God, Man, and the Pandemic

On March 22, Bishop Gerald Glenn, 66, of the New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield, Virginia, told his parishioners, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.” His church, part of the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal denomination hit hard by the coronavirus, remained open. Twenty days later, on the eve of Easter Sunday, he was dead from COVID-19. 

As of April 19, Virginia had experienced 8,567 cases of the virus and 280 deaths. 

It is natural that a plague of this magnitude would prompt musings about God, religion, cause and effect. And, of course, differing interpretations. Even ones colored by political views. One opinion writer sees a silver lining in the pandemic: “a renewed openness to spiritual conversations with people who might otherwise never consider darkening the door of a church.” He goes on, “I am convinced that God is speaking to the world this Easter in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. I don’t believe He caused the pandemic – but He’s allowed it – and He’s using it to accomplish His purposes.”

Questions of theology naturally arise. Why would God allow this to happen? If He allowed it, could He stop it? If He loves us, why does He not save us? Are we testing God’s purpose by flouting health-related restrictions? There may be no certain answers as such inquiries relate to how we define God and what personal beliefs we hold.

Individuals’ rights to their personal beliefs and actions are necessarily limited by how their actions affect others. 

We must also remember, however: individuals’ rights to their personal beliefs and actions are necessarily limited by how their actions affect others. Want to drive 100 mph? Not on a crowded highway where you could injure others. Opposed to vaccination for your kids? Not if they go to school, where their illnesses could infect others (see below). Want the freedom to worship with others, play basketball in the park, go to a movie, a restaurant? With traditional distances between people, no. Not if your sneezes or coughs or even lack of symptoms could infect and kill others. Why do we persist in agitating for personal rights that can harm others?

Some see everlasting joy and peace from pain and sacrifice. This is the view of those who say, in effect, “Come to church! If we die from this, the greater glory to God.”

Another has opined, “the purpose of suffering may be mysterious, but the search for meaning is obligatory.” What does this mean? First, that whatever meaning we derive from these recent events, it is our meaning, not universally shared. Each has the right–nay, the obligation–to draw whatever sense from events, in our own terms, in our own lives. And this search, this journey, is a personal moral conclusion.

“With both suffering that endures and suffering that belongs to the past, there is a need for something more than solidarity … there is a need for narrative, for integration, for some story about what the pain and anguish meant.”

As Ross Douthat of The New York Times expresses it, “with both suffering that endures and suffering that belongs to the past, there is a need for something more than solidarity as time goes by; there is a need for narrative, for integration, for some story about what the pain and anguish meant.” This is seen as necessary for those left behind to go on. Is it better to believe that suffering has some meaning, whatever that is, and however personal, than to think that there is no reason at all?

Along with those holding religious beliefs, we should not exclude those without any from this discussion. Recent surveys show that almost one-quarter of Americans report not believing in any God. How do they think about COVID-19? For those who get it or lose someone to it, that is something that mus be reckoned with. It is a human question, if not a religious one.

The COVID pandemic has now spawned a variety of protests against the social distancing regimens. It was noted that a planned protest of the restrictions in Richmond was attended by as many as four dozen. The protest was organized by at least two groups, ReOpen Virgina and Virginians Against Excessive Quarantine, which have claimed 18,000 Facebook members. Among the attendees expected was leaders and advocates of the anti-vaccine movement. The presence of these “antis” foreshadows a later protest against vaccination to prevent COVID. Following the success of this first action, another is planned for May 1.

Lord, what fools these mortals be!   –Puck, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

One attendee, a mid-50s male from Alexandria, offered his opinion that if the nation can send its military to sacrifice lives in a war, why not risk some elderly. Such moral equivalencies, repugnant to most, are endlessly intriguing and evoke even more exquisite thoughts:

–A woman attended with her young child and proclaimed that it was her body and she is free to expose herself at will. 

–A Fredericksburg small business owner offered that the restrictions were a move to benefit hospitals.

–The concentration of deaths in nursing homes, added another, was proof that social distancing does not work because those people were not patronizing bars.

Right-leaning folks have clouded the issue with a political facet for “opening up” states and criticizing governors who have issued strong and extended social distancing measures, such as Ralph Northam here in the Commonwealth. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was subjected to chants of “lock her up” for taking a stand against premature opening of businesses.

The VA GOP has sent a letter to Governor Northam demanding a relaxation of social distancing and the re-opening of businesses. Whether such demands are extreme and counter to health and science is the contest. In this light, perhaps the words of Barry Goldwater in 1964 may provide guidance:

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!

The mere mortals who devote themselves to explaining or understanding the Almighty have a difficult task, perhaps impossible. However, when the question is one of life and death, the theme song from MASH also echoes a paradigm of choice:

The sword of time will pierce our skin
It doesn’t hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger, watch it burn

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please.

The Richmond protesters and the VA GOP may not be said to be in favor of ending lives; but attempting to understand the relationship of humankind and the Almighty to provide a rationale can be seen as futile, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Nor have any medical experts offered advice that death from COVID is painless.


Categories: coronavirus, Issues, Local, National

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