We had to be set apart in order to feel together.
Screw this virus. Screw this virus that is already ravaging families, burying people in the hard isolation of the same four walls, leaving waitresses in anguish about how they’re going to pay the rent. If you don’t have a little hate in your heart toward this thing, you probably aren’t motivated enough.
While we’re at it, screw certainty. Over the past few weeks I’ve been bingeing on commentary from people predicting how long this is going to last and how bad it’s going to be. The authors seem really smart and their data sets seem really terrible.
I’m beginning to appreciate the wisdom that cancer patients share: We just can’t know. Don’t expect life to be predictable or fair. Don’t try to tame the situation with some feel-good lie or confident prediction. Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal.
There’s a weird clarity that comes with that embrace. There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life. When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.
We’re seeing the world with plague eyes now. We’re all going through the same experiences. People in Seoul, Milan and New Jersey are connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of human interdependence.
Most of us are self-distancing at the same time. Most of us are experiencing the same pause in normal life, undergoing deeper reflections inspired by that pause, experiencing the same anxieties and fears, reading the same memes. So many human universals.
The great paradox, of course, is that we had to be set apart in order to feel together. I’ve been writing about the social fabric for years now, but you really see it only after you’ve lost it.
It’s like when you’re starving, and food is all you can think about. Suddenly everybody has human connection on the top of mind.
All the little acts of social contact we took for granted now seem like candy. I miss choruses and sports bars, the weird way we all used to stare straight ahead in crowded elevators.
Judging from my social network, the absence of social connection is making everybody more ardent for it. People are geniuses at finding ways to touch each other even when they can’t. On Twitter I saw a picture of a house where an older lady was self-isolating. Two neighborhood kids put on a cello concert on her front porch. Have you noticed that music and art are already filling the emotional gaps left by the absence of direct human contact?
Through plague eyes I realize there’s an important distinction between social connection and social solidarity. Social connection means feeling empathetic toward others and being kind to them. That’s fine in normal times.
Social solidarity is more tenacious. It’s an active commitment to the common good — the kind of thing needed in times like now.
This concept of solidarity grows out of Catholic social teaching. It starts with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation — to one another and to all creation. It celebrates the individual and the whole together, and to the nth degree.
Solidarity is not a feeling; it’s an active virtue. It is out of solidarity, and not normal utilitarian logic, that George Marshall in “Saving Private Ryan” endangered a dozen lives to save just one. It’s solidarity that causes a Marine to risk his life dragging the body of his dead comrade from battle to be returned home. It’s out of solidarity that health care workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not for yourself or another but for the common whole.
It will require a tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead. We’ll be stir-crazy, bored, desperate for normal human contact. But we’ll have to stay home for the common good. It’s an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for. Those also serve who endure and wait.
I wonder if there will be an enduring shift in consciousness after all this. All those tribal us-them stories don’t seem quite as germane right now. The most relevant unit of society at the moment is the entire human family.
All those burn-it-down/destroy-the-system/anti-establishment tirades ring a little hollow, too. It’s not the angry outsiders who are protecting us right now, it’s the Establishment.
The whole culture of autonomy seems immature, too: I’m free to be myself! The people who are out there doing their own thing are at Spring Break threatening the lives of the most vulnerable around them.
We’ll need a great reset when this is all over. We need to start planning a great social festival and ask the obvious questions: Why did we tolerate so much social division before? Why didn’t we cultivate stronger social bonds when we had the chance?
In the meantime, as someone on my Twitter feed observed: Airport rules apply. If you want a beer at 9 a.m., go for it.
The Russian journalist Ivan Golunov is still trying to grasp what happened to him. Some things are clear enough: on Thursday, June 6th, Golunov, on his way to lunch in central Moscow, was stopped by the police, who took him into custody, beat him, planted drugs in his backpack, and then took him to his own apartment and planted drugs there, until he was finally arraigned on drug-trafficking charges. As shocking an experience as this was for Golunov, it was easy enough to understand: people are framed on drug charges in Russia all the time, and Golunov, who is an investigative journalist, had made many powerful people unhappy. What followed the arrest, however, was nearly unfathomable: Russian journalists, including those who are loyal to the Kremlin, mobilized to defend him. People protested in the streets, in print, and even, eventually, on the air. The case against Golunov was dropped. Five days after his arrest, Golunov emerged a free man—and a sudden, unlikely celebrity.
“I’m not used to people coming up to me in the street and saying thank you,” Golunov told me on the phone on Sunday. “I tell them that I should be the one giving thanks: I was just on my way to lunch, and everything else is what other people did. This is a difficult point for me,” he said. “Every time I talk about the people who helped me, I start crying.” The first footage of Golunov that emerged after his arrest—late in the evening on June 8th—was of him in a steel cage in a Moscow courtroom, crying, saying, “Thank you. I never thought I’d get a chance to be present at my own wake.”
