Of faith, immunity, and responsibility
By Bernadine Rodrigo
Currently, a large portion of the world is in lockdown. However, even amidst such lockdowns due to a global pandemic such as this, there were cases in some nations where people had stepped out of their homes and gathered together at religious meetings.
A pastor in Virginia, US defied warnings about the danger of religious gatherings during the pandemic and vowed to keep preaching “unless I’m in jail or the hospital”; he died last weekend, The New York Times reported. New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield, Va. Bishop and Founder Gerald O. Glenn, 66, died on Saturday night after contracting Covid-19, according to Bryan Nevers, a church elder.
In Kansas, lawmakers had overturned the Governor’s executive order restricting religious gatherings to 10 people ahead of Easter and called it “a blatant violation of our fundamental rights”.
From the Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana, Rev. Pastor Tony Spell said his faith would protect him and his attendees from falling ill, speaking to Reuters. “God will shield us from all harm and sickness,” he had said. “We are not afraid. We are called by God to stand against the Antichrist creeping into America’s borders.”
In Qom, Iran, a place of pilgrimage visited each year by those of the Shia-Islam faith, Fatima Masumeh Mausoleum Head Ayatollah Mohammad Saidi said in an online video that the mausoleum should remain open to the faithful, despite the virus outbreak.
It is important to realise that those who believe they are immune have not necessarily seen proof of this.
Naturally, cases such as these raise the age-old debate of whether science and religious belief go together or whether they clash so badly that it puts the lives of the society in danger.
The faithful must co-operate
Colombo Theological Seminary Principal Dr. Ivor Poobalan, who is also a preacher to the Methodist community of Sri Lanka, shared: “I would like to say at the outset that in light of the first truly global pandemic in history, it would be irresponsible for anyone to disregard public health warnings and the measures taken by governments to contain the spread of the virus.”
From a Christian perspective, he wanted to make two specific comments. “Firstly, the Lord Jesus Christ taught that the Christian life is to be centred on two commitments: The commitment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and the commitment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves,” he said, quoting Mark 12:29-31.
“When we apply these principles to the global pandemic that has engulfed the world, It becomes clear that self-isolation and social distancing ensure we minimise the chances of spreading the virus and thus infecting others,” he continued. “Health professionals have advised that people maintain a one to two-metre distance from each other when engaging in any transaction. Acting lovingly towards one’s neighbour then requires that we follow such guidelines that safeguard the health and wellbeing of every other person, related or non-related.”
Fully recognising the responsibility everyone, including the responsibility the faithful have towards the protection of the society, he stated: “The Bible also teaches that Christians have civic responsibilities. These include respect and submission to the governing authorities based on the premise that governments and rulers are ultimately accountable to God and function under divine authority.
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God,” he quoted Romans 13:1.
Accordingly, this instruction additionally places a responsibility on citizens to submit themselves to the laws and guidelines set by the authorities of the State for the sake of good governance. Dr. Poobalan said that as governments all over the world are making informed decisions regarding lockdowns and curfew with the clear aim of safeguarding the populace they govern, Christians must co-operate and collaborate wholeheartedly with this aim.
“Belief in the kindness of God to keep one from contracting the virus is a personal choice, but it is not honouring God when people disregard biblical commands that require us to love our neighbours and to submit to governing authorities. Having said that, it must be readily acknowledged that Christians in Sri Lanka have exemplified these ethical responsibilities from the time the Government put such guidelines in place. Churches have discontinued physical meetings and have switched to digital means to stay connected and continue Christian care and communication,” he said.
This certainly shows how Sri Lankans have understood quite well the responsibilities owed by them to their fellow civilians and governing bodies.
“Christians are also most concerned about the impact the present measures have on the daily wage earners and the poor,” Dr. Poobalan stated, adding that church communities across the country have been responding with generosity and sensitivity to those in need. It is a sad fact that the most vulnerable are often the ones who are further victimised because of society’s perverse tendency to primarily serve the interests of the rich and the powerful, he added.
