Saturday, October 10, 2020

The pandemic is not the wrath of God

After posting to this blog two Sundays in a row, I was feeling very pleased with myself and thought that that would be a good schedule, and I meant to post again last Sunday. I started a post on Saturday, riffing off the Sunday Mass readings, but going again into my favorite theme of self-knowledge and self-actualization. I thought I'd finish and post it on Sunday.

And then I went to Mass. I hadn't heard this pastor much before, but I had a good superficial impression of him. But when he started to preach, I was appalled! I was so shocked that I just pulled my cowl down over my eyes and shut him out with a private meditation until the homily was over. 

The man was comparing this coronavirus pandemic with Noah's flood, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the horrific conquests of the kingdoms of Israel by Assyria and Judah by Babylon. He said that when the world, or some part of the world, is irredeemably saturated in sin, God sends some cataclysmic event to "reset" society -- by razing it to the ground and letting it rebuild from the dust, chastened.

The last part of the sermon, as far as I could tell from the little bit that filtered through my determined efforts to block it out, I think had some value. That is, the overwhelming, global disruption of this pandemic may well provide the opportunity for a broad, society-wide rethinking of some of our negative cultural norms. I have said, for instance, that I think of George Floyd as a holy martyr, because his death has seeded genuine change. His helpless sacrifice has become an effective challenge both to the powerful and to the oblivious masses. And the great social "pause" brought about by the pandemic has laid us open to that challenge, in a way previous incidents failed to reach us. Likewise, I expect that the stay-at-home mandate will effect a deep change in family relationships, broadly, across all of society. And hopefully, we will be left with some new cultural norm for starting romantic relationships, since it's no longer possible to jump straight from "hello" to sex. 

But to say that God has visited this plague on humanity as a punishment for our sins ... NO. Just, no. No! Look, I'm not going to argue this from Scripture, because there are too many contradictory passages on either side. No, I am going to argue from the evidence of your own eyes and common sense. 

Who suffers most in this pandemic? Who is being punished? The destruction is indiscriminate, too broad a stroke to be punitive. Sure, it has raged through prison populations, but it's been even more devastating in nursing homes. The death toll has been highest in the rich U.S., and relatively low in poor Africa, and yet the economic impact worldwide is mostly a grinding down of the poorest of the poor. Here in the U.S., the middle and upper classes can work and study from their uncrowded homes, while the relatively poor are those who have lost their jobs in the face-to-face service and retail sectors, and whose housing is more crowded. 

This isn't to say, either, that the poor or the old are more virtuous than the young and rich. It is to say that the pandemic is discriminating according to vulnerability, not wickedness. And look around you: do you see virtue rewarded and evil punished, generally, in the world? Of course not. We struggle always, we will always be struggling, there will always be sin and oppression, inequality, undeserved good and bad fortune.

But I come from a religious tradition that recognizes a preferential option for the poor. This is understood to be God's preferential option, not merely a mandate for our own attitude toward the powerful and the vulnerable. All through the Old and New Testaments, there is unrelenting emphasis on justice, equity, mercy, and care for the most vulnerable. God brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. This is the foundational story of biblical history. The core Mosaic law is fundamentally about justice, about preventing the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands, about ensuring the protection of women and children within a whole network of family and clan and tribe, about defending the rights of resident aliens. So how can we ascribe to God a motive of vengeance and punishment for a phenomenon that so disproportionately affects the already vulnerable? 

But there are two things here that are really, deeply the matter with this punitive point of view. One is what it expresses about God, and the other is what it says about us. First, about us: if God is punishing the wicked and rewarding the good, first we have to define who is wicked and who is good. Which are you? How can you say? Aren't you a mixture of both? Isn't everyone a mixture of both good and evil? Where do we suppose that God draws the line? Most of us are generally well-intentioned, but most of us are also pretty complacent about our participation in an inequitous, exploitative global economy. We may look at someone else and think that they are truly saintly, or rotten to the core -- but what are we looking at? Only the visible, their outward show, their actions. But God does not see as we see or judge as we judge, because God sees inside us, He sees the heart. He sees our insecurity, and our ignorance, and our fear, and our loneliness. He sees our woundedness, and our blindness. He knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are dust. 

