You can listen to the episode here or continue reading below.
Intro and Recap of Season I
Welcome to season two of Broken But Not Divided. I have missed making these episodes and excited to be back. Over the last year, we talked about controversies in the Church, how they begin and why they start and how they end up being resolved or not. I had two interviews with Fr. Deacon Symeon Price and Dr. David Aziz about divine eros and the role of education in resolving controversies respectively. But for some reason I seem to not have addressed the elephant in the room, namely COVID-19. So the first two episodes will deal with COVID-19 in relation to the theme of divine wrath and COVID-19 Vaccines. The rest of the season will look at a few controversies within Orthodox Churches.
COVID-19 and Scripture
While few doubt COVID-19 is a fake virus at this point given the numbers of those who passed away because of it, there were religious figures who were trying to find some kind of link between COVID-19 and divine wrath and punishment for the human race. Today, I am going to give you few ideas to think about when it comes to COVID. They are largely based on a short book I wrote last year titled Father God or Mother Nature: From the Great Flood to COVID-19 (purchase here). The book starts with an invitation to reflect on why we tend to contemplate the beauty of mother nature but once mother nature shows her unkind side through a natural catastrophe, we see people turn to Father God and start complaining.
At any rate, I believe that to tackle the question of COVID-19 being divine wrath or chance, we have to turn to the tradition as a whole. It is easy to look at an isolated event in scripture and base your theological views on it. But that was never the traditional way of theologizing in the Church. This entails taking aa close look at the various events where God used nature to punish human beings. More importantly, it takes a close examination of how God intended the triune relationship between Him, the human being, and creation to be as we learn about it in Genesis 1 and 2. So the first man and woman being both on the image of God and taken from the dust of the earth were seen as mediators between God and creation. Through being on the image of God, they could reflect His divine presence to creation and through being from the dust of the earth, they were able to offer creation unto God in thanksgiving. This intended order was disturbed by the fall of the human being. And it is then that man mostly becomes a victim of the unruliness of creation. Many religions and cults would develop around the mere human attempt at making sense of the power of creation against humanity. Whenever they realized they cannot understand a created power like the sun or lightning or the sea, they assumed they were deities that they had to offer sacrifices to appease them. But the Christian faith invites us to understand our role as those who are tasked with offering creation to God in thanksgiving being His image. Sadly, the invitation is often declined by our inclination to exploit creation, a behaviour that often costs us a lot.
When people looked at COVID-19 as it became a global pandemic that impacted everyone, some were inclined to jump to the conclusion this is God’s anger against humankind. But a closer look at events leads us to believe that the way God uses natural disasters to discipline humankind do not really match the narrative of COVID-19.
For example, the flood did not occur except after years and years of God waiting for humankind to repent. Even then, he chose Noah to be the man to save creation. He even had him build an ark on ground which I am sure was a conversation starter. It was not a haphazard thing where God just decided to discipline the world with a flood. There were times spent so that God gives people a chance to repent and when he punished the people, there were those who were given the chance to restart the world even though one of them got so drunk he stripped naked and his son who was just saved from impending death through the flood shamelessly looked at his father’s nakedness and mocked him. This says something about the state of depravity of the evil doers whom God punished with the flood. Another incident is that of the descent of fire and brimstone…
Well again God is not acting fiercely or haphazardly. He even sends two angles to find the most righteous four individuals and I say righteous here in quotation marks. The four were Lot, his wife, and two daughters. And let us just say that of the four, Lot’s wife did not listen that she turned into a pillar of salt because of her obsession with vanity, Lot was bargaining with the angel as to where to go after leaving the city that was about to burn to the ground, and his two daughters raped him after getting him drunk. And even then God saw that they were worth saving.
We don’t have time to go through every time humans were disciplined by God through natural disasters. The only constant thing you will find if you study other events like famines and the disasters the Israelites see on their way to the promised land is that God does not punish for the sake of punishing, He is very particular about whom he punishes, He is very very patient, and that even when He punishes His desire that all may be saved does not change and that He does what He does out of love no matter how much it does not appear to be as such.