Religion for strength, not immunity
Agreeing largely with the sentiments shared above, Ven. Godapitiya Inananda Thera said that right now, religious activities must be done at home. Commenting on the clash between the scientific world and the religious world, he observed: “Lord Buddha has already spoken of these things while he was on Earth.”
He said with certainty that there is no need to oppose any scientific fact and that this is proven by the Buddhist chant known as the “Girimananda Suthraya”. The Girimananda Suthraya speaks of strength and the ability to bear the struggles which come with illness. Ven. Inananda Thera said that right now, religion and prayers are giving people strength – not immunity.
“Lord Buddha spoke of these things in the Girimananda Suthraya,” the Thera said. “It was through this which Andanda Thera was able to provide solace and strength for the people who were greatly affected by illness at the time. It was advised to him by Lord Buddha himself and soon the people were cured. However, this is because they found an inner strength to endure through the times, not because they were able to oppose the laws of nature. There are various things which we are doing; we have various ‘thumbi’ and pirith chants, which are all to give the people inner strength not to resist but rather to endure the plight which they have been made to suffer.”
Ven. Inananda Thera said they believe in “maithriya” and “karunawa” and while they have asked the people to go on with these religious proceedings at home, they too, within the temples, are praying for the salvation of Sri Lanka and the entire world at a time like this.
“Right now, there is no need to oppose any science. Lord Buddha has already mentioned the happening of these events. The tsunami of 2004 – a natural and scientifically explained event, the occurrence of a terrible illness such as cancer, and many other scientifically explained things have been spoken about a long time ago. Hence, there’s no need to oppose them, but we ask people to do what is right,” he added.
We could surmise that the problem perhaps then lies not with fundamental teachings in religions, but with people who have somehow been misled and/or misinterpreted thingsteachings. As the statements from the religious leaders affirm, there is no conflict between the two aspects of science and religion; especially in a time of crisis such as this, people should simply be responsible.
Also sharing similar thoughts was Thoman Kannan, a priest of the Hindu community. “At a time like this, we must not go outside,” he said, explaining that it is not right of people to go outside to the kovils to perform their religious activities.
“We must listen to the military and other authorities at this time. Religion and science can often go hand in hand, but at this time, we have to give prominence to what the professionals of science have said. We have to listen to them. The virus can only be stopped if we follow the rules we have been given to follow and act accordingly.”
He advises the followers of Hinduism to perform their “pooja” and other religious activities at home and remain indoors until the better educated professionals advise otherwise.
Trust in God doesn’t mean a lack of practicality
St. Joseph’s College, Negombo Vice Principal Rev. Fr. Sajith Aruna shared that during this time of crisis, the Catholic Church has asked all Catholics to follow the instructions of the Government. “While our leader, the Pope at the Vatican, has announced this, our leader in Sri Lanka, the Cardinal, too has ordered this. This means we accept the facts put forward by professionals and we respect it.
“If you say that God will come down from heaven to protect you and so you start behaving irresponsibly, that’s going to unnecessary extremes and being delusional. The Catholic view is not so. God will protect, but he will do so in different ways.”
Rev. Fr. Aruna then went on to explain the bridge between Catholicism and scientific or worldly matters. He said that God would not have created this planet if he was to always come down and guard it; Earth comes with its own trials, which man must overcome in a manner appropriate to Earth.
“There are things called signs of the times,” he continued. “God gives us signs through which we can get through difficulties. We have to identify them. Right now, they are the instructions given by the Government and authorities, which we have to follow,” he explained.
He further explained these signs with a very simple example. He narrated the hypothetical story of a man forced to suffer the consequences of a flood. “When the flood began, the man who was on the first floor began praying to God to protect him and then a boat came by and asked to take him away to safety, but the man refused saying that God would save him. Then, the flood worsened and he went on to the second floor and prayed. Another boat came by asking to save him but he gave the same response. The flood was still worsening and he was forced onto the rooftop, which is when another boat came by and was given the same response. The man eventually died in the terrible flood. After his death, he met God and complained to Him, asking: ‘Why didn’t You save me.’ God replied: ‘I tried to save you three times!’
