Contagion of Goodness

by Dr Jayme R. Reaves, 3 April 2020

Pandemic

by Lynn Ungar (11 March 2020)

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world

different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

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We are all living in an extraordinary time.

The word ‘apocalypse’ refers to an uncovering, a making seen what is normally unseen, or the lifting of a fog that reveals things previously unnoticed or unattended.

We are in the midst of an apocalypse and suddenly some things previously hidden seem very clear.  It’s catastrophic in many ways, but, ultimately, it’s because things will never return to what they once were. To quote the band REM’s famous song, it is the end of the world as we know it.

Once you start looking for it (if you haven’t noticed it already), apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories are everywhere in pop culture: The Walking Dead, Cormac McCarty’s The Road, most superhero films, Octavia Butler’s brilliant Parables duology, World War Z, 28 Days Later, Contagion….

What has been incredibly interesting for me has been watching how people have responded so far in real life.  In pretty much every apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic story I know, the commonly accepted trope is that the general population loses all sense of their common humanity.  Neighbours turn against neighbours.  There’s sudden anarchy and lawlessness, and a feral ethic shifts into place where every person is only out for themselves.

Now, perhaps things just haven’t gotten bad enough yet and that feral side in all of us just hasn’t had to emerge because survival for the majority is not yet at risk. 

But… we’ve been here before, haven’t we? 

There have been other apocalyptic times in our history.  The 1918 flu pandemic, the two world wars, the bubonic plague – all of these events and more changed the world forever. Things became visible and life changed for millions. And while there were certainly instances of anarchy and ferality amongst some, on the whole the common wider social history story is people pulling together to support one another, bound together for a common purpose. Inevitably – even in the midst of terror, anxiety, selfishness, and death – we love, we care, and we put ourselves at risk for others.

Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)

In the public aspects of my work, I do workshops and research with various communities around the theology and practice of hospitality and moral courage.  Throughout my research, it has become clear that the reason why we find hospitality and unfettered goodness difficult to practice is because there is often a purity issue at stake.

Purity is important because, at a basic level, we need to feed ourselves, avoid disease, live in safety, and maintain identity as community. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in action.

In the Hebrew Bible, the purity laws – including Sabbath keeping – given in the Torah are ultimately about survival: how can the health, wellbeing, identity, and perpetuation of the tribe be ensured?  By putting rules in place related to what we can eat, who we can touch, how we can behave, and how, when, and where we should worship, the people survive.

Sound familiar?

Modern Western Christians tend to talk about the purity laws in the Torah as an antiquated, unnecessary, and irrelevant element of life and faith.  The law is abolished; purity no longer matters. That, my friends, is rubbish.

Of course purity matters! And whether we call it purity or not, we ask purity-related questions all the time. It’s a human response: Should I eat this? Will association with this person taint me in some way? Will my community exclude me because I believe this different thing? What is the right thing to do in this situation? How do I remain true to who I am?  All of these are, at their essence, purity questions. In hospitality terms, the issue of purity often arises when we ask the question: What if we welcome them?  What will their presence in our space and our welcome of them do to us?

One of the barriers to practicing hospitality is definitely a concern about purity, though we don’t call it such. For example, a person of colour told me recently that when his family immigrated to the UK in the 1960s, the people in his new home had never seen someone with dark skin. They would wash the chair he sat on at school, or their hands after they touched him because they thought he was dirty and that they would become dirty, polluted, contaminated by being in contact with him.

We may be more familiar with skin colours now, but, certainly in the last few weeks, purity and contamination, exposure and contagion are in the forefront of our imaginations. Rightly, we should wash our hands and be careful what we expose ourselves to, which then, in turn, exposes others. In our case right now, it’s important to note that seeking purity in itself isn’t a bad thing.  Remember, purity’s purpose is to ensure survival.

The problem arises when it is perceived survival, rather than real, and when it comes at the expense of the welfare of others. When it comes to purity issues, these questions should be our litmus test for deciding which action is right: is this about legitimate survival and at whose expense?

Furthermore, basic chemistry tells us that no organic substance is pure.  Every organic substance is a compound mixture of elements, with carbon as its backbone.  If it is organic – if it has life – it is not 100% pure anything. 

Whatever we do in life is never pure.  Instead, it is messy and imperfect because we all are messy and imperfect. And therefore, our practice of hospitality and our dedication to moral courage and human goodness is also messy and imperfect because it’s a human practice, full of life as well as the potential for contagion.

A barrier to practicing hospitality is due to our fear that welcoming others will taint us. It’ll put us at risk in some way.  We’ll change. Our neighbourhood will change. How we see the world will change. We won’t be able to do it right or perfectly, so we just don’t do it at all. Whatever the issue, the reason we often don’t practice hospitality or go out of our way for others most often boils down to a purity issue.

A refusal to risk our own purity on behalf of others is a refusal to allow contamination that the other brings. And sometimes this push for purity shifts from a means for survival to becoming an end in itself.  Many times, our purity becomes an idol.

Jesus’s example of associating with tax collectors and other people of questionable repute highlights the tension between hospitality and purity, and when asked, he says that all religious law ultimately boils down to two things: loving God and loving neighbour.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.

For some, that may mean touching many; for others, it may mean touching few. This time calls us to evaluate to whom we commit our lives.

But on the positive side, goodness is also a contagion. We are seeing it as we speak: neighbours mobilising care for the vulnerable in their communities, NHS workers putting themselves and their families at risk in order to care for the sick, singing together from balconies as an act of solidarity – the list goes on and on. 

I dare you to encounter goodness – I mean truly encounter it – and not be contaminated, to not come away tainted and affected by the encounter.

Because as goodness is practiced, it is spread through inspiration to share and live similarly. It becomes viral. This principle is captured in the “pay it forward” idea which is present in all religious traditions: something good happens to you, you then do something good in return for someone else, do unto others, practice good karma, you get what you put in.

You get the drift.

Because, ultimately, this isn’t about you or me.  This is about us.  Because when I do it for you, you will then do it for me and that’s how the world changes.  We are bound together; my life is committed to yours.

Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)

While technically not apocalyptic literature, the prophet Isaiah unveils a vision of a new world where we work together to bring good news to the poor, to comfort the brokenhearted, and to declare liberty to those in need of freedom from bondage.  Our concerns cannot be only to our own tribe, race, class, or nation.  Our God repeatedly calls us to something higher – an all-embracing and unconditional love for every human on this planet.

Because, as Lynn Ungar writes in her poem, we are in this together.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Dr Jayme Reaves is a public theologian. She is Coordinator of the Centre for Encountering the Bible, and the Short Courses programme at Sarum College, and the author of Safeguarding the Stranger: Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality.

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