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A year and a half ago, in the middle of lockdown, it seemed like reunion would never come. Now, it is coming and has already come, in an “already/not yet” sort of dichotomy. Our campus communities are experiencing the joys, and problems, of reunion, as people like me keep an eye on my university’s COVID-19 Dashboard.

I keep thinking of the type of story where the resolution of the major conflict causes problems: the difficulties of reunion and reintegration loom in the third act of movies like The Shawshank Redemption or Cast Away. Even The Odyssey can be read in this way (although Odysseus resolves the problems of reunion with his sword, which is not recommended).

In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, it appears that Roman Christians faced the same problems of reunion after separation. Paul addresses these issues in the “third act” of his letter, then reinforces them with a tour de force of scriptural citation and allusion in Romans 15:8-13.

Reading these later chapters of Romans, this “third act” feels like the “third verse” of hymns we would always skip in my childhood church. I remember “all have sinned” (Romans 3) and “more than conquerors” (Romans 8) and “living sacrifices” (Romans 12), but the practical advice that Paul gives at this climactic point of his letter isn’t on my own “Roman Road” of memory.

Looking at Chapters 14-15, the question at hand—whether it’s OK to eat meat sacrificed to idols—seems anticlimactic and anachronistic. But this question was raised by a church reunited after a forced separation, like our own long isolation. For the conflicts that must necessarily come, how should a majority treat a minority, especially when it seems like the minority is wrong? These questions are our questions, too.

Reunion has already caused, or at least revealed, conflicts on every campus I know well. The waves of virus led to waves of resignations and retirements, and like all other industries, academia is finding it difficult to hire people to fill the vacant slots, especially if the hirees must sign a statement of faith. Sharp disagreements that had been neglected, simmering under the press of daily activity, began to boil over; not to mention the boom-and-bust uncertainty of enrollments at tuition-driven institutions, and the prospect of shrinking student populations in the long term.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these problems are preferable to a pandemic, and the pandemic has been kept off campus so far this Fall. On Friday, at the end of the first week of classes, instead of a spike of COVID-19 cases, my biggest problem was parking. Our “Falcon First Friday” festival occupied one of the campus lots with an outdoor carnival, leaving me with a longer walk from the parking lot. That evening, the biggest problem for the students was the event’s record-breaking attendance, almost half of the undergraduate student body, causing long lines.

Three weeks into the quarter, SPU’s COVID-19 Dashboard is reporting three to four student cases per week, and one faculty/staff case all month. The national reports are similar: on the “Live Updates: Latest News on COVID-19 and Higher Education” website, a few smaller schools have gone online for a week at a time, but the more noteworthy news involves vaccine-related lawsuits and “mental health holidays” for students.1

Vaccines deserve credit for keeping this disease under control. Augusta University Professor, Dave Blake, posts daily reports of all U.S. states and Canadian provinces, plotting the case rates and growths. As expected, the real-life data is messy, but you can get a feel for vaccine efficacy by looking at the colors: purple highly-vaccinated states are closer to the green “good” part of the graphs and the orange lower-vaccinated states closer to the red “bad” part of the graph.2 These objective measures from distributed data show that vaccines are indeed protective.

That’s a good thing, because the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 toward transmissibility has accelerated in the past half-year. Similar claims about the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma variants didn’t play out, but Delta really is a problem. The Delta variant transmits so quickly that it can outrun even the fast parts of the immune system, which is why it is taking over in most of the world.

Computational virologist (and recent MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow) Trevor Bedford showed the data that convinced me of Delta’s increased transmissibility in a recent lecture.3 The bad news is balanced by good news at the thirty-minute mark, where Bedford shows that vaccines protect about the same against all variants, including Delta. Delta is swift, but once your antibodies and T-cells get a hold of it, they can take it down.

In his lecture, Bedford described three types of shields we have against this virus: immunization, mitigation, and natural immunity. As immunization has increased, mitigations like social distancing and remote meetings can decrease. The third item in this list, natural immunity, helps too, although it’s harder to define, especially when it comes to the branches of immunity involving T-cells rather than antibodies.

I can’t predict what will happen in December as accelerated viral antigenic drift meets with whatever waning immunity might happen, but I can say that the next month looks reasonably good. So far, the questions we are facing this fall at Seattle Pacific University are not how far we should stay apart, but rather are how close we can come together. Some scholars think these same questions of reunion and reintegration were causing conflicts in the middle of the first century, in the church located at the very center of the world empire of Rome.

One reconstruction of the historical context in Rome, as N.T. Wright writes, “produces a situation into which Romans fits like a glove.”4 Suetonius reports that in the late 40s A.D., the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. In Acts 18:2, Luke reports that in Corinth Paul met “a certain Jew” Aquila and his wife Priscilla, expelled by Claudius. Finally, in Romans 16:3-4, Paul writes that the Roman church should greet the two by name, so they must be back in Rome.

The arc of Jewish exile and return (to Rome) would raise the very issues addressed by Paul in Romans. Paul alludes to a division between Jews and Gentiles in every chapter. Paul speaks directly to Gentiles in Chapter 11 and tells them they were grafted onto a Jewish root system, so “Be not high-minded, but fear.” Romans 12:3 repeats the no-one should be too “high-minded” but should turn one’s judgment upon oneself.

Our problems are the same because people are the same. Insular communities breed high-mindedness and division against the absent others, who make convenient scapegoats or straw men because they cannot defend themselves. The self-selection of social media and high degree of filtering required by electronic communication only sharpen this trend. When you can’t see the facial expressions or hear the tone of voice of your conversation partner, soon the conversation becomes a one-sided projection where both sides are convinced the other side isn’t listening to them, and both sides are right.

What is academia but an insular community? Each hiring process brings filters both overt and subtle, and many of them can be unfair. Yes, we do need to be discerning! But these barriers are all the more insidious for their invisibility.

“High-mindedness” is itself as infectious as any virus, perhaps even mutating to become more “transmissible” under stress. As any academic unit persists—department, college, or university—the people in it copy each other and think the same way, building walls against those outside who don’t know our language or in-jokes. Seeking to elevate the life of the mind, it’s natural for us to become “high-minded.” Natural, but not Christ-like.

If the problem is the same, then Paul’s solution might offer hope. Reunited communities struggling with “high-mindedness,” then and now, can turn to the forgotten end of the “third act” of Romans to see what solutions Paul offered to the reuniting church in Rome, as he brought his celebrated epistle to its understated, but important, conclusion. We’ll read through that in Part 2.

Footnotes

  1. Virginia State Cancels Classes for COVID-19 Wellness, Sept. 29, 6:17 a.m. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/09/29/live-updates-latest-news-covid-19-and-higher-education
  2. Here’s an example from Friday, October 1 (you can check for more updated data when you read this to confirm the patterns persists): https://twitter.com/_stah/status/1443885389698174982?s=20
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VErVD_H1BZ0
  4. P.406 Wright, N.T. The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts; Introduction to Epistolary Literature; Romans; 1 Corinthians (Volume X).Abingdon Press, 2002.

Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland, Professor of Biochemistry, Seattle Pacific University.