Ebola’s not God’s retribution, but a reminder we are one
WHEN faced with inexplicable things, there is a desperate need in the human psyche to apportion blame.
The outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa has, again, led to a desperate need to find someone or something to blame. One of the most damaging, dangerous and untrue assertions that can be made is: Ebola is God’s punishment.
In a meeting of more than 100 Christian leaders in Monrovia a few months ago (one which was called to deliberate the church’s role in responding to Ebola), it was said that God was angry with Liberia, and that Ebola is a plague.
Liberians were told they had to seek God’s forgiveness for “corrupt and immoral acts” (like homosexuality).
“As Christians, we must repent and seek God’s forgiveness,” they were told.
West Africa is home to many expressions of Christianity and people are generally religious.
It is shocking that religious leaders would dare to exploit an already traumatised and fearful people by suggesting Ebola is God-sent. It exploits God. It is bad theology, bad pastoral practice but, worst of all, it is dangerous because it victimises people unjustly.
Reports suggest gay people in places like Liberia, for example, are being victimised and blamed for the spread of the disease.
Ebola has also introduced a new kind of xenophobia – a fear of anyone who comes from the affected places in West Africa and resolute attempts to “keep those people out” as we have recently seen in the US where flights from West Africa are being strictly controlled or cancelled.
The haemorrhagic fever has infected more than 10 000 people in West Africa since March, killing many of its victims who die gruesome deaths. We cannot deny this has the potential to become a global disaster.
But the rapid spreading of Ebola and its high death toll has also created a fertile environment for fear, misinformation and superstition.
Many West Africans believe Ebola is not a medical disease but a supernatural curse. This has been affirmed by some unthinking Christian leaders in their feeble attempts to “respond” to the crisis.
On some blogs and in some comment columns, ignorant writers suggest it is because Africans are superstitious and religious that they believe such nonsense.
But it is not only African religious leaders who have blamed God for plagues and other catastrophes.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the US in 2005, Reverend Pat Robertson claimed this was a punishment from above because of America’s lax attitude towards abortion. Reverend Jerry Falwell claimed 9/11 was God’s punishment for “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians”.
Why are some religious leaders tempted to use the Scriptures to explain away complex diseases like Ebola, with its lethal consequences for the globe, in such a rudimentary way? Particular faith leaders in the Old Testament interpreted catastrophe as a punishment from God.
Faith leaders today (who have the advantage of modern science and technology) continue to do this by choosing selective passages from the Bible. There are opposite views in the Old Testament that are overlooked.
The Book of Job deals with sin and suffering – a “blameless and upright man” suffers terribly. At the end of Job’s ordeal, he talks to God. Not once does God mention sin.
The reasons for Job’s suffering are, God suggests, unfathomable.
The Book of Genesis articulates the common origins of all human beings and thus their interconnectedness. We see this expressed in many ways today: the internet and the global economy, for instance.
The spread of Ebola could be interpreted as a stark reminder of our human interconnectedness and the responsibility this brings. It undermines our aggressively individualist attitudes and prompts us to assess if we really are interested in the welfare of others because ours may depend on theirs.
The prophet Isaiah suggests what people should do when faced with the suffering of others: Stop pointing fingers and spreading wickedness, feed the hungry and look after the afflicted.
For Isaiah, plagues like Ebola are an opportunity for faith to be put into action to bring about healing. It is not an opportunity to apportion blame and create further victims.
A pastor to Liberians in Staten Island, New York, said: “The greater sin is the sin of inhumanity. God is merciful and he expects human beings to be.”
That’s the bottom line: An authentic religious response is to reach out mercifully to the infected and affected in every sensible and possible way. Religious leaders who say irresponsible things are guilty of the greater sin: inhumanity.
They should be held accountable – and taught that God does not support their claim.
Father Russell Pollitt Jesuit priest and director of the Jesuit Institute SA
ACTS OF MERCY: Health-care workers in protective gear work at an Ebola treatment centre in the west of Freetown, Sierra Leone. The writer says the outbreak is an opportunity to reach out to humanity, to help those in need. It is that response, he says, that is the appropriate one for religious leaders as well.