Ebola’s not God’s ret­ri­bu­tion, but a re­minder we are one

The Star Early Edition - - LETTERS -

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.

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