Punishment from God or a shared mourning?

Punishment from God or a shared mourning?

Why the pandemic? Why now? How could a God allow this? Religions have responded to these questions with diversity, some suggesting God sent the virus as punishment for specific sins. As the pandemic spread, others began to question whether religion can or should have an answer, suggesting instead we seek comfort in religious mourning.

In the earliest phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, before cases spread widely beyond China, Hussein Amer, a Canadian imam, delivered a radically anti-Chinese sermon in which he implied that the novel coronavirus originated as Allah’s punishment for the Chinese, particularly for their treatment of the Uighur Muslims.[1]

As the epicentre of the disease moved towards Europe, spokesmen for the Islamic State provided their own religious interpretation, welcoming the virus as a “punishment to tyrants of this time and their followers.”[2]

In the weeks that followed, an increasing number of religious voices began weighing in on why God would bring about such devastation. Several conservative religious groups viewed the virus as divine punishment for humanity’s sins, particularly the practice and support of homosexuality. In early March, a Jewish rabbi and former spiritual head of the Orthodox Yachad party, Meir Mazuz, alleged that the coronavirus was spreading as a result of nations, like Israel, allowing gay-pride parades, which Mazuz considered “parades against nature.”[3][4] Bolstering his claim, Mazuz added, falsely, that Arab states had avoided coronavirus cases and deaths by not allowing such parades.

Shortly after these comments, Patriarch Filaret, the top religious official of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate, echoed the idea, proclaiming that COVID-19 is “God’s punishment for the sins of men, the sinfulness of humanity.” Clarifying, he noted that by sin he meant “[f]irst of all… same-sex marriage.”[5]

Not God, but nature?

Though views of the coronavirus as a divine punishment have cropped up from individuals and groups with varying levels of legitimacy across differing faiths, this idea is far from universally held. The Catholic Church, for instance, has kept from declaring the virus to be a divine punishment. Pope Francis, however, has hinted that the virus is a response––not a punishment, but a reaction. In a sermon given on Earth Day, he implied that the virus came about as a direct response of human treatment and neglect of nature. The Pope relayed his message with a Spanish proverb: God always forgives, man sometimes forgives, but nature never forgives.[6] [7]

Away with rationalism

Breaking from all of these traditions are the beliefs of N.T. Wright, an Anglican minister, former Bishop, and scholar. Wright argues that the desire for an explanation to the coronavirus is ill-founded and stems from a culture that places significant weight on rationalism. Wright, instead, pushes for an approach that focuses on lamentation, not explanation. Lament, he writes, “is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.”[8] To support his argument, Wright cites passages from Psalms[9] that contain descriptions of similar loss and lamentation on the part of God and his followers. Ultimately, he believes “it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.”[10]

The diversity of responses to the pandemic underscores a near-universal human desire to explain the pain, loss, and fear caused since the first cases were recorded in late 2019. The evolution of responses, while partially explainable by the vast diversity of religious beliefs, may also come from the trajectory of the virus. In the earliest phases, it was easier to view the virus as a punishment since it only affected certain areas: China, Italy, or Europe more generally. As the virus continued to spread, though, it showed little regard for one’s nationality or religious identity, even infecting some, like Patriarch Filaret, who claimed the virus was punishment.[11] As the virus became a global crisis, responses likewise became more global in their scope, perhaps a response from nature, or, perhaps something religion, by its nature, cannot and need not explain.

Tyler Mikulis

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[1] Muslim Brotherhood-Affiliated Canadian Imam Hussein Amer: The Chinese Eat Aborted Human Fetuses; Coronavirus Is Allah’s Punishment For Their Treatment Of Uyghur Muslims
[2] Islamic State calls COVID-19 God’s punishment for foes: tape
[3] Israeli rabbi: Coronavirus outbreak is divine punishment for gay pride parades
[4] Religious figures blame LGBT+ people for coronavirus
[5] LGBT+ group sues Ukraine religious figure linking coronavirus to gay marriage
[6] On Earth Day, pope says nature will not forgive our trespasses
[7] For more on this idea, see Emilie Eyer’s article on collapsology, due to be published in week 40
[8] Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To
[9] Such Psalms cited by Wright include Psalm 13, Psalm 22, Psalm 88, Psalm 89
[10] Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To
[11] Church leader who said coronavirus was God’s punishment for gay marriage tests positive for Covid-19