Each epoch, era, and significant world event develops its own nomenclature. That is to say that things get named, identified, and become the ways of speaking in the context of things like science, history, art, etc. But world events also develop their own nomenclature. For example, what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder was called “shell shock” during WW I and “battle fatigue” in WW II. The term “no man’s land” came from WW I as well.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has created a new nomenclature attached to it; terms, words, and names that have become the normal way of speaking during this pandemic. We use and freely understand terms now related to the pandemic that, while perhaps in existence before COVID-19, has come to create a pandemic nomenclature. For example, “flattening the curve” is now a common phrase which we all understand in the context of tracking the progress/decline of an infectious disease. We all now know what PPE (personal protective equipment) means. Before the pandemic, the “go to” social “sign off” in a conversation was “have a nice day”. Today it is “stay safe”.
Probably the most commonly used and significant phrase of the pandemic nomenclature is “social distancing”. It was a term we rarely heard used before this current crisis. Culturally, we were aware of the existence of “close talkers” thanks to a Seinfeld episode about people who get right up into your personal space when they talk to you. While always uncomfortable, close talking is now an absolute social faux pas in this time of social distancing. Once merely an uncomfortable annoyance, now it is dangerously offensive.
We find in the Bible there were several reasons that people socially distanced themselves. Sickness was one of those instances. Social distancing was employed by God in the Old Testament for anyone who had a “leprous disease” of the skin or any kind of communicable illness. These were placed “outside the camp” of Israel in a communal setting where those infected were quarantined with others who had incurred a like condition. Some of those who were incurable, would never again be able to live freely among the community but would have to live the rest of their lives in quarantine. This decision/policy was instituted by God for the “good of the community” which was placed above “the good of the individual”. This seems absolutely foreign to us in America where “the rights of the individual” outweigh “the good of the community” in most of our thinking. We have been socially/culturally trained that the highest good is individual freedom, rights, and liberties. That is an idea foreign to the Bible.
It occurs to me, however, that “social distancing” often happens for reasons that go beyond mere sickness. Another reason social distancing was used was superiority. In Luke 18 Jesus relates the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector whose lessons were aimed at some who trusted in their self-righteousness while treating others with contempt (18:9-14). Jesus tells of a Pharisee who socially distanced himself from others by “standing by himself” and making an ostentatious display of his personal superiority by praying a rather self-righteous prayer. You see, in this parable we find that we can distance ourselves from others because we have a sense of superiority. This of course was the cruel premise of “separate but equal” in the south during the Jim Crow era. While blacks were certainly kept “separate” it was hardly ever “equal” in terms of their treatment and privilege. Whites, during those darkened days in the south kept themselves separate because they were supposedly “superior” to blacks. In doing so, they proved they were not… just like this Pharisee. But in the same parable, a socially loathsome and hated “tax collector” distanced himself as well. But he did so out of shame. We read, “but the tax collector, ‘standing far off’, simply prayed ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’’’ You see, the tax collector stood off by himself because of the shame he felt for the way he had abused, cheated, and badly treated his own Jewish brethren, as an official of the Roman “IRS”. This was a sign of genuine contrition, humility, repentance, and shame. This man recognized all this in the simple sentence, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
But sometimes we stand far off due to sadness. We are told in Luke 23:48-49 that at the culmination of the crucifixion the crowd began to disperse and, “returned home beating their breasts (a sign in those days of profound sadness) and all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.” In the throes of great difficulty and turmoil many attempt to distance themselves from the source of their pain. Isolation can thus become an added burden to those who have experienced a great loss. How many are experiencing this very thing during this crisis as loved ones with whom they long lived are suddenly gone? In their grief and quarantine, they suffer alone in silence.
All of these social distancings, from sickness, to superiority, to shame, to sadness come to us as a result of most profound social distancing; the distance between God and man due to sin. Isaiah was clear to say to Israel “but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:2). But in Jesus Christ, “… you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Eph. 2:13-17). The profound social and spiritual distance between Jew and Gentile, and between man and God created by our sin, has been bridged in Jesus Christ by repentant faith in him as Lord and Savior.
Social distancing because of the novel coronavirus is likely to continue for some time yet. After it wanes, unfortunately, social distancing due to superiority, shame, and sadness is likely to continue on in the human condition as long as sin is present. But the social distancing between God and man can end now by remediation of the spiritual distance between us and God through faith in Jesus Christ. May that distance disappear in the lives of every human being.