Who’s to blame for the spread of the coronavirus? 5-G? Animals? Tourists? China? How about God?
For centuries, natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and plagues were often understood to be of divine origin. Figuring out reasons why a basically good God would afflict basically good people is called theodicy. Although formally the domain of theologians and clergy, rationalizing inexplicable suffering is also something that people everywhere try to do.
One of the most common rationalizations for suffering which has been put forward over several millennia is that someone (preferably and almost always someone else) was being punished by God for sins committed. In such cases, once the sin has been identified, the guilty party is supposed to acknowledge the transgression, repent, and change their provocative and erred behavior.
Despite the fact that ours is largely a science-based, secular culture, this perspective is still prevalent today, albeit with some modern touches.
Not surprisingly, few advocate that God is actually punishing us for our sins and, without prophets, it is hard to know God’s intention. Instead—as they always have—people propose various target populations that they think God has it in for.
A Northern Ireland politician suggested that abortion on demand and same-sex marriages triggered God’s wrath. The Rev. Ralph Drollinger, at a recent weekly White House Bible study session, declared that “homosexuals, environmentalists, atheists and depraved minds” provoked God’s anger. A conservative Catholic website denounced Pope Francis’ allowing a Pachamama statue into the Vatican and said that this explained why Italy was hit so hard by the virus. And Pastor Rick Wiles of Florida saw in the early spread of the virus in New Rochelle a sign that God was punishing the Jews (again!) for rejecting Jesus. He also understood COVID-19 as an end-times plague sent by God that struck China first because it is a godless Communist country.
Although Jews haven’t been blamed for a major plague since the Black Death in the 14th Century, Fatih Erbakan on Turkish media denounced the coronavirus as a Zionist goal and blamed the Jews for it. Not to be outdone, Timothy Wilson, who was killed in an FBI shootout in Benton MO on March 25th, after planning to bomb a hospital, a school, a synagogue and a mosque, declared that the virus had been “engineered by Jews as a power grab.” Other anti-Semites shared his view that Jews created it, if not for power, than simply to make a fortune on the testing kits and the cure.
For many people, the belief that natural disasters are signs of divine displeasure has been replaced by the idea that they are caused by human behavior. But someone still remains “guilty” and must therefore repent. Most accusations of blame, whether on society’s fringes or in the mainstream, strongly reflect their authors’ socio-political perspectives as they endeavor to link the pandemic to the behavior of their opponents.
Vegans can condemn meat-eaters for the virus jumping from bats to humans. Environmentalists can blame those who deny climate-change and refuse to change their environment-destroying ways. Chinese officials posited that the US Army brought the virus to China and the US counter-speculates that the virus escaped from a bio-lab in Wuhan. If one is a liberal, the government can be blamed for not investing enough previously in the healthcare system or, if a conservative, one can castigate elected officials for allowing in migrants and immigrants to spread the virus, and putting us all in lockdown. The blame game goes on and on.
The need to find blame is human because, at bottom, what terrifies us as a species is the possibility that the virus is just a random act of nature, devoid of any meaning save what we choose to impose upon it. Do all life’s events have an imposed meaning and direction, or is it all a matter of chance? That is a dangerous and threatening question. For many people it is far better to assert that God remains in control; that God has sent or allowed this plague to enforce repentance by the guilty; and that, for the rest of us, we must remain faithful during this test. For many others, they will aver that God is not responsible and instead will focus culpability on human behavior. Either way, judgment has been passed and the cause clearly established. The world remains a stable place in this sense, or at least so it seems.
But what, I wonder, is so terrible about not knowing why? What if suffering is inexplicable?
In his blog, Rabbi Anson Laytner hints that the reason humans identify someone and/or something to blame when crises occur is because we can’t stand the thought of suffering being random and meaningless. Do you agree? If so, why do you think we are so dissatisfied with the possibility that suffering is inexplicable?
Have you blamed anyone or anything for the Coronavirus? Why did you place blame and place blame on this specifically?
Anson Laytner is a retired rabbi, living in Seattle. His most recent book is The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God (Wipf & Stock, 2019).