Isolation is one of the favorite weapons tyrants use to rob citizens of their liberty. The right to live freely is a God-given right that is fundamental to being human and our nature as the image-bearers of God. He gave us free will because he is free, giving us inherent rights according to the dignity of our nature. These rights cannot and should never be taken by force by any fellow creature, including the government.
As we should do anytime we discuss responses to the coronavirus, we must acknowledge that this is a very deadly infectious disease and one that should not be taken lightly. However, the coronavirus is not the Bubonic Plague. Most people who get it don’t die, and most people are not in vulnerable groups. This is important when we consider our reactions to the virus. Voluntary social distancing, for example, is wise, considerate, and reasonable. Government-imposed orders to remain in your home without gathering with others (while respecting distancing) amount to a form of house arrest and are neither loving nor reasonable.
Yet, this kind of isolation is exactly what we’re seeing. Granted, the isolation could be worse. We can still go to the grocery store and Home Depot. But we are pressured to remain home, keep our kids from social activities of any sort, refrain from public worship, and not even socialize within the context of social distancing. If we fail to do these things, we are threatened (in many states) with a visit from the police, watched by snitchy neighbors who report us to the sheriff, and, even in some instances, hauled off to the county jail.
Virtual Connection Isn’t Enough
As we grapple with these unreasonable measures under threat of punishment and public shaming, we are soothed with messages from public service announcements, social media programming, and commercials that “connecting” through technology spurs creativity and is even good for us by strengthening relationships.
The fact is that virtual living is not good living. Studies have shown that while there can be some good aspects to communicating via screens, it’s deteriorative in the long run and breeds loneliness, especially when done a lot. While the occasional contact through FaceTime can uplift those living alone, the lift soon fades, and depression can settle in worse than before. In this time of social isolation, we’re grateful for technology, but technology cannot become the new normal of human interaction.
“Connecting” online is a one-dimensional connection, leaving out the very important and essential physicality and immediate contact integral to being human. Face-to-face communication challenges us, develops us, and forces us to be fully human because we have to deal with others as we really are, not as we project ourselves to be online. This is true even for FaceTime calls and Skype or Zoom meetings—they’re still not the same as being there.
Neither can we forget the unreliable nature of technology and threats to privacy. A mere glitch can cut off those virtual contacts in a moment, and unwanted eyes can be lurking in the mechanical ether. This underlying anxiety erodes the comfort of online communication and should concern us if we find ourselves in situations in which we’re entirely dependent on technology for social contact. The power that controls the switch is the power that controls us all.
We are living in a very isolating time even with our technological advances. While isolation is reasonable in some instances, it’s greatly damaging to individuals, families, and society in many other ways. It’s also being purposely done. This is what I’d like to focus on—as a warning. Again, isolation for a period of time—especially when it’s voluntary—happens in life. It’s not devastating, and those times can be greatly beneficial as we focus on more intimate pursuits, including prayer, reflection, and study. But there are real concerns here that need to be considered, which is why I want to focus on government-imposed isolation and thoughtless compliance to it.
Humans Are Social Creatures
Let me lay the foundation to this issue by pointing you first to God’s truth. This is important, because for us to understand what is harmful, we need to understand what is good. Reminding ourselves and others of what is true is necessary because we live in a world that has suppressed what is true.
Our very nature as human beings is to be in community, to be connected with others. God made us—both men and women—not to be alone. God explicitly says that to be alone is “not good.” This, of course, doesn’t mean we should never be physically alone. It means we were not made to be lonely, to be cut off from others. The main reason for this is that being made in the image of God means we are made to love others. God is a relational being, and we, in turn, are relational creatures. We can’t love if there is only one. It takes at least two. To love requires an “object” of love. For us, that “object” is another subject to be treated respectfully as such. Other human beings are our aim, and we aim to love them.
This connection, this love—this social bonding, if you will—is not only spiritual, it is physical. It’s physical because our humanity comprises both our spiritual and physical natures. Our bodies are as much a part of us as our minds. In our world today, we either make the mistake of thinking of human beings as purely material while ignoring the spiritual (a pitfall of the scientific community) or essentially spiritual while disregarding the importance of the physical (too often a fault of the hyper-religious—the “so heavenly minded, no earthly good” crowd).
Community Fosters Good
Human beings are designed to be in community, with their spouses, with society at large, and with their church. Isolation is hostile to the very fabric of humanity—to our minds, our emotions, our spirits, and our bodies. We need to be in contact with others to express our ideas, to learn from others, to become more self-aware, and to enjoy the diversity and individuality of the people around us, so we don’t reduce the world to a reflection of ourselves. If we make that mistake, we have set ourselves up as a god. As self-appointed divine beings, we then expect everyone else to be made in our image. We become tyrants.
Proverbs 18:1 says the “one who has isolated himself seeks his own desires.” When we are in community, we are forced to think of the desires and needs of others. In community, we’re able to love others, by helping them, caring for them, and developing sound judgments about them and about life in general. Wisdom can’t be found walking alone.
