I have some friends in another city whose church thanks people for wearing masks and practicing “physical distancing.” I have views about “thanking” people for things they might not be doing, but that’s another sermon for another day. What stood out was the word “physical.” They had changed “social distancing” into “physical distancing.”
Until then, I hadn’t wondered about the phrase, although it seemed ugly like so many things institutional bureaucracies come up with. I started wondering why a church would hesitate to say “social distancing,” and I constructed in my mind an elaborate and commendable theological justification. Then I learned that it wasn’t the church, it’s just the way they talk out there.
So there wasn’t a theological motivation. But there could have been!
American official-talk is often euphemistic and sometimes deceptive. Consider “bathroom” or “restroom” when we mean toilet. Or what about “daylight savings time”? Americans are supposed to like saving things; “A penny saved is a penny earned” is a line of Franklin’s wisdom. But DST saves nothing, except in the nominal sense that the clock is abruptly moved forward one hour, so that during DST the sun rises and sets later. We “save” a morning hour and “spend” it, I suppose, in the evening. But the terminology feels wink-wink manipulative: we get no extra daylight, we create no sunshine ex nihilo by the magic of turning the clock. Some other places have “summer time,” which is more direct: this is how we set our clocks in the summer. They don’t pretend that one is building up “savings.”
The urgency laid upon us when the Blasted Virus first got going was that we must learn to practice “social distancing,” defined as keeping at least six feet apart. In plain truth, this is physical distancing. I don’t know why we weren’t urged to practice “physical distancing,” although I suspect some tin-eared folks thought we needed to be told something that sounded less harsh.
But—are you still with me? Social distancing is actually harsher than physical distancing. It’s no accident that removal from one’s social connections is an element of punishment. God has made us to be with one another. Both Scripture and ordinary life teach us that friendship is the heart of being human.
Back around Easter last year, one started to notice groups of people outdoors, sitting in a circle, each six feet or so away from the others. They might be drinking or eating or just talking. And one saw: this is okay. This can work. We can be human together and keep a physical distance.
We saw: you can be socially close while also physically distant.
Social distancing, in its true sense, is one of our serious problems. There is a growing body research on the phenomenon of Americans’ growing apart, a real and dangerous social distancing. There are fewer and fewer occasions for the 20% at the top and at the bottom to interact with each other. At the same time, so-called “social” media accelerates voluntary sorting out: the ability not to see or interact with people who are different in their fundamental worldview.
We need to practice (shall we call it) “social closeness,” to develop practices for rubbing metaphorical (for now) shoulders with our neighbors.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am in favor of physical distancing. But let us be careful not to let the vocabulary we use insinuate a false theology of being human.
Here’s my line: physical distancing, sí; social distancing, no.
Out & about virtually speaking. I am to preach at Incarnation in Dallas this Sunday, Jan. 31, for the F-book live traditional service at 11:15 a.m. Central Standard Time.
And on the feast of the Presentation, Tues., Feb. 2, I will give a homily at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, at the 5:30 p.m. Eucharist. This will be on F-book live but there are also seats available by reservation (email the cathedral).
(My Susan used to remind us all that our Christmas decorations must be taken down by February 2. It comes 40 days after Christmas, and in her mind, if not on the church calendar, it is the end of the Christmas season. Consider yourself advised.)
On Wed., Feb. 3, at 7 p.m. Eastern, 6 Central, the rector of Calvary/St. George’s parish in New York City will be talking with me about the theology of friendship. If you'd like to join, just email
for a link.