Loving Our Neighbor in a Time of Avoidance

As I have been out running over the past few weeks, I have had to incorporate new strategies into my jog. In the past, I didn’t have to pay too much attention to the sidewalk or path ahead. Sure, I had to pay enough attention to make sure that I didn’t go barreling into anyone (though the pace at which I run could hardly lead to barreling), but beyond that, I could simply follow the path and enjoy my run. If another runner was coming toward me, we simply followed the rules of the road and passed one another harmlessly, often with a nod of the head or a word of encouragement.

But no longer. Now, I have to be ever vigilant about the path ahead: Is someone running toward me? Are there people outside on the sidewalk in front of their house? How will I maintain distance? Will I weave, or will they? Should I head over to the other sidewalk on this block or stay where I am? Should I run in the street? In doing this, my morning jog has become something of a big game of Frogger, as I am working to avoid encounters with potential hazards, darting here and there. The map on my jogging app no longer follows a smooth course along my route, but instead reveals the ducking and weaving that has become a necessity in the time of coronavirus.

It is important for us to be aware of the fact that living in the time of the coronavirus is to live in a time of retraining. We have all been retrained to take up new patterns of actions and behavior in response to the threat of the virus, from my new running strategies to wearing masks, standing in lines outside of the grocery waiting to be let in, and working from home. Out of necessity and in response to the virus, we have been trained to accept new patterns of action in our lives.

But It is also important that we recognize that there is a danger in this retraining: The necessity of social distancing carries with it the risk that our first instinct when we see others is an instinct of avoidance, an instinct that dehumanizes others and sees them through the lens of the coronavirus. With this instinct comes the hazard that our first thought in seeing another human being is to think of them as a possible incubator of disease, and so as a threat. I worry that the long-term effect of the retraining will create in us a lingering fear, a fear that infects our interactions with fellow human beings by shaping us to see our neighbor as a disease carrier before we see them as a human.

As followers of Christ, we must be watchful over our hearts and not allow this retraining to overturn the work of God’s Spirit in us. As the Church, we are called to be the community on earth who are God’s instruments of perfect love. Though for a time we are being called to “avoid thy neighbor,” we must be on guard to protect the deposit within us, the deposit of God’s love that calls us to love our neighbor. This means that we must not allow our fundamental love of neighbor to be lost to the coronavirus. The person running toward me on the sidewalk, or the person walking toward you at the grocery store, is not an incubator of disease, but rather is a human created in the image of God, created to be loved and in need of such love. As the church, it is critical that we maintain our vocation to love our neighbor by allowing the love of God to dwell in us richly, and allowing His love, and not the coronavirus, to be the lens through which we view all people.