What's Tony Thinking

God and the Pandemic


A late July issue of The Christian Century featured three articles that wrestled with questions of judgment and hope in the current pandemic. I appreciated the editors and writers attempts to think theologically about our current situation.

The first of the three is titled “A Time of Judgment: Seeing Our Sin in A Disastrous Year.” Author Bailey Pickens takes her starting point from the counsel of two of our better public theologians, both writing in the New York Times. The Jesuit author, James Martin, and the Anglican New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, both dismiss any notion that the pandemic may be a divine judgment and punishment for human sin. “Don’t go there,” is their consensus.

Given how often conservative and fundamentalist preachers have confidently declared any and all disasters as God’s direct and unequivocal judgment on all those people they don’t like or approve of, it’s no wonder that more mainline and liberal preachers and theologians tend not to touch the topic with the proverbial ten-foot poll. What was Anne Lamott’s remark? “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Conjecture about divine judgment and punishment is dangerous territory. It’s an easy way to assure ourselves that we will be safe or okay or saved because “we’re not like them.” So, when in Luke 13 people suggest to Jesus that the victims of a recent calamity must have been in some way guilty, and therefore deserving of their fate, he doesn’t buy it. He challenges their smugness. He tells them, you are more vulnerable than you think.

Still, the upshot of the liberal reticence according to Pickens is a line of thinking that concludes, “There is much to explore, much to wonder about, and much to lament in a disaster — but it seems one must not for a moment think that God had anything to do with it.” She calls the question of divine judgment “the elephant in the room,” and sets out to “face the elephant” in the balance of her essay.

To refuse to face the elephant in the room, to disallow and rule out the question of whether God has anything to do with the pandemic, seems theologically incoherent. If God is God, then by definition, God has something to do with, well, everything. To refuse such considerations of divine judgment in the midst of a world-wide pandemic risks rendering faith friendly but feckless — words which, alas, describe a fair bit of the mainline project these days.

Pickens, however, goes on to see plenty of judgment in the pandemic and social unrest of 2020. “We have all seen the calls to let a certain portion of the population die for the sake of the economy, our favorite god. We have all seen calls for war with another country on which we wish to pin the blame for the many thousands who have died in our under-supplied hospitals. We have seen . . . the sight of burning police precinct buildings or the shattered storefronts of chain stores then at the records of police brutality against unarmed people or the redlining legacy that forms the neighborhoods where we now live, ‘safe’ because of the un-safety of others.”

Pickens sees the pandemic as God’s judgement on America’s inequities, zenophobia, racism and fear. Even as I tend to be sympathetic to this reading of things, I suspect the Lamott axiom applies. I mostly agree with Picken’s litany of indictments and think God should too.

My own sense of the judgment that COVID brings upon us is perhaps a little less partisan. It seems to me that the entire experience is calculated to slow, even stop, us. Or in religious language, “to humble us.” And perhaps in particular, to slow, stop and humble Americans. I’m reminded of the much ridiculed (at the time) counsel of the former first lady, Nancy Reagan, to kids regarding drugs, “Just Say No.”

It feels as if COVID is some Other, some Infinite and Holy One, saying something we don’t want to hear, and which we think we shouldn’t ever have to hear, i.e. “NO.”  That is not, of course, the last or final word of the Lord. But at least sometimes “No,” may be what God is saying at the moment and possibly in this moment.


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