I recently heard a British citizen residing in Arizona interviewed about her experience as a non-citizen during the American response to the global pandemic. She expressed dismay at those who refuse to wear face coverings as a matter of individual freedom: “Some Americans simply refuse to do anything they are told to do by their government as a matter of principle.”
A Texan more than most can appreciate the sentiment that no government — by darn — is gonna tell me what I can and can’t do. When Davy Crockett narrowly lost re-election to Congress in 1835, he is said to have responded, “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas!” Texas with its wide open spaces and rugged terrain seems to demand individual freedom, even as most of us have retreated to air-conditioned comfort in the safety of cities. James Michener, who wrote the novel “Texas” in 1985, said: “What you Northerners never appreciate . . . is that Texas is so big that you can live your life within its limits and never give a damn about what anyone in Boston or San Francisco thinks.”
Yet such attitudes contributed to our catastrophic failure in Texas to stop COVID-19. Before we go too far down this trail, we would do well to remember that cowboys on the Chisholm cattle route that crossed the Brazos River in Waco bound for Abilene and Ellsworth, Kansas, wore bandanas around their necks so that in dust storms they could put them over their noses and mouths and not breath dirt into their lungs. Perhaps in Texas we should just ask that everyone wear his or her bandana when going out.
While Texas may be at a cultural disadvantage when it comes to encouraging conformity to social practice, it also may be that, for many of us in Waco, other resources beyond our provincial borders can provide motivation for practices that, on first glance, seem alien to our culture.
For instance, what would Jesus do?
When Jesus said to “love your neighbor as yourself,” he was quoting Leviticus 19:18. Of course, he was not the only religious teacher who said something like this; we find similar statements from Muhammad, the Buddha, Mahavira, Confucius, Lao Tzu and other wisdom teachers. Jesus’ words in Mark 12, Matthew 19 and Luke 10 are usually understood as: “I and my neighbor are separate, but I am to love my neighbor as much as I love myself.” At least, that’s what I was taught in Sunday School from the cradle at the Baptist churches that I attended.
One way that this command of Jesus may be demonstrated in our current pandemic is that I should wear a face mask in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to my neighbors. By wearing a mask, I can love my neighbor at the grocery store or the gas station or the doctor’s office and so on. In each case, my “neighbor” might be understood as one who is separate from me — a Christian — but whom I love as much as I love myself.
While this way of understanding Jesus’ commandment is important, there’s another way to understand this commandment. I suggest this other way has a more profound and deeper meaning — and it may be that this pandemic is giving us a chance to realize and embrace this truth.
In “Wholeness and the Implicate Order” (1980), renowned theoretical physicist David Bohm explains to a general audience his view of the “unbroken wholeness of the totality of existence as an undivided flowing movement without borders.” While the dominant scientific view in the West since philosopher Democritus has been that elements exist independently of one another, Bohm demonstrates that quantum physics and relativity theory challenge a fragmented atomistic view of the universe. Bohm’s ultraholistic cosmology has important implications for our understanding of the Golden Rule:
It is especially important to consider this question today, for fragmentation is now very widespread, not only throughout society but also in each individual; and this is leading to a kind of general confusion of the mind, which creates an endless series of problems and interferes with our clarity of perception so seriously as to prevent us from being able to solve most of them.
Bohm notes that just as the natural environment is thought to exist as “an aggregate of separately existent parts” — bluebonnets, mesquite trees, cacti — so human society has developed to the point that “it is broken up into separate nations and different religious, political, economic, racial groups, etc.” While the “notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion,” it is nonetheless deeply rooted in the collective consciousness. This illusion, Bohm argues, “cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion.” Our plight in which we imagine that the “fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that” confront us today including “pollution, destruction of the balance of nature, over-population, world-wide economic and political disorder and the creation of an overall environment that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most of the people who have to live in it.” The feeling of “helplessness and despair, in the face of what seems to be an overwhelming mass of disparate social forces, going beyond the control and even the comprehension of the human beings who are caught up in it,” is pervasive. Worse, our science, religion and politics of fragmentation are self-fulfilling prophecies:
If one approaches another [person] with a fixed “theory” about him as an “enemy” against whom one must defend oneself, he will respond similarly, and thus one’s “theory” will apparently be confirmed by experience. Similarly, nature will respond in accordance with the theory with which it is approached.
Is all hope, then, lost?
Some might approach this problem saying that although the fragmentation of races, political parties and religions is a fact of our existence, we should nonetheless keep at it and strive toward wholeness as an ideal; people of good should not give in. Yet this is not what Bohm says. He argues that “wholeness is what is real, and that fragmentation is the response of this whole . . . guided by illusory perception, which is shaped by fragmentary thought.” In short, since reality is whole, our fragmentary approach to reality is necessarily answered with a fragmentary response! What is needed, according to Bohm, is for us to acknowledge our fragmentary thinking and, then, by becoming aware of it, to stop it.
In this context, let’s reconsider Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Again, this is usually understood as — I and my neighbor are separate, but I am to love my neighbor as much as I love myself. If, however, this verse is rendered: “Love your neighbor as your very own being,” an entirely different perspective emerges. If I come to realize that not only am I to love my neighbor as much as myself but I am to love my neighbor as my very own being since, in the end, I am my neighbor, then everything changes.
The grand takeaway? The pandemic provides the occasion to realize how interrelated we are. We are not nomads, separate and isolated. In the end, I am not separate from my neighbor. And so as we participate in the simple practice of wearing a face covering, we are reminded daily that we are inter-beings. While the suffering we are going through will scar us permanently, the possibility is real that we, in Texas and elsewhere, are moving into an awareness that transforms our parochial defaults into something capable of saving us from ourselves. Jesus called this experience meta-noia — usually translated from the Greek into English as “repentance” but it literally means the “greater mind.”
Let us move into this greater mind, this larger awareness. We are in such an epochal moment if we can seize it.
Blake Burleson is an ordained Baptist minister and a faculty member in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.