When I was a kid there were four television channels: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. That was it. Unlike residents of larger cities that might have some independent stations, those Big Three and PBS were our only options.
Chances were, then, that if you came into school one morning having seen something the night before on television, a lot of people had also seen it. There were more of what are called “watercooler” events—shows, sporting events, and other programming that people would gather around the watercooler at the office the following morning—or the drinking fountain, I guess, if you were still in school—and talk about.
It has been remarked that with the rise of hundreds of cable channels, streaming services, internet options, self-selected social media streams, and other on-demand programming that we have a much more fragmented culture, a culture much less likely to have those experiences shared by huge swaths of the population.
The Coronavirus and Common Experience
I was having a conversation with a long-time friend the other day and she remarked how strange it was to see that everyone she knew was dealing with the same set of circumstances. Being Jewish, she was used to seeing her Jewish friends posting about fasting for Yom Kippur or having to clear the house of leavened bread before Passover, but she wouldn’t see everyone posting about those things. There always remained separate social spheres that might only incidentally overlap.
It’s the same for all of us. Scanning down my own Facebook feed I could always see the different communities on display: the high school friends, the college friends, the law school friends, the clergy colleagues and other United Methodists, the higher education professionals, the Rush fans, the Star Trek fans, the Tony Kornheiser fans, the young adults and former students. Each of these groups concerned with the issues that were particular and pertinent to that community.
No longer. Everyone’s feed, everyone’s posts, everyone’s public sentiments are about one thing: the coronavirus and the COVID-19 outbreak. We are all in the middle of one gigantic watercooler moment.
As frightening and unnerving as a global pandemic is, it has created in us a shared experience unlike any other. The consequences of the pandemic, both in terms of the disease itself and its accompanying social and economic effects leave no one unaffected. Our political affiliations, our religious beliefs, our race, our national origins, our genders, our orientations—none of them matters to the coronavirus and none of those things exempts us from the effects of the virus or the measures that we must take to combat it.
Whatever we are suffering, whatever isolation we’re experiencing, whatever economic upheaval there will be, it is something we all are experiencing together. In the end this is what will save us.
Solidarity and Salvation
I get paid to think about concepts like salvation; it’s part of the job description of a clergy person to reflect on abstract theological ideas and translate them into the experience of ordinary people.
Salvation is one of those concepts that sounds particularly otherworldly to a lot of folks. It evokes images of a fate after death: saved people go to heaven when they die, unsaved people go to hell. And for a large number of religious folks, this is what such a concept means.
But at its heart, salvation means rescue. The Hebrew word יְשׁוּעָה yeshu‘ah and the Greek word σωτηρία sōtēría—upon which the Christian concepts of salvation are based—mean “rescue” or “deliverance,” with secondary meanings of “health” and “welfare.”
Over the centuries, Christians have come up with a number of ways that God might accomplish salvation, what are called “atonement theologies” (the details of which I won’t go into here): through ransom, through substitution, through self-sacrifice, and so on. But there is one atonement theology that has always spoken most powerfully to me: atonement by solidarity.
The powerful message of Christianity—one celebrated especially at Christmastime—is that in the midst of our sorrows, our suffering, our brokenness, God should dwell with us. God should take on our life, our pain, our suffering, our joys, our being, even our death. As it says in John’s gospel, God “sets up a tent among us” and sets up camp as one of us. Christianity is about the Word becoming Flesh and dwelling in our midst. It is the radical declaration of the Eternal God’s solidarity with mortal humanity: and all the implications and consequences that that solidarity has for us. The Word becoming Flesh means that our lives have meaning. Our puny, mortal existences, that fly past in the blink of an eye, that are statistically irrelevant in the cosmic span of time, are nevertheless embraced and affirmed by the Eternal God in a decisive act of solidarity.
And in that solidarity, we are saved. Not just in abstractions, but in real, material, and profound ways.
When we see empty streets in our major metropolitan centers, a sign of people avoiding each other, we actually see people coming together, making powerful declarations of solidarity.
According to the best estimates about the lethality of the novel coronavirus, most of the people who are taking the important steps will not face the severest consequences of the infection. But they are isolating themselves from one another, refraining from gatherings and travel they would find enjoyable, even allowing the economy to suffer, all out of a powerful declaration of solidarity with those who would suffer the most from a COVID-19 outbreak.
These acts are powerful acts of solidarity, demonstrating a solidarity with those who are vulnerable, the elderly, the infirm, the immune-compromised, those with underlying health conditions. A solidarity with those who are on the front lines in responding to the pandemic: doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, police, and so many others.
And in this solidarity is our salvation.
For in this solidarity we are healed, not only of the direst consequences of a world-spanning plague, but from the myths that have vexed us. We are saved from the illusion that our lives are not inherently bound up with the lives of others. We are saved from the illusion that the plight of people far away or the plight of the most vulnerable in society have nothing to do with us. We are saved from anything that denies our common humanity and a common human experience, for we are all in this together and all going through this together.
In the end, these conversations that we are now having at a distance, these Zoom and Skype meetings, these Facebook live worship services, are conversations and interactions much more meaningful than the in-person watercooler conversations of days past.
For in these conversations, we see a shared experience that spans the globe, we see a common experience that binds us together, and we see a demonstration of solidarity that can bring healing to our world in ways we are only now beginning to glimpse.