Even though we still hope to escape a second total lockdown during the next few months of what promises to be a long winter, we have resigned ourselves to the drastic reduction of our social interactions and conviviality in practically all the significant dimensions of our life: work, learning, worship, entertainment, sport, friendship and even family.
As it is happening in this very online service, we try our best to maintain our various acquaintances and zoom does help with this - even though we all agree that no virtual gathering or interaction can ever compensate for being physically gathered together. If communication simply consisted in the sharing of ideas then a written text would be all we need. A community however is built on shared affections, emotions, and experiences. Ideas strike us because of the persuasion and passion with which they are communicated to us, and need therefore to be conveyed through facial expressions, body movements, modulation of the voice. Zoom allows some of this life to filter through and we are grateful for it, but so much more is lost.
A silver lining in this situation, therefore, is that it reminds us of our social nature: we are made to be, grow, understand and walk together. The collegial nature of Cambridge and Oxford universities is based on this presupposition, inherited especially from the monastic tradition. We are not individual learners or researchers who work and live in the same campus and often in the same buildings for purely practical reasons. We pursue our academic endeavour not only studying and researching together, but eating together, inhabiting the same spaces, developing friendships and often love stories, experiencing camaraderie through sport, casual meetings, small talk, and worship. Socialization is such an integral dimension of learning and living that we take it for granted, until, that is, it is taken away from us by a pandemic, and we realize how sorely we miss it.
One of the inscriptions above the gateways of the second court in Magdalene says 'Omnes honorate, fraternitatem diligite'. It invites us not only to honour every human being (omnes honorare), but to love fraternity (fraternitatem diligite) that is to cherish that singular form of mutual belonging which comes into being whenever we accept to live together as co-workers, colleagues, team-mates, and we develop links not dissimilar to those that exist between sisters and brothers.
Interestingly, in modern English as in Latin, the word ‘fraternity’ not only designates a quality, but the very community represented by the people who live like sisters and brothers. This means that we should not have a purely instrumental notion of community life, that is tolerate forms of common life only as means to an end. Diligite in Latin is not simply liking or loving, but denotes a preference or, using an etymologically related word, a ‘pre-dilect-ion’. Life, work, worship in common are something to cherish and value not only for their advantages but also because they enshrine what makes us who we are as human beings.
Some might wonder whether this is not an idealised version of reality. The dominant cultural model concerning life in common, especially over the past half century (that is after the Holocaust) is better epitomized by Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, or Williams Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, or Rene’ Girard’s ‘Scapegoat’ or, the list could be long, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (“No Exit”) with its chilling punchline: L’Enfer c’est les autres, “Hell is other people”.
This vision does not belong to the realm of literary fiction but is enacted with increasing brutality and impunity by the most successful corporations of our time: Amazon, Uber, Yahoo. You might have heard of the Rank and Yank system, a review process whereby employees are divided into different categories based on their productivity, which rewardsemployees who promote themselves and tear down their peers, and penalizes employees who are less adept at self-promotion or less willing to complain about others. The perfect Hobbesian nightmare. This system might not be implemented with the same ruthlessness in all workplaces but its presupposition that competition trumps cooperation is pervasive in the corporate world.
These companies often thrive, but at a dismal human cost. Mature human beings can cope with occasional periods of pressure, competition, stress, suspicion but cannot adopt them as a life style without falling prey to their worse instincts and paying a high physical, emotional and mental price. Above the gateways of these companies we might find the inscription Corporationem diligite, “Cherish the corporation”, but with a meaning which is the opposite of Fraternitatem diligite: these bodies have become legal entities that can exist independently of the people who work in them, they churn and spew workers, and claim the souls of their managers through outrageously hefty bonuses.
We are made to live, work and thrive together but at some point we have started to ignore or forget this fundamental truth about ourselves, broken our solidarity, decided to go each on her or his own. We left the protection of our fraternity only to discover that, as a result, we have become the prisoners of nameless, soulless bodies – and in many ways this applies not only to our economic structures, but also to the modern form taken by our social and political interactions, namely the State.
The Apostle Peter and the prophet Isaiah talk about salvation as the restoration of our social bonds: “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Peter 2.10). The “people” is not the state. A people in Scripture is a group of persons who discover that they have embarked on the same journey and instinctively know that they will not be able to go anywhere unless they manage somehow to stick to each other. However the simple acknowledgement of sociality and cooperation as a need does not take them very far. We know that we need others but we have forgotten how to work with them harmoniously. We are, in a powerful image used by the prophet Isaiah, “a people who walked in darkness … those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9.2).
Within the same image, salvation is described with the powerful image of light: “God called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2.10) and Isaiah says that a great light has shown on us (Isaiah 9.2). As long as we are in darkness, we might be surrounded by other people but do not see them and keep bumping into each other, thus becoming an obstacle to each other. When the light shines, we can see other people’s faces and eyes, recognize each other and hopefully learn again how to rejoice in each other.
The pandemic is taking away some of the joy of living, working, learning, and worshipping together. The good news is that we are missing this joy, we realize how much we used to take it for granted, and long for the time in which it will be fully restored. The hope is that when this happens we will have learnt Fraternitatem diligere, “to cherish our fraternity” and be ready to break the “yoke of our burden” and the “rod of our oppressor”, namely any form of “rank and yank”, in our workplace and more generally in our worldview. If and insofar as this happens, we will be able to feel that this pandemic did not happen completely in vain after all.