Now I know this is hard to see when masses are dying but the reality is that the church fathers and mothers always looked for the positive aspect of the story be it that the righteous were saved or that the righteous learned from the punishment of the unrighteous. But they always tried to find something good.
Now if we turn to COVID-19 and try and find the divine order we see in the other Old Testament events where punishment is induced, we will find that it does not really make sense to attribute COVID to divine wrath. Is God punishing the sinners? then why is this virus mostly affecting those with lung diseases of all kinds? What did persons with asthma do to deserve this? More importantly, what exactly is the sin of all these Roman Catholic priests in Italy who lovingly and self-sacrificially gave up their oxygen masks just so that younger men and women would have a higher chance at living? And if God is using the suffering of the righteous to teach the unrighteous through this virus, then how come the virus hit mostly atheistic countries like China? The haphazard nature of the virus compels me to think this is not a divine punishment. God is far more organized and certainly works more personally now rather than in a way that affects the masses to such an extend. If you want to read more about this, feel free to get yourself a copy of my book as I go into more details about the various biblical events pertaining to how God inflicts punishment in Old and New Testament passages and the way the Tradition interpreted them. I like the kindle edition more but it is really up to you. Either will work and give you some insight into the fathers.
Now some will say that if it is not divine punishment, then it must be chance. I do not know if that is entirely true. Did we as human beings really play no part in its initiation or spread to varying degrees? And even if we could not do much to stop it from spreading, did it act like a chance when it exposed the extent to which we can be tribalistic? I mean let us face it. This virus however it came about showed our fallenness as Christians to a large degree. When instead of getting on our knees and participating in our intercessory role where we pray for the salvation of the world, we spent most of the time debating the validity of using multiple spoons or intinction depending on your jurisdiction, some debated whether the church handled this right so much that they began protesting and condemning bishops and priests to their faces and all over social media, most of us spent time debating wearing masks, and then eventually most of us started calling each other names depending on where we stood on the question of vaccination, and the list goes on and on. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for free speech and for people thinking and debating these questions which I believe are important. It is just that I am not sure the “how” of these debates was done in a Christian manner among the Christians. And I condemn myself for that first and foremost. I am no exception and I certainly have a lot to repent of that happened during this time.
So was it really a chance?
I don’t know. But it certainly taught us a whole lot about how much we need to do to become worthy of the calling by which we were called, the call to be Christians. On a more positive note, there were those whose lives turned around through COVID. They realized that we can never really know when our lives will come to an end and that they ought to make the most of the time because our days are numbered and the times are evil as St Paul teaches us in Ephesians chapter 5 verse 16. There were those who renewed their relationship with God, dedicated time to prayer and Bible reading to compensate for the time they were unable to spend in Church. Some volunteered to help facilitate live streaming for the Church. Others managed to help the elderly through buying and delivering groceries for them. One of my favourite things that happened that kind of restored my faith in humanity was when caring nurses started putting warm water in gloves and closed them and put them on the hands of covid patients so the feeling could resemble that of holding someone’s hand when that was not feasible. It might seem small if you are healthy but as someone who works in health care as a chaplain and sees suffering all the time, I know how much an isolated person can appreciate something like that.
So was COVID-19 wrath or chance?
I do not know. I would be lying if I say I did. But if I am to speculate, I would say neither. What I am certain of is that it was sad and cost us many lives of people we love and treasure. I am certain it was an opportunity for many to value life, others around them, and restore their faith in God. COVID-19 was one of those evil things that God, as usual, managed to take and use for our best interest as much as that was possible given the circumstances. Allow me to conclude with the words of Fr Matthew the Poor, “Every time a human being fails, they walk away sad and distressed, but then Christ comes after them and fixes everything in His unique way.”