Sincere reflection amid unprecedented closures, conspiracy theories
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Who would ever have imagined a virus could bring similar responses from so many world religions? And yet in recent months most religious leaders worldwide – despite enormous theological, ethical and social differences – have joined hands (well, not literally) to ban public religious gatherings.
The Vatican closed St. Peter’s Square and Basilica to tourists in early March, and Catholic churches ceased offering public Masses soon after. Most churches, mosques, synagogues and temples in Canada, the U.S. and Europe stopped public worship by the middle and end of March. The Ecumenical Patriarch, based in Turkey, ordered all Orthodox churches worldwide to cease services.
Muslim authorities in Saudi Arabia have curtailed pilgrims making their way to Mecca and Medina. Buddhist leaders cancelled major celebrations across South Asia. India, largely Hindu, was in lockdown at press time.
The leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses mandated that their Memorial service of the death of Jesus would be on the web only. Salt Lake City’s Latter-Day Saints apostles decreed that the 30,000 Mormon congregations across the globe were forbidden from holding public worship.
Quite a show of unity, yes, but not absolute. In March some Muslims in Iran stormed various closed shrines to perform longstanding rituals. Videos of adults licking the gates went viral. Some Muslim leaders in Pakistan have refused to close mosques and a few ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups in Israel have kept their synagogues open. The famous Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, and some Shinto temples in Japan remained open though the beginning of April, though attendance was sparse. As of Easter a handful of Christian churches in North America had defied closure orders.
The panic about COVID-19 has also fuelled religious bigotry in some places. Many members of Shincheonji, a new religious movement in South Korea, have been bullied, beaten or fired – scapegoated as the cause of that country’s outbreak. In other parts of the world Evangelicals have received negative attention – consider the original title for Katherine Stewart’s recent hit piece in The New York Times, which was “The Road to Coronavirus Hell Was Paved by Evangelicals.” Wow.
The uncertainty about COVID-19 is a perfect context for conspiracy theories. Various anti-Semitic leaders have stated the virus was created by Israel to kill its enemies and that Israel holds the cure, but won’t share it. Others argue the virus comes from America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that Bill Gates and other globalists are using the virus for nefarious purposes.
As well, the plausible theory that the virus originated in China is being spun to scapegoat all Chinese, an example of bigotry condemned by President Trump, even as he and others (including Johnnie Moore and Rabbi Abraham Cooper) condemn the Chinese government for duplicity about the virus. Let’s not even get into what Neo-Nazi and Muslim terrorist groups have been telling their followers.
WITHIN A FEW MONTHS CASES OF THE VIRUS HAVE SPREAD THROUGHOUT THE WORLD, RESULTING IN A GLOBAL PANDEMIC, WITH GOVERNMENTS AND NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICES STRUGGLING TO MEET THE CRISIS
Thankfully, these examples of hatred and bigotry are outmatched by billions of religious and nonreligious people responding in love and care toward fellow humans, especially those most vulnerable.
Popular writers on Christian prophecy, as you might expect, see the virus as a sign of the end times. Roger Barrier suggests COVID-19 might be “ushering in the Antichrist’s one-world government.” Hal Lindsey, known famously for his book The Late Great Planet Earth, has a video on his website from Tom Gilbreath announcing “5 Ways COVID Fits Prophecy.”
Beyond the debatable prophetic angle, COVID-19 has created an opportunity for overall theological reflection. Evangelical Christian leaders in Canada joined other religious leaders in offering a stirring message of Hope, Gratitude and Solidarity. Beyond this, individual Evangelicals have provided careful reflection on the pandemic.
I think here of Francis Collins, Daniel Harrell, Matthew Lee Anderson, Emmy Yang, Michael Brown, Ravi Zacharias and Anne Graham Lotz. Their consistent message is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the sole eternal anchor in any storm, a truth especially poignant for Zacharias and Graham Lotz since they both have been recently diagnosed with cancer. Pray for them and our besieged world.
James A. Beverley is research professor at Tyndale University. His new book God’s Man in the White House: Donald Trump in Modern Christian Prophecy is now available at Castle Quay Books and other booksellers.