This week, in our very first videocast, we welcomed Brian Kiester, a wonderful friend, to help talk about the story from John 9. In this story Jesus heals a man born blind, but the community around him has a hard time accepting the transformation. We talked about these things amid a new reality of the spread of COVID-19, the reason we were speaking on video to begin with.
Brian is, ahem… experienced enough to have been through the AIDS/HIV epidemic of the 1980’s and 1990’s. He shared a few of his memories from that time. He talked about people operating on fear: looking for root causes for the disease, filling in gaps in their understanding with blame against those who contracted it. He talked about near-immediate prejudice that ramped up as the disease spread, a massive movement to target, label, and isolate people who were already suffering. He recalled condemnation, and how often people linked the spread of HIV/AIDS to divine disfavor. “This disease is God’s punishment on people who have done wrong.”
The scary thing about his story wasn’t just how horrible it was, but how familiar it sounded. HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 are different epidemics, but our reaction to them feels similar. Brian and I absolutely praised engaging in social isolation for the sake of not spreading the virus. We also lamented how the isolation often doesn’t end with six feet of common sense, but quickly morphs into a dividing line with the fortunate on one side and the condemned on the other.
We displayed and quoted statements from social media proclaiming that God would protect some because they were holy, while God would allow the less holy to suffer the virus. We noticed that whether people advanced their own goodness or condemned other people’s badness, the effect was the same. They were saying, “God is on my side, not yours,” which became another way of proclaiming, “You’re going to get the disease and I’m not.”
It’s sad how often people describe a God who works on the behalf of the already-privileged, abandoning those who suffer.
We juxtaposed this human societal impulse with the story from John 9, where Jesus healed a man born blind. The whole thing started when his disciples asked, “Who sinned, that this man was born this way? Him or his parents?” They, too, were looking to draw that line, identifying not just a cause for misfortune, but their own divinely-wrought immunity to it. Jesus responded by saying, “Neither!” Then he healed the man who had been isolated and disfavored because of his condition.
A funny thing happened, though. Not only could the people around the formerly-blind man not believe he had actually been cured, they didn’t appear to want him to be! They could not deal with a reality where God was also with someone else, not just them.
This is a sad part of our human response: we hang on to “greater than” and “less than” to make ourselves feel superior, even when the “less than” hurts others. We don’t know how to deal with a God who uplifts us all, not because of our superior choices, but because of God’s amazing love.
Brian and I ended by affirming the need for social distance, admitting that few of us have the ability to avoid COVID-19, let alone cure it. But we all have the ability to reach across the divides we’ve created—whether necessary or judgmental/tragic--to accept, care about, and comfort each other.
You and I may not discover the vaccine for COVID-19, but we can help create a world in which that vaccine comes to people who are already loved, already embraced, already fed and housed, already cared for in the midst of suffering. We can’t avoid sickness, nor can we eliminate our human addiction to judgment and our instinct towards fear. We can avoid marrying those things together and making them our guiding light. We can uplift something else besides sickness, judgment, and fear as central to our existence.
If we can’t fill the spaces between us with handshakes and hugs right now, at least we can fill it with compassion and hope, shared together.