the use of hand sanitiser on entering and leaving had long become routine, along with a heightened sense that every hospital visit is a potential risk to me and to those visited. In Chinese cities the wearing of face masks has, again, for a long time been routine, symbolising a world that is potentially harmful – although more from air pollution than infection. Always for a good reason, but in subtle ways, we have been learning over recent years to distance from one another.
The crisis around safeguarding has also led to more social distancing. Rightly there needed to be a wake-up call around the scandal of sexual abuse but the price has been a new anxiety around touch, and even conversations across the generations. Social distancing has become part of safeguarding.
And if beyond the phased end of the lockdown, the wearing of masks, the avoidance of handshakes or embraces, the keeping of distance, become the hallmarks of our society then this will be a terrible price to pay. If from this experience the permanent features are that we are reluctant to sit beside one another on a bus, need to hide behind a mask before entering a train, or keep behind a screen at the checkout then something vital to our humanity has been lost. Once, banks went through a phase of hiding all staff behind floor to ceiling screens in the name of security, with conversations conducted via a microphone. However, in the name of good customer service they have now reconfigured their buildings to make them more open and friendly. It would be terrible if we went back to those bad old ways.
Part of the success of humanity is our sociability. Community is forged by being able to be relaxed in each other’s company - and by not seeing the other as a threat or a danger. And for all that virtual connections have helped many through the lockdown, there is never any real substitute for actually meeting face to face, of being in the company of others.
The beauty of the ministry of Jesus is the way he was with the people, how he sought out those who others avoided, even the socially isolated lepers. Touch was an essential part of his healing ministry. Sitting at table with people was a central part of his encounters with people.
Jesus was God come close. Incarnation is God breaking down the distance between the human and the divine. It is the restoring of God’s original intention for creation, symbolised in the image of God walking with Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening.
And we are called to continue the ministry of Jesus, to follow in those same footprints and to break down the barriers that divide humanity or keep us apart. Christians are called to build communities, communities where all are loved and valued.
If the only way we can live together beyond the phased lifting of the lockdown is by being more socially distant then that will be yet another sign of the failure of Project Humanity. Before Covid-19 took over our lives, climate change was at the top of the agenda, the awareness that our lives need to change for us to have a future on this planet. Covid-19 is part of that same agenda – how do we live sustainably on this planet without causing harm to creation and to each other? God has gifted us the stewardship of this divinely inspired creation. If we can only sustain life by being more distant one from another then that is a very sad commentary on our stewardship of this world.
For now, and no doubt for some months to come, social distancing is completely necessary. But let us be determined that as the lockdown is gradually lifted, we will work together to create a world, not where we are more distant, but where the barriers between people can be broken down. Let this pause in human interaction make us more determined to ensure a just and equal sharing of all God has gifted in creation and where the bonds of human fellowship are strengthened, not distanced.
The image above is courtesy of sheriyates on pixabay.com.
The Revd Andrew Bryant is the Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care at Norwich Cathedral. He was previously Team Rector of Portishead, Bristol, in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and has served in parishes in the Guildford and Lichfield Dioceses, as well as working for twelve years with Kaleidoscope Theatre, a charity promoting integration through theatre for young adults with Down’s Syndrome.
You can read Andrew's latest blog entry here and can follow him via his Twitter account @AndyBry3.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users.