Life Together in the Age of COVID
It has taken me the better part of my life to figure out that the Christian Life is a life lived in community. It is community. You may model all the Christian values as an individual but you live it out in relationship to other people.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood that in a very acute way. In reading Life Together ( for the first time) I intrinsically understood what he met. Christ came and lived as God among us, pitched his tent with us if you will, and showed us that heaven was no more than human beings acting with a self-giving love towards one another. This is how we achieve eternal life.
I was surprised how timely the reading is. He was writing as Nazi Germany was in its ascendancy and saw clearly the collusion of church and state in an alliance as far from the values of Christianity as it could possibly be. He wrote in a very reformed, protestant language that took some time for me to translate. Yet it is easy to understand why this is a classic work of theology and one that understands the present age as much as it did a world that is drawing close to a century ago.
What is a Christian community? I have seen shallow definitions of a group that is bound by certain beliefs, certain characteristics of its members, or certain ways of worship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw through all of that. He saw that the only Christian community is one "united in service to and for one another through prayer, the practice of confession, and partaking of the Lord's supper."1
Indeed, we are bound to each other and I see in this pandemic the need to be a community as never before, even as we are not allowed to be physically in community with one another. As dogmatic as I find Bonhoeffer, I believe he is right. (I am not saying that Christianity is "the only way" for that is fallacious, but that if we practiced the intentional kind of community he outlined and tried to live, we would not be dealing with the sorrowful state of humanity in which we now find ourselves.
He does, however, speak clearly of a Christian community and one bound to Jesus. In that community there is a clear delineation between what he terms "spiritual" (self giving) vs. "emotional" (self serving) love. It is the former that we are so often sadly missing. To live in the kind of community he envisions would be to live more for others and less for oneself, always using the model of Jesus as the ideal. It is also a community bound in prayer, learning, and Eucharist.
So here we are realizing just how small the world is; a virus that spreads from human to human has, within the span of a couple of months, encircled the globe and infected people in almost every country. The need to be very distant physically and yet be so close to communicate and coordinate strikes me as ironic. We must give up much of what we prize as individuals; we must give up our egos.
What we can do is lend support to one another and in that manner I see much of what Bonhoeffer said as giving us the tools we need to live lives worthy of Christ and one another. Live lives filled with spiritual love (that is self giving love) and guide one another in the ways that promote a Christ like community. We can do that; we can adapt what Christ taught us so long ago for this age and this time. St. Francis called the church to a life of self giving; Bonhoeffer did the same. Now we must forge our own path, and forge it with urgency in this time of crisis, so that we are living lives that mirror Christ . As Bishop Curry might say, if it isn't love it's not from God.
1. Geoffrey Kelly, introduction to the Reader's Edition of Life Together p. vii