‘God’s punishment’ for what, exactly?

If there are, indeed, people out there who genuinely believe that this virus is ‘a punishment from God’… then it follows that we must also ask ourselves, ‘a punishment for what?’

I have to admit it’s been a while since I last sat down to watch an episode of Xarabank; probably over a decade, in fact (which is roughly the time I have been living without a functional TV set to actually watch programmes on).

Nor have I missed the experience all that much. No offence to Peppi, or the rest of the Xarabank team… but I’ve always found their format to be just a little too ‘gladiatorial’ for my liking: almost as though the sole purpose of a discussion programme were to pit as many contrary opinions against each other – with special emphasis on the loudest and most outrageous views imaginable – instead of, um, actually discussing the topic at hand. 

Nonetheless, I find it hard to join the chorus of online disapproval over the choice of subject matter for this evening’s episode: which posits the seemingly antediluvian question, ‘Is COVID-19 a punishment from God?’

For while it does, admittedly, chime in with all the usual criticism levelled at Xarabank over the years… e.g., that the programme is too ‘populist’, and tends to reduce complex issues to the lowest possible common denominator of public opinion (or, in this case, popular superstition)… well, it’s also an undeniable fact that the vast majority in this country does indeed subscribe to the view that God exists; and, more pertinently, that everything within the Universe must somehow be part of ‘God’s plan’. 

Presumably, that also includes viruses such as COVID-19… and all the other killer diseases, viral or otherwise, that have plagued humanity for millennia.

As such, the COVID-19 pandemic also resuscitates an ancient philosophical dilemma that has reverberated endlessly across the millennia: perhaps unsurprisingly, for it is applicable not just to plagues and pandemics, but also to earthquakes, tsunamis and all sorts of other natural disasters – and even to the great imponderable question of all time: why do such things as ‘death’ and ‘suffering’ even exist at all?

At the risk of oversimplification, the dilemma boils down to the inherent difficulty in reconciling one’s belief in an all-loving, all-merciful, all-powerful deity… with the stark reality that the Universe, as we experience it, seems entirely indifferent to human suffering.

And while it is very easy for non-believers such as myself to shrug the question off, by simply removing God from the equation altogether – ‘no God, no plan, and therefore no punishment, QED’ – well, it’s worth occasionally remembering that ‘believers’ constitute not only the overwhelming majority of Malta’s population (and therefore, by extension, of Xarabank’s target audience)... but, like it or not, their belief-system also underpins the entire rationale behind the social structures we have all been brought up in, whether we realise it or not.    

Inevitably, then, the beliefs of others can and do impinge on how the rest of us choose to live our lives. To cite but one example from my own experience: I happen to belong to that generation which lived through the initial outbreak of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, way back in the 1980s.

To the best of my knowledge, the Catholic Church never officially endorsed the view – hugely popular among homophobic zealots, at the time - that ‘AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality’. But that, nonetheless, is what we were taught at school (even if, admittedly, by only one teacher, who may or may not have been echoing official school policy).

Even all these years later, I can still hear the audible gasp of disbelief and indignation that erupted when that teacher uttered those words in class… and such was the impression he made at the time, that I can still even quote him from memory 30 years later: “There is no doubt in my mind – no doubt whatsoever – that AIDS is God’s way of punishing the world for the sin of homosexuality…”

And while some of us rebelled at the idea - and at least one of us went on to relinquish his Catholic faith altogether - well, who knows how many of that class of 12-year-olds will have absorbed the general message, and come away from the experience believing that homophobia was in reality just a manifestation of God’s will on earth? How often was the same lesson used as a justification for bullying, or worse: both on the playground, and also in later life?

Applied to COVID-19, the same premise could give rise to all sorts of other discriminatory attitudes: for if there are, indeed, people out there who genuinely believe that this virus is ‘a punishment from God’… then it follows that we must also ask ourselves, ‘a punishment for what?’

Needless to add, all sorts of evangelical preachers (mostly in the US) have already crawled out of the woodwork to interpret the cause of God’s wrath for us all… and unsurprisingly, most of their answers – as was the case with AIDS 30 years ago – turn out to be nothing more than thinly veiled attacks on vulnerable minority groups.

We have been told (among others, by our very own ‘River of Love’) that COVID-19 is ‘God’s punishment for divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage’. And while it is altogether too easy to deflate such arguments with just a few words (eg: if that’s the case, how do we explain the fact that Iran was singled out for extra punishment… when it actually imposes a death sentence for homosexuality?) the fact remains that this sort of reasoning will inevitably resonate with people who share the underlying prejudice to begin with.   

Then there’s the small matter of racism. Already there is evidence that the pandemic has greatly exacerbated xenophobia targeting Asians in general… on the basis that the virus originated in China (and – let’s face it – even non-racists are likely to assume anyone with Asians features is going to be ‘Chinese’, until proven otherwise.)

This form of racism already exists in Malta… and we know from past experience that it needs very little fodder to sustain itself. But if we also add ‘God’s punishment’ to this already-volatile mix… what can we expect to emerge, if not yet another religious justification for hatred and discrimination, in a country that is already no stranger to racially-motivated violence?

Meanwhile, the question posed by Xarabank may be important for another reason: it can also be seen to divide public opinion, even among adherents of the same faith.   

Naturally, I can’t predict what sort of answer Archbishop Scicluna will come up with on the show as I write ahead of its airing – though I strongly suspect it will be a reflection of Pope Francis’ recent meditation on the same subject:  i.e., that “The worldwide coronavirus pandemic is not God’s judgment on humanity, but God’s call on people to judge what is most important to them and resolve to act accordingly from now on…”

But – and it is a problem that has dogged the local Catholic Church for decades now –Archbishops and Popes do not have an automatic monopoly over the private opinions of all members of their own religion.   

We saw this at the height of the divorce referendum campaign in 2011: when a former Ecclesiastical Tribunal judge emerged from retirement, to contradict Archbishop Paul Cremona on the subject of Christ’s teachings about divorce.   

More recently, there was the case of Fr David Muscat – who publicly embraced what the Church itself described as “ideologies that sow hatred and discrimination on the basis of race or culture” - a reference to his outspoken support for Nazi sympathiser Norman Lowell.

So while the official messages emanating from the Vatican (or its local branch, the Archbishop’s Curia) might, so far, have been along the lines that… ‘no, silly, of course it’s not a punishment from God!’… it doesn’t automatically mean that Church officials placed lower down in the ecclesiastical hierarchy might not be preaching different, if not opposite, views.

This in turn raises a separate question, that is (or should be) of interest to the Church authorities themselves. How much of what we generally term ‘Catholicism’ is, in fact, a reflection of the official teachings of the Catholic Church… and how much of it is dictated directly by priests and other individuals who – unlike the Archbishop, and still less the Pope – have direct, person-to-person influence over their respective communities?

I don’t have answers for any of these questions, by the way. But I do know that I live in a country where prejudice and discrimination are not merely commonplace, but also seemingly endemic; and I am genuinely curious to know how much of this unpleasant reality can, in fact, be traced to religiously-motivated hatred implanted in our collective consciousness over the generations.

So make no mistake: no matter how archaic the question might sound, when phrased in the (typically dramatic) style of a Xarabank teaser…  it has to be asked all the same; even for the sole purpose of determining whether, or to what extent, this frighteningly pagan mindset still haunts the corridors of popular imagination in the 21st century.

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