Our very human responses are varied and exposed in this public health crisis. Whatever the case may be, we must also be vigilant about the moral disease exposed in a pandemic.
In our normally extraverted and active society we are now becoming practiced in what it looks and what it feels like to be ‘distant’ from each other. Not just at sports stadiums and convention venues, but religious gatherings as well.
In our social distancing exercise we are properly encouraged to inform ourselves of the risks and take the necessary precautions. Yes. We are encouraged to heed the health and official authorities. Yes. Best practices in worship and community life together are emphasized. Yes. We show thereby our responsibility to the sanctity of life, not just our own.
But for the sake of the most vulnerable.
For the time being we will refrain from physically sharing the Peace. We will leave the offering plate on the table into which we offer our gifts. We will cough into our sleeves. We will encourage donating online if you choose to self-isolate; and, we will explore using the internet more for helping people of Faith to connect. We will encourage vigorous hand-washing practices and dis-infect surfaces and door handles in our public spaces.
But there is something more going on beneath the surface of our vigilance.
When social distancing becomes a virtue. And dread overwhelms the normal, healthy bonds of human affection.
“In his book on the 1665 London epidemic, A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe reports, ‘This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others. … The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.’
“Fear drives people in these moments, but so does shame, caused by the brutal things that have to be done to slow the spread of the disease. In all pandemics people are forced to make the decisions that doctors in Italy are now forced to make — withholding care from some of those who are suffering and leaving them to their fate.
“In 17th-century Venice, health workers searched the city, identified plague victims and shipped them off to isolated ‘hospitals,’ where two-thirds of them died. In many cities over the centuries, municipal authorities locked whole families in their homes, sealed the premises and blocked any delivery of provisions or medical care.”
While some disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes can bring people together, history shows that pandemics can tear people apart.
“The Spanish flu pandemic that battered America in 1918 produced similar reactions. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, reports that as conditions worsened, health workers in city after city pleaded for volunteers to care for the sick. Few stepped forward.
“In Philadelphia, the head of emergency aid pleaded for help in taking care of sick children. Nobody answered. The organization’s director turned scornful: ‘… There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back.’
“This explains one of the puzzling features of the 1918 pandemic. When it was over, people didn’t talk about it. There were very few books or plays written about it. Roughly 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the flu, compared with 53,000 in battle in World War I, and yet it left almost no conscious cultural mark.
“Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed. In her 1976 dissertation, ‘A Cruel Wind,’ Dorothy Ann Pettit argues that the 1918 flu pandemic contributed to a kind of spiritual [apathy] afterward. People emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued. The flu, Pettit writes, had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.
“There is one exception to this sad litany: health care workers. In every pandemic there are doctors and nurses who respond with unbelievable heroism and compassion. That’s happening today.
“[At] … EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland, Washington State … the staff [is] showing the kind of effective compassion that has been evident in all pandemics down the centuries. ‘We have not had issues with staff not wanting to come in,’ an Evergreen executive said. ‘We’ve had staff calling and say, ‘If you need me, I’m available.’
“Maybe this time we’ll learn from their example. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to take steps to fight the moral disease that accompanies the physical one.
“Frank Snowden, the Yale historian who wrote Epidemics and Society, argues that pandemics hold up a mirror to society and force us to ask basic questions: … Where is God in all this? What’s our responsibility to one another?”
History also shows that pandemics tend to hit the poor hardest and enflame social divisions. Today, we cannot forget those who are most vulnerable: the elderly, for one, who must stay in these days. A simple note phone call or email to ask if they need any groceries or medication pick-up. These calls will remind them they are not alone through this crisis. That there are those who care. And are willing to help.
In our efforts to maintain concrete connections, even in this time of social distancing, we continue to build the community of love that is the Body of Christ.
Even in crisis, we are not meant to be alone. In crisis, we are not meant to retreat into self-preoccupation. This pandemic cannot kill compassion, too. Even if only where two or three are gathered, virtually or face-to-face, we resist allowing our fear to overwhelm us. We trust in “God with us” and in the revelation of God in Christ who speaks often in the Gospels the words of promise: “Do not be afraid.” We are called always but especially at this time, to reassure others in the same promise.
In this time of social distancing, I pray in the love of Christ Jesus who overcame the boundaries of fear and social stigma. The Samaritan woman at the well was not so much in need of a physical healing as she was an emotional, social healing.Our faith in Christ acknowledges those areas in our individual and public lives where we need emotional and moral healing as much as physical.
By temporarily limiting our gatherings, we are being responsible in not contributing to the problem – the transmission of disease. But at this time especially let’s be just as vigilant in not abdicating our moral call to be responsible for others’ care.
I pray in the love of Christ who reached out to touch and heal the blind man, the leper, the diseased, and who placed himself, even to death on a cross, all in the public sphere. I pray in the love of Christ whose life and love extends to our times and public places, into our hearts and into our very own relationships and communities.
At the end of the pandemic which will surely come, my hope is that as human beings will have overcome the physical danger, Christians will also have stayed true to our moral compass.
The Peace of Christ be with you all.
David Brooks, “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too.” New York Times, March 12, 2020.