The CDC defines social distancing as, “Remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distances from others when possible.” This new and fortunately temporary global practice during the COVID-19 outbreak is a simple task of doing our part in combating the spread of the virus.
The idea of social distancing to prevent the spread of diseases can be found all the way back in biblical times. There was an occasion when Jesus was traveling with his disciples and they were encountered by a group of men who were socially distancing because of their contagious medical condition. The gospel of Luke cites, “On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’”
The lepers stood at a “distance.” The Greek term Luke chooses to describe their distancing is πόῤῥωθεν (porrhōthen), which implies being “far or far off.” According to the Law of Moses, there was no specified distance at which they should stand. But the Law did demand very rigid restrictions: “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Few life interruptions could compare to the utter isolation in which lepers lived. What is interesting about Luke’s ten social distancers is that, under any other circumstances, these men would not have identified or associated with each other. Later in the passage, we find out that some of the lepers were Jews while others were Samaritans. Luke mentions, “Now [the returning leper] was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “…Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jews had no dealings with Samaritans; they hated each other. Here is an example of a great law of life. A common misfortune had broken down the racial, national, political, and religious barriers. In the common tragedy of their leprosy, they had forgotten that they were Jews and Samaritans and remembered that they were simply humans in need.
Here is an example of a great law of life. A common misfortune had broken down the racial, national, political, and religious barriers.
It is the “urgency of now” that fosters this breakdown of social silos and political prejudices. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the March on Washington, he described this“fierce urgency of now.”He reminded a divided nation that we need one another and that we are stronger when we march forward together. “We cannot walk alone,”he said. “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.” I wonder if we as neighbors, a community, a nation, and a world could be mindful of this common bond we have with everyone. Rather than being bothered by differences, why not see the multiple core commonalities we all have, like the basic need for mercy and kindness? Just as the ten lepers daringly approached Jesus, we are all vulnerable and in need of mercy and kindness. We do not extend kindness because people deserve it. We share it because, like us, they need it.
Rather than being bothered by differences, why not see the multiple core commonalities we all have, like the basic need for mercy and kindness?
This global predicament that has introduced us to social distancing will one day end. Perhaps not as quickly as we would like, but it will end. We’ll go back to work and school and church. We’ll shake hands again and share meals together and worship side by side. We’ll have concerts again, attend graduation commencements, weddings, and funerals, and do all the things we’re used to doing. But let’s not go back to the social silos and political prejudices. If there will be a new normal in our post-COVID-19 world, I hope it will be one where we have injected it with a permanent dose of kindness. While we are working hard to hinder the spread of COVID-19, let our kindness be contagious.
On August 28, 1963, MLK Jr.’s speech was delivered to a crowd of over 250,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. This “I have a Dream” speech was a defining moment during one of the most divided times in American history.