Thursday, April 2, 2020

A Plague On Us? A Reflection

At that time some people who were present there told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” (Luke 13:1-5 NABRE)


As the death toll rises in the United States, I’ve seen news reports of some religious figures calling the COVID-19 pandemic a punishment from God. Usually, these figures decide to blame their favorite targets as the cause of this punishment. This seems to be the sectarian counterpart to the secular blaming of their political foes for the wisdespread impact of the disease.


There’s not much we can do about the secular bashing. Partisans are going to do whatever benefits them regardless of whether it’s moral or not. But as Christians, we should not allow our Faith to be hijacked by people with an axe to grind. We need to be clear on some things before we allow ourselves to be sucked into the scapegoating game.


Chastisement happens when God inflicts something on us in order to bring about correction. As the Hebrews were told by Moses in Deuteronomy 8:5, “So you must know in your heart that, even as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD, your God, disciplines you.” Certainly God has made use of this to teach just how serious rebellion against Him was. But, as Jesus pointed out to the Jews, not everything bad that happens is a sign of God singling out a certain group. Some who die in disasters, wars, or plagues are no better or worse than those of us who remain.


When God sent afflictions (like the plagues of Egypt or the chastisements of the Hebrews), they targeted the guilty people. There were no innocents caught up among the casualties. When God punished the Egyptians, they were all guilty on account of their acceptance of the mistreatment of the Jews. When God punished the Israelites, they were all guilty. And God made sure that the guilty knew that the chastisement was coming so they might change their ways.


The problem is, when people take a sectarian approach to the COVID-19 crisis, they assume they are innocent and their opponents are evil, and God is simply striking down his enemies.


Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.


Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 59). HMH Books. Kindle Edition. 


Are there vile evils that are widely accepted as “good” in these times? Tragically, yes. Do some evil people get swept up by the disasters of the world? Yes. But some good people also get swept up by them. When we look at Church history, we see that many saints died because of their work with the victims of the plague. We would not say that they were part of the guilty chastised by God. In fact, Our Lord makes clear that not all the bad things that come are intended as a sign:


Jesus said to them in reply, “See that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. You will hear of wars and reports of wars; see that you are not alarmed, for these things must happen, but it will not yet be the end. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place. (Matthew 24:4–7)


The one who tries to hijack COVID-19 to condemn his enemies in the name of God is behaving as one of these false messiahs.


We should be wary of assuming that whatever evil comes into our life must be a chastisement. In the Old Testament, for example, we had God warn the people through the prophets that something was coming in response to the evils and infidelities of Israel and Judah, reaching a point that poisoned the entire society. Books of the Bible (like Lamentations) showed the recognition that this was a punishment on all, not “the other guy.”


I find it significant that, when the Pope spoke on the pandemic in his Urbi et Orbi, he did not talk about God’s condemnation of evildoers. He spoke about keeping the faith in a time of fear:


Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring. It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity. By his cross we have been saved in order to embrace hope and let it strengthen and sustain all measures and all possible avenues for helping us protect ourselves and others. Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.


Rather than using this pandemic as an excuse to condemn other factions as being to blame for it, we should use this event to consider where we stand before God. None of us can claim to be sinless. All of us need to repent of something. So, instead of attacking others as the cause of a chastisement, we should make a firm purpose of amendment before God until the sacraments are available again




(†) In saying this, I am not denying the Immaculate Conception. I am simply speaking of the rest of us who did not receive that extraordinary gift of grace.

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