How Do We Build a Culture of Encounter During a Global Pandemic?

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Millennial writer Marcus Mescher was recently interviewed on his new book at Crux:

Yes, the world needs more kindness, but kindness is not enough to resist social sin, restore right-relationships, and deliver on the demands of justice at the personal, social, and structural levels. Many of my students describe a mentality of “I do me, you do you.” This sounds nice at first, but it undermines moral norms and promotes the abdication of social responsibility. By foregrounding the “ethics of encounter” with examples of social division and unjust inequalities, I point to the need to break through our homogeneous lifestyle enclaves and social network bubbles in order to draw near to the “other,” listen and learn from them, especially those who have been pushed to the margins, made to feel invisible, or erased from our personal and collective consciousness….

As you say, many of us were suffering from isolation and loneliness well before the arrival of the novel coronavirus caused us to dramatically isolate ourselves. Especially in light of your insights in this book, how should we think about living out a culture of encounter in our current moment?

We were born to bond; our brains are hard-wired for connection. Social distancing – necessary to curb the spread of coronavirus – is exposing more of us to the isolation and loneliness that many American adults have been feeling for years. We need community, which does not mean we should ignore precautions about COVID-19. On the contrary, it underscores the importance of the common good that reaches beyond borders.

The coronavirus highlights the need to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of the most vulnerable members of our communities. In a crisis like this one, there are temptations to panic, to blame, and to hoard. Long before the coronavirus reached our communities, we have been operating from a framework that presumes scarcity and feasts on cynicism.

In this cultural moment, the “culture of encounter” calls us away from self-concern and apathy in the face of others’ suffering. We can and should use our digital tools and networks to check in on friends, family, and strangers. We have a special obligation to those who endure social isolation due to age, illness, disability, poverty, and any deprivation that increases insecurity.

Christian discipleship orbits around agapic love that wills the good of the other more than the good of the self (Philippians 2:3). At the same time, self-gift should not necessarily become self-annihilation, which is why I dedicate a chapter to the process of discerning what courage, mercy, generosity, humility, and fidelity look like in our lives. Civilizations are judged by the wellbeing of its most vulnerable members. This will be a telling moment for how well we live up to American values like “liberty and justice for all” in addition to Jesus’ command to love each other as we have been loved (John 13:34).

You can read the full interview here.