The Peripatetic Preacher God Did Not Send the Virus!

The Peripatetic Preacher God Did Not Send the Virus! May 20, 2020

It seems to me frankly absurd that I should have to address this topic to what appears to be a majority of professed Christians in May, 2020, but a recent poll suggested that about 2/3 of the Christians who were asked about God’s involvement in the COVID- 19 pandemic believed that God had sent it for one reason or another. The usual justifications were offered to the pollsters. “We are in the last days of earth,” intoned some ardent fundamentalists, “and plagues have long been a required part of that biblical scene. Prepare to meet thy God!” Note that when these folks speak of the end, they invariably revert to King James vocabulary to do so, adding to the portentous and fearful news of impending doom, I guess. “God is responding to the utter moral failure of the world’s people,” claimed others. “Our engagement with and dabbling in obscenity, pornography, deviant sexual practice, unrestrained murder of the unborn, a stark and willful refusal to turn back to God, has angered the deity to the point of sending the virus to wake us up, to shock us into right belief, to make us aware that we are on the wrong road. Prepare to meet thy God,” though in this case that meeting may be somewhat delayed for reasons unstated. Stay tuned. There were other rationales, but these will suffice to make the point that it is something that we humans did to force the divine hand to slap us hard with COVID-19.

And, as always, the TV evangelistic crowd could hardly wait to weigh in for extravagant appeals for hard cash. Some weeks ago, Kenneth Copeland, he of the multiple jet planes, the huge ranch home, and some $300,000,000 in the bank, loudly shouted “the virus is gone!” from his lavish home studio, while standing very close to some associates, all unmasked. Like a latter day William Miller, the founder of the 7thDay Adventist Church, who urged his followers in 1844 to sell all they had, and head for a mountain to await the coming of Jesus, the Lord failed to show up, just as the virus continued to rage even after Copeland’s anathema. However, Miller decided that though nothing had changed on the earth, obviously, there had been vast changes in heaven, and enough of his first followers believed him to found a community that still flourishes over 170 years later. I assume that Copeland has a slick rationale for why the virus did not retreat at his command, though I have not heard it. The one thing I can be certain of is that the bulk his followers have not abandoned him, and that he, now in his 80’s, can look forward to the remainder of his days in the religious lap of luxury.

I have no doubt that the bulk of TV evangelistic viewers are convinced that the virus is surely a punishment from God. After all, they claim to read the Bible only literally—though I am sure that none of them actually do that—and there are obviously places in the ancient text where it plainly says that God does indeed send plagues and such to the earth. Amos 4:10 is about as clear as it can be: “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with a sword; I carried away your horses (this sentence is difficult to translate); I made the smell of your camp rise up into your own noses; yet you did not return to me.” God plagued the Egyptians, as any reading of Exodus demonstrates, and according to Amos God is in that business still. Reading literally, and assuming that the Bible is both authoritative and unimpeachable, God does indeed and for sure send plagues to warn us, to punish us, to turn us around. If one reads the Bible like that, what else would one believe except that God has sent COVID-19 to the world. The reasons why may differ, but the fact of the sending, for Bible literalists, is not in doubt.

And of course there is the problem. Apparently for 2/3 of the Christians in that poll, they believe that God sent the virus because “the Bible tells them so.” As a progressive Christian, who has spent over 50 years of a scholarly life studying and expounding the riches of the Bible, I remain incredulous that such Bible reading is still pursued by the majority of Christian believers. It makes it all too clear to me that I live in a progressive bubble, walled off from enormous numbers of my fellow believers, protected from their views by my long education, my struggles with ancient languages, multiple cultures, and complex histories, all of which make a literal reading of the ancient words completely untenable. It is more than obvious that all of my learning and all of my teaching have had little if any impact on the way that the Bible is used in 2020 in churches across the land. Though it may be true that 1/3 of those in the poll do not agree that God sent the virus, the reasons for their disagreement with the majority of those polled may or may not be because they have learned there are other ways to approach the biblical text.

Let me put the problem more bluntly. The Bible has become the chief impediment to a sane and reasonable response to any number of modern issues that religious people are expected to address. And that terrible fact is not confined to evangelical fundamentalists, whose leaders directly teach their listeners to read the Bible in stark literalness, in such a way that we may fully expect 2/3 of a polled group to believe that God sent the virus. It is even true among those less evangelical Christians, those less inclined to read literally, less prone to take the Bible’s words at face value. This is so precisely because their own experience with the ancient text has been minimal, truncated, limited to a sermon on Sunday that has tried to expound a single text of the Bible for the modern day, followed by another sermon on another day several weeks hence that tried to do the same. Without larger context, without acquaintance with culture, history, awareness of language problems, and a host of other factors, the Bible may easily be reduced to at best a pseudo-literalism, a “but the Bible says” usage, guided by proof texts, ripped from its complex pages for argument’s sake to shore up a modern dialogue. This sort of use is as true of progressives as it is of fundamentalists; texts from the Bible may be hurled around to make all sorts of points in debate with our adversaries.

I think the Bible really is the problem here, because what we Christians have done with it is to enable anyone at all to get their hands on it and to use it as they will. Martin Luther has much to answer for when he averred that every shoemaker and plowman should have access to the Bible, and did not need any priest to tell him what the thing says. Well, he got his wish, and what we now have are great numbers of Bible readers who actually do not have a clue concerning what it is they are reading. I know all too well how arrogant that statement sounds, issuing from a privileged scholar of the Bible, but the Bible has become less than the enlivening and challenging word of God than it has turned into a series of books containing any number of isolated phrases, each of which bears an equal weight when tossed into the maelstrom of modern religious discussion. The proof of what I am saying is found in those 2/3 who believe firmly that God has sent COVID-19 to us.

I do not have any easy answer to what I see as the chief dilemma in 21st century Christianity: the Bible is the bedrock of the life of the church, but it has become the stumbling block over which we church folk trip and fall in our attempts to employ it in the formation of our faith. All I can do is to share as broadly and widely as I can what I have learned over my scholarly life; that task has been my life’s work. And all I can hope is that some of those who have listened to me over those years have gained a measure of knowledge that might affirm in them that, no, God is not ever in the business of sending viruses to us for any reason whatever. God is the God who stands with us as we struggle with a virus that is a part of the makeup of planet earth, a dangerous part to be sure, but a part that simply follows its genetic code in attempting to spread itself as widely as it can, and thus to survive as any organism tries to survive. God urges us to isolate ourselves from one another, to mask ourselves over against one another, to protect ourselves from contracting a virus bent on survival at our expense. God is present with us in this battle, but God did not send the virus to initiate that battle.


(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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