We're in this together. So is Jesus
The infections have spread so fast that hospitals have been completely swamped. People are turned away by the thousands. Medicine is running out. So is lifesaving oxygen. The sick have been left stranded in interminable lines at hospital gates or at home, literally gasping for air.” So reported Jeffrey Gettleman from India in this Wednesday’s New York Times. However what made his report so graphic was his own sense of personal menace. “I’m sitting in my apartment waiting to catch the disease. That’s what it feels like right now in New Delhi with the world’s worst coronavirus crisis advancing around us. It is out there, I am in here, and I feel like it’s only a matter of time before I, too, get sick.” This is no standard, objective reporting from a safe distance. Gettleman fears that he too – along with his family - will soon become part of this frightening story. And if they do get very sick, where will they go? He reports: “ICUs are full. Gates to many hospitals have been closed.” For in a very real sense this terrible crisis in India is our crisis: it involves us, as if we were there ourselves. It is not just that more terrible variants of the virus may evolve to endanger us, not just that much of the world’s vaccine manufacturing capacity is now directly threatened, India’s suffering is very much ours. We’re in it together: we can’t simply close the door and hope India goes away. Some four centuries ago the then Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, composed a series of poems as a direct result of a life-threatening illness, possibly relapsing fever or typhus, during a plague menacing London in 1623. Having come so close to death, Donne was determined to share his experience with "near super-human speed and concentration” in this set of devotions, one for each of the 23 days he had been sick. No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions) It seems that his poetry was not only composed very quickly but unusually for him, published immediately, even within days. With some urgency he wanted to share his experience both as intimate and immediate, just like Gettleman in the NYT. They would pull us into their own distress to face up to reality. Donne’s big fear was of one of isolation, finding himself entirely apart and alone. “Solitude is a torment which is not threatened in hell itself,” he says, and again: “how little and how impotent a piece of the world is any man alone.” Certainly during the first wave of the Covid Pandemic so many hospital patients died alone without the direct comfort of loved ones. Truly terrible. However, for Donne we are not alone. His very act of writing would defy any such solitude; we are never truly isolated – we are intricately involved with each other, with all “mankind” no less. Not apart, we are “a part of the main.” Such solidarity is a key teaching from the Bible, not least in the apostle Paul who uses the phrase “in Adam” to show that we are all in this together, in our common humanity. The problem is that we are united in our frailty and mortality, those very things that would frighten journalist Gettleman the most. But this is not the last word as the apostle continues: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22) For the amazing news of the New Testament is that God himself is in total solidary with us and not at a safe distance: the very opposite. For amazingly God enters our world as one of us, even sharing our sadnesses and sufferings: Jesus our Emmanuel, God with us. Above all, we see this most vividly at the cross of Christ. He willingly takes our suffering, all our sufferings to himself. There is no anguish that he himself does not endure. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” prophesied Isaiah centuries earlier (Isaiah 53:4) Jesus chose complete solidarity with us so that we may be in total solidarity with him. We are no longer condemned to be forever “in Adam” but such is the extent of God’s love and welcome that we may be found “in Christ,” one with him in his resurrection victory, even over the power of death. Jesus puts the solid into solidarity. And as WW2 martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could see only too well: “Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race.” He concludes: “By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore.” For as we look into the eyes of the desperate and dying, we look into the eyes of Jesus himself. And he calls us to do something about it, for his sake.