Triumph of Death, an illustration from a Medieval book in the British Library.
The theology of pandemics
Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal is set in medieval Sweden, as the bubonic plague ravages the countryside. In one famous scene, a procession of zombie-like flagellants enters a village and interrupts a comic stage-show. The townspeople are present to hear the procession’s leader, a bombastic preacher who proclaims that death is coming for them all: they are full of sin – lustful and gluttonous – and the plague is God’s punishment for their wicked ways. That scene is not without historical merit: the flagellants were indeed a very real phenomenon, and with the plague, the movement grew and spread throughout Europe.
For most of us, public self-mutilation and penance is a particularly extreme and repulsive form of religious fanaticism. But in the West, we still have ways of lashing ourselves, and each other, in the face of plague, pestilence and the terror they sow; and pandemics still invariably prompt a religious explanation. During the AIDS epidemic, we were told that God was punishing homosexuals and illicit drug users. In 1992, 36 percent of Americans admitted that AIDS might be God’s punishment for sexual immorality.
The interesting question is: What is the temptation to view a catastrophe like the plague as divine punishment as opposed to a brute fact of nature? Surely at least one reason we are tempted to do so is because, if it is heavenly retribution, then the hardship still has some meaning; we still live in a world with an underlying moral structure. Indeed, to many, the idea that such a great calamity is nothing more than a brute act of nature is far more painful to contemplate than an account by which God cares enough about us to punish us.
In case you think the coronavirus is any different, it is not. On March 8, 2020, the Times of Israel reported that Rabbi Meir Mazuz “claimed the spread of the deadly coronavirus in Israel and around the world is divine retribution for gay pride parades.” By some ironic twist, the rabbi is basically in agreement with Rick Wiles, a Florida pastor who said the spread of coronavirus in synagogues is a punishment of the Jewish people. The Jerusalem Post quotes Wiles as saying, “It’s spreading in Israel through the synagogues. God is spreading it in your synagogues! You are under judgment because you oppose his son, Jesus Christ. That is why you have a plague in your synagogues. Repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and the plague will stop.”
The temptation to view catastrophes as divine punishment is nothing to scoff or smirk at: it is entirely legitimate to want to construct a narrative out of what has occurred – to find a pattern, to derive some meaning that redeems the suffering, hardship and death. What is unfortunate is the tendency to point to some perceived wickedness of which others are purportedly guilty as the justification for God’s wrath. Both the rabbi and the pastor are the same: both talk like Job’s notorious companions, those so-called friends of the unfortunate and innocent Job, who insist that he must be guilty, that he must have sinned for God to assail him with such fury. Of course, at the end of the poem, God tells the companions that they were wrong: Job was right – his suffering was not punishment for any sin he had committed. Indeed, the Bible teaches that God often sees fit to test precisely those that are good and righteous. Sadly, the pastor and rabbi entirely disregard that biblical lesson.
If a pandemic is divine punishment, then in a sense we can be at peace – inasmuch as we have provided the scourge with a theodicy, that is, a justification of God’s ways to man. Whenever we are faced with human tragedy, we cannot but question how an omnibenevolent and omnipotent deity would permit so much suffering to occur. A plague sharpens the concerns that lie at the heart of the theological problem of evil – the problem of reconciling a loving God with the reality and ubiquity of human and animal suffering. Thankfully, most religious leaders are unwilling to cast the burden of guilt on any particular group of which they may disapprove. Instead, they take a page from Job and underscore the impenetrable mystery of suffering – taking their inspiration perhaps from God’s speech to Job from out of the whirlwind, where He begins with one of the famous queries of the Bible: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” And He continues with withering sarcasm, “Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!” In short, do not attempt to sound the depths of God’s inscrutable purpose.
For every pandemic there is a theology; by their nature, they call forth notions of guilt, sin and responsibility. It is almost as if we cannot but view them through theological categories. Each pandemic begins with a kind of “fall,” or original sin, which we attempt to retrace with our search for “patient zero,” the individual representing the source of the calamity, the one who kicked us out of paradise as it were. The writers of the 2011 film Contagion clearly had as much in mind when they decided that their story’s patient zero (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) should also be an adulteress.
A pandemic also highlights an inescapable function of all significant human action – namely, that our actions always outrun our intentions. Everything we do has consequences that we never anticipated, wanted or even imagined. We like to think that we are not responsible for everything our actions may cause – but the reality is that we cannot dodge or entirely relinquish our responsibility even for those things we never intended. Perhaps like nothing else, a pandemic reveals the burden of human action, our infinite liability; indeed, our indeclinable responsibility.
There is a theology accompanying every plague because there is a very human need to make sense of such colossal suffering. That theology may take the form of a conspiracy theory, but it is a theology all the same. One example is the persistent speculation that the coronavirus originated in some kind of bio-weapons laboratory in Wuhan, China. This explanation, regardless of its lack of evidentiary merit, is a temptation because it offers us a story, which is but a secularized version of the fall. The essential features are there: to say that human beings deliberately created the virus is to say that this pandemic is the result of human transgression; that human hubris introduced this uncontrollable element that upset the order of things.
The current pandemic has left fear and death, loneliness and stagnation in its wake. We must start asking ourselves what it has all been for. Eventually this great tide of suffering will ebb, life will resume, the economy will reopen and pick up steam, and the coronavirus will slowly fade from our immediate view – at that point, when we think of all those many tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands who died, alone, what will we be able to point to as their legacy? What did they die for? Undoubtedly many will say only that their deaths were unfortunate – all we can do to honor their sacrifice is return to life as it was, prosper and grow the economy at two percent annually. If we allow that to happen, then we will have failed, completely and utterly.
If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world.
Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.
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