What Can COVID-19 Mean?

Adam Gopnik, a charming writer for The New Yorker who is fascinated by theological questions, takes on the moral meaning of COVID-19 in a recent musing.

He gently mocks the human desire to find sense in suffering, and particularly to find divine method in the particular madness of mass illness—from the medieval Black Death to the modern coronavirus. Instead of questing for a moral reason why God is afflicting us, Gopnik avers, we should accept that diseases arise amorally. Bugs don’t care about us one way or the other: they just do what bugs do.

“The one great advantage we have over medieval people is not that we worship a better god,” he says, “but that we know to wash our hands.” Instead of trying to identify the disease as an antagonist, or as the product of an antagonist (as one Congressman called the new illness “the Chinese coronavirus”), let’s just practice good public health.

Gopnik concludes, “’Don’t “other” the bug; flatten the curve!’ is a good motto, and pretty much all the wisdom that science—or simple rationality—offers in this jumpy moment.”

Christians, however, lift their eyes above science or simple rationality to ask God for wisdom, for perspective on things that matter. And we find help in times of trouble.

Most basically, we find reassurance that God reigns, that Jesus is Lord, and that nothing happens in the world that God does not govern, let alone that takes God by surprise. The world is not going to end this way, suffer as we will, and God will work good out of even this widespread evil.

We find also that when public health crises occur in the Bible, as they often do, they bring to the surface deep problems that have long deserved attention and now must be faced. In particular, long-standing exploitation of the many by the few leaves the people vulnerable to pestilence. The refusal by the powerful to properly distribute the wealth of the country leaves no margin, no resilience, in the population at large. And as the powerful depend on that population, everyone suffers as the society crumples under pressure it cannot endure.

“If you want to know what’s in a cup, upset it and see.” If a physician wants to know how healthy a patient is, she prescribes a stress test and watches to see what happens.

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