The term “social distancing” has now become common parlance. We’re not only speaking about social distancing, but we are also practicing it vigorously. We are keeping the six feet apart rule. We are not gathering in groups larger than 10. I understand the public health reasons why we must practice “social distancing.” I’m trying to play my part in preventing the spread of COVID-19, as all of us should. However, the theologian in me is mildly queasy with both the term and the practice. If we’re not careful, as Donald Fairbairn has pointed out, we will begin to see other people “only as potential carriers of a dangerous disease.” In this framework, the other person becomes an automatic threat to avoid rather than a friend to encounter.
Remembering our baptism helps us see ourselves and others not as threats carrying a disease but as sons and daughters claimed by Christ. Remembering our baptism—especially for those of us who were baptized as infants—does not necessarily mean that we recall the circumstances of our baptism (like when and where) but rather the fact and meaning of our having been baptized. To remember our baptism is to be reminded that our identity is in Jesus Christ. When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, our identity became much deeper and wider than as carriers of diseases. In fact, we became new creations in Jesus. To remember our baptism is to honor Christ in others such that they are not seen as threats to be avoided but beloved children of God to be embraced.
Does remembering our baptism preclude the practice of social distancing? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that baptism compels us to see the other not as a potential health hazard but to see them as Christ would see them. No, in the sense that one way we honor Christ in the other in these circumstances is by temporarily separating ourselves physically for their good. To embrace the other is not limited to the physical but includes the relational and spiritual. In fact, because we have been baptized, no amount of social distancing can destroy the Christian community. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said that in Christ we are one, and in him we are bound together. Remembering our baptism will help us practice social distancing without falling into the trap of social isolation.