“There is a saying, ‘trust in God but lock your car’. We must be practical and do our part to protect ourselves instead of acting recklessly and waiting for God to simply do everything for us. During this time, with all the instructions we are told to follow, God is here as spiritual strength. People are suffering various kinds of problems and God being there is a solace to them – that’s what He means.
“In more ways than one, this is a blessing in disguise. This is an opportunity for us on Earth to do better. While people are suffering, others are rising to help in all kinds of ways – sharing and making sacrifices. Our God is a god who can write straight in crooked lines – this means good can emerge from this, with His blessing. It seems in many ways that people have found humanity within themselves once again and that they are caring more about their neighbours now.”
Rev. Fr. Aruna said that there is no point of arguing with fact simply as a show of being spiritual and that the correct thing to do is to identify the sign of the time and live according to the rules.
Following the rules is a massive part of Catholicism. “An example is when Jesus himself wanted to pay the taxes and was questioned about why ‘the Son of God’ was doing so; he told them that everyone must comply with the rules of a government. He stood against injustice, not breaking the law,” Rev. Fr, Aruna said. He then recalled the famous statement made by Jesus Christ: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
He displayed how the Sri Lankan Catholic Church had followed suit, cancelling masses, and also when it came to the recent passing of Archbishop Emeritus of Colombo Nicholas Marcus Fernando. “The funeral was done according to regulations put out by the Government, with a very few number of people in the way they asked us to do it.”
He too concluded, therefore, that there should not be conflict between the faith of the people and the regulations we have to follow at a time like this, and that the religious and scientific worlds can work hand in hand.
Stop pointing fingers and work together
“Religion, of course, can play a huge role in giving people a sense of community, belonging, hope, and even happiness,” shared Sarah Kabir, author of Voices of Peace: “They Were Just Like Us”.
Kabir said that prayers, for example, really do help her calm her mind, and gathering in groups for prayer helps ground us “as each person is standing shoulder to shoulder regardless of what background of wealth you come from. No one can understand what a religious practice might mean to each individual and it is not our right to take away from any human being’s belief or practice – so long as it isn’t harming another. Thus, at a moment like this, where gathering in groups – if even for the most harmless of reasons (to pray) – can spread the virus and threaten the lives of many, it is important to give credence to that.”
“Right now, science seems to be taking over as religious leaders are praying for a quick medicine or vaccine. This is not to undermine religion as I personally strongly believe in one and the existence of something much greater than us. Reading through thoughts put forward by prominent philosophers at a time like this, one could argue on the other hand that science is no longer the beast many humans had faith in. If you told me a year ago that a virus would plague all of Earth, I would’ve replied: ‘Yeah, but a vaccine would be found soon’.”
Covid-19, according to Kabir, should remind us humans of our own limitations. “Paraphrasing from thinkers like Yuval Noah Harari and Hamid Dabashi, this virus might be the reset the Earth needs for all that we humans were plundering from it. It perhaps is a reminder that we aren’t the greatest creations on this Earth. Notice how well nature is doing without us? In fact, perhaps everything on this Earth would do better without us.
“Today, we see humans trying to yet again take credit for the creation of Covid-19, pointing fingers at various religious and community groups for the spread of the virus. Take India and Sri Lanka and how we point fingers at the Muslims; take America and how they attack Chinese immigrants. Covid-19 can infect any human being regardless of their race, religion, caste, class, or even if they are a prince or prime minister. If this virus doesn’t teach us that we are all the same and how interconnected we all are, we will never learn to respect each human being the way we ourselves would like to be respected.”
Kabir added that at a time like this, she hopes we can stop pointing fingers at religious groups as we are all in this together, adding that at the same time, as worshippers of any religion or many religions, now might be a good time to build within us our faith instead of following the same outward practices we used to.
“This is perhaps the best time for reflection. And more importantly, to not put the lives of others at risk. As for science, of course it has improved human lives hundred-fold over the years, but hopefully this is a reminder of human limitations and a reminder to respect and care for our environment and each other above all,” Kabir said.