Friday, April 17, 2020

How Would Jesus Quarantine?

When I was a teenager, "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets were all the rage. It seems like such a simple question with fairly simple answers: love people, don’t hurt yourself or others, and when given a choice, make the right decision. And if you’re wondering what the “right” decision is, just go back to the question and do what Jesus would do. 
Yet when I was a teenager, I could not have imagined that I would be asking this question during a pandemic that has made my family and millions of others shelter in place for over a month with no end in sight. I also could not have imagined that I would be watching faithful Christian pastors and laypeople with this question ringing in my head. While so many Christian communities have put the needs of their vulnerable neighbors at the forefront by cancelling in-person worship, closing church offices, working and leading worship virtually from home, I have also seen images of co-workers sitting side-by-side for Zoom calls, different households gathering with less than six feet between them, people going into public not taking precautions like wearing a mask or keeping their distance in grocery aisles. While part of me wholeheartedly believes that “What Would Jesus Do?” must lead us to recognize that love for our neighbors means we do all we can to protect ourselves and our neighbors by listening to public health officials and practicing consistent physical distancing, wearing a mask, and only going out for essential reasons, another part of me recognizes that this pandemic has led many of us to a line we never thought we would face with such stark clarity—the line between what I am and am not willing to do for love of neighbor. As people living at the limits of what we thought loving God and neighbor would require of us, I think we need a new question: “How Would Jesus Quarantine?”
The lectionary text for the Sunday after Easter this year is John 20:19-31, which contains the (in)famous story of Doubting Thomas, but which I would like to rename: “The Time Jesus Walked Through a Locked Door…Twice.” Honestly, I can think of no other text that gives us such a profound starting point to answer the question, “How Would Jesus Quarantine?” I have heard and seen many pastors reflect the past several weeks on what a profound shared connection we have this year with the disciples who were fearful, dismayed, and uncertain following the crucifixion and alleged resurrection of Jesus, and I am not here to deny these reflections. I rather think they are on point. I am, however, interested in looking at how Jesus responds to the disciples’ locked-in, fearful existence. In both of the post-resurrection appearances in this passage, Jesus shows that he is not hindered by locked doors and solid walls, appearing in the midst of the disciples despite their attempts to keep people out and themselves in. But notably, Jesus doesn’t go flip the lock, fling the door open, and tell the disciples to get outside. No, Jesus presents himself within their self-imposed quarantine, declaring Good News through his palpable presence in their midst. Jesus Quarantine Protocol #1: God shows up even when it’s best for us to remain inside. 
Both times Jesus appears among the disciples, his resurrected body becomes a text for the Good News of God’s salvation. All that Jesus does in their midst to declare and equip the disciples with Good News begins with the presentation of his wounded body. In my work in disability theology, I draw on Jesus’ presentation of his post-resurrection wounds in John 20:19-31 to illuminate Jesus’ disabled identity. God’s salvific work does not just include disabled people—it is worked out and revealed in a Messiah who embodies disability. The abnormality of Christ’s eternally wounded and risen body tells the story of God’s Good News, a story of salvation that embraces the myriad of diverse embodiments that make up humankind and rejects those narratives that call for the erasure and denigration of disabled bodies. Thus, Jesus presents to the disciples an embodied solidarity with disability that actually enters the story of disability rather than expounding on the concept of vulnerable human bodies from a safe distance away. Jesus Quarantine Protocol #2: Live into, not separate from, your proximity to vulnerability.
Never at any point in this passage does Jesus tell the disciples it’s time to get out of the house, which is quite telling since an entire week passes between these two appearances. In the first, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples and in the second, Thomas declares Jesus’ divine Lordship, leading Jesus to affirm Thomas's true faith, as well as the faith of the readers of John who have not ever seen Jesus with their own eyes. Surely true belief in the risen Son of God and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit are justifiable reasons to leave the house. Yet receiving these gifts from Jesus and encountering the Good News written on his body does not mean that it is safe for the disciples to move freely in public. Threats to the disciples’ lives still undeniably existed beyond the doors of the house, and while some may have been able to come and go (we’re looking at you, Thomas), others may have been too vulnerable to have that luxury. To protect one another, they had to be careful about leaving the house, and Jesus does not ask them to do any different. Instead, I suggest that the disciples’ face-to-face, skin-to-skin encounter with the vulnerability of Jesus’ risen body transforms what it means to love God and neighbor by shaping that love in the image of the Disabled Christ. Jesus manifests salvation within vulnerability, suggesting that loving God and working out our salvation means attending to God’s presence among vulnerable bodies. Jesus Quarantine Protocol #3: Sometimes, and perhaps especially right now, modeling our faith on the Risen, Disabled Christ and loving our neighbor means we must stay home. 
I can’t deny that my own family composition influences how I consider the question, “How Would Jesus Quarantine?” As the wife of a wheelchair user and mother to a 1.5 year-old, caregiving for vulnerable bodies comprises a large part of my life. Before shelter-in-place orders were laid down in our county, I was implementing quarantine procedures, and I had several people ask me why. On the practical end, I could not and still can’t imagine taking care of my husband and son while sick with COVID-19. Moreover, though my husband does not have a condition that directly compromises his immune system, the fact that he sits in a wheelchair during 99% of his waking hours does not help when dealing with respiratory conditions, nor do we know how his diagnosed disabilities might respond to COVID-19. So, I quarantined us to protect my family, not knowing whether this virus might be life-threatening to one or more of us or not. But, deep down, there’s more to my actions than even this, though caring for my family’s well-being is probably one of my deepest motivators for decision-making. Our family’s life as part of the disability community and my work in disability theology means that on a daily basis I dive into encounter after encounter with humanity’s vulnerability with the conviction that God’s Good News dwells in the stories, experiences, and day-to-day existence of persons with disabilities and their families. I quarantine because the lives most at risk in this pandemic are my people, and if you claim to follow the Risen Christ, they are your people, too. 
Yet, if we do not encounter the stories of vulnerable bodies, if we do not recognize that to follow Christ is to follow a Disabled Savior, then we have no framework for what it means to truly love all our neighbors within our strange, ongoing trial of pandemic. This is why I think we need to ask “How Would Jesus Quarantine?” The Jesus who meets the disciples in their quarantine appears in an abnormal body, manifesting disability and human vulnerability as the answer to the disciples' fears and confusion. This disabled Jesus resists any notions we might have that living as Jesus does means we do not have to come face-to-face with the limits of our love for God and neighbor. And, this disabled Jesus invites us into greater depths of love for God, neighbor, self, and creation. The Disabled Christ does not condemn us for the limits of our loving, but invites us to love ourselves and others more deeply by recognizing God in the midst of quarantine, embracing solidarity with vulnerable humanity, and staying home as an exercise of loving, life-giving presence to our community. In this way, we are renewed and reformed into the Body of Christ that embodies God’s active, abundant love for creation within human vulnerability.