And then, you know, the whole point of the Christian story is that Jesus came to save sinners, and not the righteous. Sts. Peter and Paul, the two pillars of the church, were deeply flawed men. It is to Peter that Jesus said "get thee behind me, Satan!" -- three verses after he had called him "the rock on which I will build my church." Paul wasn't just some neutral, random member of society when Jesus called him, he was actively engaged in rounding up Christians for execution. Jesus was constantly in conflict with the religious authorities, befriending instead people outside the pale of official Judaism, prostitutes and tax collectors, people who could not help but be painfully conscious of failing to live up to even the minimal moral standards of society.

If the idea of dividing people into saints and sinners is problematic, so is the idea of God as angry and punitive. Jesus came for us, died for us, for us sinners. He did not come to pluck off some mythical sinless, deserving stratum of holy people. He came for us, us paltry, muddled, mixed bags of moral mediocrity. He came to us in love, to us who do not "deserve" God's love, because God is unmixed goodness and unmixed love. 

There is no wrath in God. As my favorite saint Julian of Norwich says, there is no wrath in God ... she points out, in God "we live and move and have our being." We exist, and continue in existence every moment, by the grace and favor of God. If God were to be angry for one instant, how could any of us continue to exist? How could the wrath of God not completely annihilate us, if we exist only through His love? 

Jesus came not to abolish suffering, but to embrace suffering alongside us. Jesus did not deserve a horrific death. Neither do you, neither do I, neither do the prisoners nor the old folks nor the doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers dying from this pandemic. Julian of Norwich had her visions, her "revelations of divine love," on what was expected to be her deathbed, in middle of an even worse pandemic of bubonic plague. She lived to old age, and then she died, and neither her survival of the first illness was a reward nor was her eventual death a punishment. 

Everyone dies. Despite the legends, Enoch and Elijah and Methuselah died, too. Jesus died. Death is sometimes swift, sometimes slow. Sometimes it is painful, some go easily in their sleep. Some die in the womb, some in the cradle, some in the prime of life, some few live 100 years or more. Some die from violence, some from disease. Death is universal. How can there be a judgment in it? 

Neither is death final. We die into peace and bliss and the boundless love of God, and there the veil of unknowing will be lifted, that veil that leaves some people wondering whether a global catastrophe like this 2020 pandemic is a divine judgment on the sins of humanity. The only really substantial "revelation" I have ever had is this, that to the soul after death, everything will make sense, and it will all be good. I guess that is my link with Mother Julian, whose most famous line is "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." The longer quote is this: 

"Our Lord God shewed that a deed shall be done, and Himself shall do it, and I shall do nothing but sin, and my sin shall not hinder His Goodness working. It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

God bless you. Keep the faith.


  1. I wish there were more thinking (and expressing!) like you and fewer thinking like your example pastor. Who knows? I may still be affiliated, if not believing in the same way. I'm actually starting to really get why contemplative orders and individuals like you (is that a distinction?) are and should be a real and valued part of the Church writ large.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Matt. I'm sorry if you've been hearing that kind of awful talk from other pastors out there. I suppose it's natural -- they, too, are reeling from the upheaval of the pandemic, and trying to make sense of it. I think it must be something like the stages of grief. I only hope that many of them do not stick at one stage of coping because they have preached from it, and then feel as if they can't afford to be publicly inconsistent with themselves.

      Also, thanks for commenting because it shows me that someone is reading here other than my close family (my brother Matt is definitely unaffiliated) and the other oblates of my monastery (Matt is the oblate prior, and probably more orthodox Catholic than I am, and certainly believes in the value of contemplative orders). You are encouraging me to keep writing.

      Yes, contemplative orders and individuals are distinct. And even among individuals, there are some who are legally within the diocesan hierarchy, and others like myself who are laypeople living the solitary contemplative life in private vows. There is a place for all kinds of vocations in the Church.


  2. Julian of Norwich put herself completely in God's hands. That act of faith and trust is what I am seeking. How much wasted effort most of us expend in worrying about things we cannot control or making judgments about people and events we don't fully understand. Thanks for reminding me of her lovely words.