Following his court hearing, Golunov was placed under house arrest; two days later, all charges against him were dropped. He granted his first appearance to Ksenia Sobchak, one of the country’s biggest media personalities, who hosts a professionally produced talk show on her YouTube channel. In the interview, filmed in his apartment, Golunov showed how the police planted drugs during the search: officers stood on either side of a wardrobe, and one reached up and told the other one to look on top of the wardrobe—sure enough, a packet of what they said was cocaine and a plastic pharmacist’s scale were there. At this point, Golunov told me, he dissociated and stopped being scared. “I could no longer grasp that this was about me,” he said. This helped him act in a way that appeared almost calculated: whenever he knew that he was in view of security cameras, he tried to create as much of a commotion as possible, screaming and demanding that he be allowed to speak to his lawyer. The rest of the time he was calmer. “My answer to everything, though, was ‘in the presence of my lawyer,’ ” he said. “Like, they’d ask me if I wanted a drink of water, and I’d respond, ‘In the presence of my lawyer, I’ll want a drink of water.’ ” Only fifteen hours after Golunov was detained was he finally able to see a lawyer, he told me. In another couple of hours—early on Friday morning—the detective who had been questioning him started getting calls. One of the first came from Sobchak, followed by other Russian celebrities, officials, businessmen, and investigative journalists calling from as far away as Brazil.
At first, the people who called, wrote, or took to the streets to support Golunov could only imagine what was happening to him. They knew that he had been arrested and would face drug-trafficking charges, which carry a sentence of up to twenty years behind bars. Those who knew him personally feared what might happen to him as a gay man in a Russian prison, where violence and rape are common. Golunov said that the police used homophobic insults and made reference to the violence that awaited him behind bars, though, by then, he told me, the threats failed to elicit an emotional reaction in him. Meanwhile, the protests continued. In Moscow, hundreds came to police headquarters and to the courthouse where Golunov was arraigned. Golunov’s employer, the Latvia-based Russian-language online publication Meduza, called on other media to reprint his investigative reports, and dozens (and probably more) did. Three of Russia’s leading business dailies, all of which are generally loyal to the Kremlin, came out with a single front page with a giant headline that read, “I Am/We Are Ivan Golunov.” The Russian edition of Elle, among many others, called on its readers to join the protest.
The solidarity in the media was unprecedented, as was the resilience of the protesters who were willing to risk arrest to stand up for Golunov. In a country where public opinion has long seemed an outdated concept—there hasn’t been a public in years, and few people have dared to have opinions—a nationwide outcry was taking root. The system, which has been impervious to law, elections, international sanctions, and other known forms of pressure, suddenly seemed to cave, or at least to take a step back, in the apparent hope that the protests would abate. But people continued protesting—Golunov’s case became a symbol of uncounted similar cases. “The first thing I saw when I opened my computer [the day after charges were dropped] was an online live broadcast of the protest,” Golunov told me. He started getting ready to go there—it seemed to him that he had a duty to join—but his lawyers advised against it. The protesters didn’t have a permit and were claiming that they were simply taking a walk in central Moscow with hundreds of their friends. If Golunov showed up, his lawyers suggested, his appearance might cause something that would indisputably be an assembly—an illegal one, in the eyes of the regime. Golunov stayed home, and the police arrested more than five hundred people anyway.
As he struggles to process what has happened to him, Golunov has to contend with the competing truths that his predicament was entirely typical but that the outcome of his case was exceptional. The ordinary part, he feels, is what brought people together. “I think it was a cumulative effect,” he told me. “People want to be able to go about their lives, and here it turns out that they can plant drugs on anyone and put them away for twenty years.” Sure, Golunov was a journalist, but he was not famous, and he maintained decent relations even with many of the people he had written about. He suspects that his arrest was connected to his current project, an investigation into the connections between the Federal Security Service and the lucrative funeral business in Moscow. But, then again, for every person in Russia, there is someone more powerful who can decide to have them put away.
Golunov is now a witness in what was a criminal case against him. “The charges against me have been dropped, but the drugs remain,” he explained. “And drugs are illegal. So the police have to figure out where they came from.” He said that he feels a responsibility both to pursue the case—to expose the people who planted the drugs, and perhaps even those who ordered them to plant the drugs—and also to learn how drug laws are enforced in Russia. At the same time, he feels intensely uncomfortable in the role of an activist, a celebrity, and a witness in a high-profile case. He has a security detail but is reluctant to trouble its members, so he has found himself staying home more than he otherwise might. “I would just like to go back to the way things were before that Thursday,” he told me. “I’d like to write articles and ride the subway.”
One can hardly begrudge Golunov the desire to go back to life as it was. But his arrest gave Russia a glimpse of things that many young people there have only read about in books—solidarity, the power of collective action, and justice. What if, by some miracle, Russian society didn’t now return to the way things were before Thursday, June 6th? Russians would have a lot to thank Golunov for.
Only by solidarity with other people’s suffering can comfortable people be converted. Otherwise we are disconnected from the cross—of the world, of others, of Jesus, and finally of our own necessary participation in the great mystery of dying and rising. People who are considered outsiders and at the bottom of society—the lame, poor, blind, prostitutes, tax collectors, “sinners”—are the ones who understand Jesus’ teaching. It’s the leaders and insiders (the priests, scribes, Pharisees, teachers of the law, and Roman officials) who crucify him.
.. Brian McLaren is not afraid to say directly that it is time for us to acknowledge Christianity’s past fraught with imperialism and colonialism:
About forty years before 1492, Pope Nicholas V issued an official document called Romanus Pontifex . . . which serves as the basis for what is commonly called the Doctrine of Discovery, the teaching that whatever Christians “discover,” they can take and use as they wish. . . . Christian global mission is defined as to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” non-Christians around the world, and to steal “all movable and immovable goods” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery”—and not only them, but their descendants. And notice the stunning use of the word convert: “to convert them to his and their use and profit.” 
.. In addition to this doctrine, selective use and interpretation of the Bible was used to justify slavery for centuries. Scripture is still used by some today to exclude and judge LGBTQIA individuals, even though Jesus said very little about sexuality and a great deal about other things we conveniently ignore.