I do not remember ever reading the term social distancing—but it has been practiced before.
The island of Molokai in the Hawaiian chain has a leprosy colony that can be visited today. Social distancing was enforced on that island—and for good reasons too. Scripture includes several passages on social distancing, including from individuals with leprosy. “ ‘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.’ ” (Leviticus 13:45, 46).1
With the coronavirus disease COVID-19, social distancing has taken on a whole new meaning. Allowable group size has been reduced to the point of not having church services. Some are livestreaming from empty churches. If allowed to gather in a small group, we must maintain a six-foot distance between each other. This time is painful. But if we dive deeper into the concept of social distancing, we have actually been practicing social distancing all along. Let me give you a few examples.
Their meat is not our meat
Some of us have the practice of not accepting invitations to neighbors’ barbecues because their meat is not our meat. We did not think to contribute a dish that we, and possibly others, could enjoy. We did not stop to consider how we could have impacted the barbecue by just showing up, being present with the unchurched, listening to their concerns, and being thankful for the invitation. We did not pause to contemplate that our own lives might be enriched by meeting them. We screened them out, and the invites stopped coming. We practice social distancing.
Some of us do not allow our children to attend birthday parties because their cake is not our cake. I have talked to young adults still scarred from such exclusion. We practice social distancing.
Some of us will turn down the opportunity to fellowship with friends at Starbucks—an establishment built on sociability—because their tea is not our tea. But if that’s where our culture has turned for companionship, could we not just get a hot chocolate? A decaf? Even just a bottle of water? We practice social distancing.
Some of us will not show up at the area ministerium Christmas party, because their drink is not our drink. Instead of bringing orange juice (they probably already have it), we prefer to be a no-show. We miss out on opportunities that might be presented only once. We practice social distancing.
Perhaps long before COVID-19 came on the scene, we were engaged in social distancing. So many times, we have separated ourselves to our peril. The message of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is supposed to be a gift for the world. A house of prayer for all people. Social distancing, the way some of us have practiced it—being exclusive instead of inclusive—is hurting the soul of who we are.
The North American church—embedded in a culture of personal space and individualism—makes up just 6 percent of the membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church worldwide. Now that some state and county laws are reinforcing the practice of social distancing, we hear complaints such as, “How can they make us stay apart?” We have done it for years when nobody ever made us do it. Is this the time to do something differently?
Could it be that this time of peril affords us the opportunity to do what the Bible so often encourages us to do—examine ourselves? Are we in the faith? Being honest right now may be the difference between life and death. I am an expert at fooling myself, so the examination has to come from the outside. My heart won’t let me see myself for who I really am. “The heart is the most deceitful thing there is, and desperately wicked. No one can really know how bad it is!” (Jer. 17:9, TLB).
The outside examiner must be Scripture. Who am I, according to Scripture? Do I measure up to the gifts granted to those who believe? My spiritual growth is measured by my ability to influence others for Jesus. It is not measured by Bible teaching with prepared lessons or preaching a sermon that I had a month to prepare. It is measured by an everyday kindness to those we encounter or those in need. It is praying an everyday prayer to introduce someone who is lost, or afraid of what is coming upon this world, to a Lord and Savior who loves them. It is measured, ultimately, by the life of Jesus.
The power of kindness
The religious leaders asked Jesus’ disciples, “ ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ ” (Matt. 9:11). Ellen White comments, “The entertainment was given in honor of Jesus, and He did not hesitate to accept the courtesy. He well knew that this would give offense to the Pharisaic party, and would also compromise Him in the eyes of the people. . . . As it was in the days of Christ, so it is now.”2
Socializing the way Jesus did will not please everybody. When is the last time we did something for someone just because it was the right thing to do? How about calling someone and asking, “How are you doing in these crazy times?” Then listen, without pretending we have all the answers. How about ringing their bell and leaving on the doorstep of someone in need some of your chili or freshly baked bread? The power of kindness in a cruel world is priceless.
We have practiced social distancing for way too long. In spite of contemporary laws (which we support) that enforce social distancing, we must still find a way to help others find Jesus. Our journey is not for the faint of heart. I close with a statement familiar to many but now strangely relevant. “The work which the church has failed to do in a time of peace and prosperity she will have to do in a terrible crisis under most discouraging, forbidding circumstances.”3
So how should we respond to the phenomena of social distancing? Let’s embrace the new normal and practice old habits—as long as they are Jesus’ habits.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is from the English Standard Version.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 274, 280.
- Ellen G. White, Last Day Events (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1992), 174.