Recently, I heard a commercial on the radio for Tommy Hilfiger that sang panegyrics about community. “I want to see a future where all communities work together in unity,” one voice declares. “Community means everything to me. Community changed my life,” says another. “I believe that if we get to know our neighbors, we will start to understand them and then we will fight for them,” explains another. All noble words, I suppose. But what community?
There are many articles on how the global pandemic has dramatically altered social interactions and relationships, from the effects of masks and social distancing, to the proliferation and expansion of various online communities. Certainly, since March 2020, social media like Facebook and Twitter have become far more central to many Americans’ daily lives. But there are other, more expensive ways to make “friends.”
Take Peloton, the popular at-home cycling program. Initial participation in Peloton costs anywhere from $1,900 to $2,345. Streamed classes cost between $2,400 and $3,000. I would imagine there are probably plenty of additional costs for additional equipment (or “merch,” as those in the know now call it). But oh, what communities await you, prospective Peloton user!
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Peloton’s Facebook page has about 400,000 members. Between January and September 2020, the business added an amazing 620,000 paying subscribers. There are about one million Peloton subscribers and another approximately two million who use Peloton’s app, which offers classes in other things like running, yoga, strength, and stretching.
Think about how many friends you can make! There are groups like #PelotonMoms (235,000 members), #PelotonDads (85,634) or #BlackLivesMatter (210,000). There’s even a class called “Sundays with Love” featuring various generic religious themes—at my church, we not only listen to uplifting music and hear encouraging words, but we exercise our glutes! Regardless of what virtual community you join, you’re bound to make lots of deep, lifelong friendships…right?
Perhaps. More likely, you’ll never actually meet the people in your thousands-strong digital tribe, given that you are separated by hundreds, if not thousands of miles. This, I would argue, points toward the inherent problems with such faux communities as Peloton, Facebook, and Twitter, which promise global connections but deliver something far less valuable, if not harmful.
First is simply that Peloton appeals to a meritocratic elite class obsessed with fitness. Who can afford such expensive equipment? And who has time for virtual athletic classes if working multiple jobs and long hours? In effect, phenomena like Peloton only further aggravate the chasm between wealthy technocrats and an overworked, often ostracized working class.
More importantly, Peloton, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest of these digital worlds actually operate as ersatz communities that allow members to maintain a curated, if not fabricated image of themselves. Just as we exploit social media to project a certain image, Peloton and other such phenomena enable us to play the role of the zealous athlete. In this respect, I perceive a deeper tension with Catholicism’s understanding of the human person.
I do not necessarily mean that social media or Peloton are explicitly anti-Catholic, and their users sinful or terrible—indeed, I have a couple of friends who love Peloton. What I would argue is that all virtual communities are intrinsically limited and often opposed to Catholic conceptions of fallen humanity. “The hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead,” says Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes 9:3). We are, as fallen men and women, marred by our sin, even after the regenerative restoration of our baptism.
Thus, our lives are messy, complicated, and even sometimes embarrassing. We make mistakes. We say the wrong things. We show up far from put together. And yet, in the Eucharist, we are loved and embraced. By extension, because Christ forgives us, welcomes us, and communes with us in the Holy Mass, our fellow Catholics do the same. We may find each other difficult, annoying, and unattractive, but we love each other all the same, warts and all. “I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34).
Indeed, the remarkable service and sacrifice exemplified among Catholics, in spite of their social, economic, racial, and ethnic differences, operates as an evangelistic witness to the world. Bonded together in baptism and the Holy Eucharist, we form life-long, and even eternal relationships with those with whom we have little, if anything else in common. We are vulnerable in ways we would prefer no one else would know—not only in the confessional, but simply in the unexpected, sometimes tragic realities of life. Job loss, illness, and even death prove our need of others, and our fellow Catholic parishioners time and again rise to the challenge.
The more we bring our true selves to Christ and to His Church, the more of ourselves can be redeemed and restored to true life. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The more we hold back and refuse to share, the less Christ is able to perform that beautiful, restorative work. Christ calls us to open ourselves up not only to Him but to His body.
Some folks have stayed away from their parishes since the beginning of the pandemic. I’ll refrain from comment or criticism of such decisions here. But I will argue that those emerging from their exiles, be they coerced or self-imposed, must actively engage in the process of rebuilding real communities, be they Catholic or even in our immediate, secular neighborhoods. Virtual communities were always an impoverished replacement for the real thing, not only because of their tendency toward fabrication and self-deception, but because they allow us to insulate ourselves from broader society in all its complex (and often frustrating) diversity.
In this Easter season, it is good to be reminded that Christ came into the world, among men and women of high and low birth, honored and ignominious, beautiful and ugly. He calls us to do the same, no matter the cost to our vanity or health. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). It is our calling to do the same, not in the fake communities of the digital world, but in the real, flesh-and-blood ones that exist directly outside our front door.
[Photo Credit: Peloton]