Should we blame God for this pandemic?
“The Lord said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and Egypt; afterwards he will let you go…”
For the past fifteen years I have given a meditation at the weekly Eucharist on Thursdays at Volmoed. Due to the Corona-Virus pandemic, this weekly service has now been cancelled for the foreseeable future, though daily prayer is still part of the life of Volmoed, now enriched by the five offices of St. Benedict’s Priory which has become integral to life on Volmoed. Despite the cancellation of the Thursday Eucharist I will still write a meditation each week and send it to all those who have asked to receive them by e-mail, and to post it on my blog-page which I will revive for this purpose.
Those of us who are resident on Volmoed are now living in virtual physical isolation from the rest of the world. Yet we are mindful that there are millions of people who are unable to isolate themselves in this way because they are on the frontline of ensuring that essential services are maintained. We remember them with deep gratitude and pray for them, as we do also for the many people not least those who, because of poverty, inadequate (or no) housing and dwelling space, are unable to withdraw. The unjust gap between those of us who are privileged and those who are not is once again obvious. But that does not alter the need for those who can stay at home to do so in order to help halt the spread of the virus and reduce the burden placed on the health services.
The question, then, is: how are we going to live in relative physical isolation? We must continue to support and encourage one another in whatever way is possible under the circumstances. Fortunately, we can still be in communication, at least via social media and e-mail, so I hope that my meditations delivered in this way will be a source of encouragement and hope during these frightful days that are radically reshaping our lives in so many ways. Of course, I cannot reflect on life during this pandemic as if I was living in a shack or without the resources that I have to help me cope. My meditations cannot possibly reflect the circumstances of those who are far less privileged. But that does not mean being unmindful of their plight.
This is a time for encouragement, solidarity, compassion and prayer. We don’t stop being Christian and the church in a time of plague, but we need to learn what this means for us. A crisis, as the Bible reminds us, is both a moment of judgment and an opportunity to discover what is really important for us. It is, therefore, a time in which we can also make some changes to the way in which we live. This, of course, is also what Lent is all about, for it too is meant to be a time of reflection that results in a a change of heart and mind, and fresh commitment to following the way of Christ.
There are some people who say the present pandemic is God’s punishment of the world for its moral decay. A sign that God is running out of patience with humankind. Some passages in the Bible suggest this conclusion, such as the story of the plagues which God sent on the Egyptians because their leader, Pharaoh, refused to set the Hebrew slaves free from their captivity and harsh labour. But that story does not blame God for the plagues, it holds Pharaoh responsible. The God who created the world and declared it “very good”, the God who willed that slaves be liberated and justice be done, and the God who “so loved the world that he sent us his Son” to redeem us, cannot be held responsible for the disasters we bring upon ourselves. In a remarkable book entitled Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond shows how germs and viruses have played a major role in shaping the history of the world. Among them was smallpox which decimated the native population soon after the arrival of European colonists in America, just as it did here in South Africa. In fact, more people are killed by viral epidemics such as the Spanish flu after World War I than by any other means. And, as Diamond shows, most if not all of these, are the result of human greed, mismanagement, and foolishness. So, too, the Corona virus pandemic, as scholars are saying, did not simply begin in Wuhan in China. What happened there was in large measure the result of other factors that have to do with global trade and environmental policies, and the failure of governments and nations to listen to reason.
So, too, the plagues that brought Pharaoh his knees came about because he refused time and again to heed the cry of the prophet Moses to set the Hebrew slaves free from their bondage. The tragedy is that it took seven plagues before Pharaoh got the message and came to his senses. He had to learn the hard way that if you continue to oppress people and destroy the environment the time will surely come when you will suffer the consequences. If a plague of frogs does not do it, then maybe the death of your first-born children will make you change your ways. If climate change, fires, famine and floods don’t bring us to our senses, may be this horrible invisible virus will be the plague that does.
So at this time of plague, which gives Lent a new urgency and on new significance, we have an opportunity to think again about the world in which we live, about our responsibility to change our ways, and discover again what it means to be followers of Jesus. Maybe the Corona-virus pandemic is a deadly wake up call to all leaders and nations, as well as to all people and all of us, to acknowledge that we cannot continue to do business in the same way as we have been doing during years of plenty without suffering the consequences. Isn’t it an enormous irony that when the nations fail to timeously and significantly end carbon emissions, an invisible virus from Wuhan (a place few of us had heard of before) has brought all the airlines to a halt? Isn’t it a strange irony that this little virus is threatening to make the most powerful nation in the world not great but the epicentre of a deadly pandemic? But this is not the time to point fingers elsewhere. This is a time for all of us to think again about our own lives, our own society, and our own responsibilities. And to do so as people of faith in the God who is ever seeking to renew the earth and redeem the world. For this is the God in whom we trust at this time of fear and distress, and this is the hope which saves us in Christ, a hope which, as Paul says, we might not always see but for which we always wait for in patience.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed Lent 4 25 March 2020