Ecclesiastes 4:9–10 says, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.” We need each other to overcome the hardships of life, to accomplish tasks we could never do alone, and to help one another. This is something we need to remember, especially today. While we sit at home with our families watching Netflix, unconcerned about forced isolation, there are people living alone who have no one to help them, no one to reach out to offer a hand, to make them dinner, to laugh or cry with—not even someone to pray with when they experience a loss.
Community in Balance with Individuality
This call to be community minded is not an attack on individuality. It’s not an advocacy for anti-individualistic societies. It is in opposition to hyper-individualism, which is a distortion of political individualism (that focuses on individual rights before the law). Hyper-individualism, which can morph into isolation, focuses too much on the individual and not enough on community and the intrinsic necessity of social responsibilities and connections.
Though we are born alone as individuals, albeit to two parents, we are not isolated individuals (even in birth) because we are born in relation to our Creator. We have our rights, not because we’re existentially autonomous individuals with a right to our own stuff, but because we are made by God in relation to him with all the rights of human dignity given to us by him. Human beings, as individuals with political rights that protect their individuality, are inherently social creatures made in relation to God, to other human beings, and to the earth we’ve been commanded to oversee. The very nature of our individuality is tied to community as a matter of purpose: We are not made to be alone, but to love others.
One of the greatest ironies of totalitarianism is that it abhors community because it’s through social cohesion that individuals find strength. But at the same time, it wants to rob people of their individuality and force them into compliance with a flat, egalitarian “community” in order to control the masses by reducing them to a single, manipulated, and managed entity. Because of this strange dichotomy between individuality and community, we must be cautious not to err on the side of too much individuality in which we become isolated and vulnerable, or on the side of too much community in which our individuality with our distinctiveness is lost in a sea of coerced equality.
Two Are Stronger Than One
“A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer,” Ecclesiastes 4:12 says. “Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” When we are isolated, we are vulnerable. We can easily be controlled, manipulated, defeated, and silenced. But when we stand with others, we can overcome enemies. We can stand up to oppressors. We can be a force to be reckoned with. The greatest accomplishments in human history were never accomplished entirely alone. We saw this with Apollo 13, when it took every man in Houston and in space to bring those astronauts home. We could go on and on—the examples of cooperative human achievement are manifold through the course of history.
Two are stronger than one, not only in the things we accomplish together, but also in the comfort we give to one another—spiritually, emotionally, and physically. “Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone?” (Ecclesiastes 4:11) We need the touch of another person. Can we hold a hand through social media? Can we bandage a wound? Can we kiss tear-stained cheeks? Can we lie in the arms of another? Can we toss a child in the air and listen to her squeal in delight? Can we brush the hair of an Alzheimer’s patient and see her smile even if it’s just for a moment? Technological communication can’t give those things to us—they must be experienced in the flesh.
Human touch. Human companionship. Human cooperation. Human diversity. Human community. Human individuality. Human friendship. The tyrant hates them all. He seeks to isolate because this is how he controls. It is the stuff of 1984. It’s the stuff of Nazi Germany. It’s the stuff of tyrannical abusers in the home. It’s the stuff of every totalitarian ever to exist. Divide and conquer. Isolate and control.
Isolation and the Road to Tyranny
Hannah Arendt, author of Origins of Totalitarianism, wrote,
It has frequently been observed that terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other and that, therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together, ‘acting in concert’; isolated men are powerless by definition. Isolation and impotence, that is the fundamental inability to act at all, have always been characteristic of tyrannies. Political contacts between men are severed in tyrannical government and the human capacities for action and power are frustrated.
I appreciate Arendt’s description of isolation as “pretotalitarian.” Isolating people lays the groundwork for tyranny. This is important today because many might think I’m blowing things out of proportion. As it stands at this very moment, we are not under a totalitarian regime—not yet. And that’s the point. Slaves to tyranny didn’t suddenly walk into a cage one day. They were cultivated and nudged into it, slowly and then quickly, so that they woke up one morning and wondered where their freedom went.
We live in a world that is hostile to God, to goodness, and to truth. It is hostile to humanity itself. Christians too often make the mistake of thinking they live in a peaceful garden, when in reality, they live in a wasteland with only remnants of God’s glory shining through the dry cracks. The world is, in a sense, upside down. To live right-side up in such a world is to be considered abnormal, odd, strange, or contrary to the socially accepted “good.” It takes wisdom and courage to live right-side up, and that’s what I’m asking you to do. Be aware of the social currents of today and see them in light of the movements of history and the truth of God about human nature and sin.
As the great apostle said in 1 Peter 5:8: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” One of the greatest ways he devours is through isolation.
Denise McAllister is a New York Times bestselling author and cultural commentator. You can follow her on Twitter @mcallisterden or Gab @DeniseMcAllister.
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