(Above: Pope Francis prays in an empty St Peter’s Square during lockdown)
The coronavirus pandemic is hitting us in the middle of one of the most important stretches of the calendar for religion. Today is Palm Sunday for Christians, coming up is Passover for Jews and then back to the Christians for Easter. Ramadan is on the horizon for Muslims (a month long observance possibly aided by life in quarantine). It is, of course, the Christians who are causing a ruckus in this country – an evangelical priest was arrested for continuing to hold megachurch services in the face of lockdown orders, Donald Trump has become fixated with getting people into church on Easter, and on Twitter I’ve seen more than one right wing extremist bemoan the fact that churches will be empty on Palm Sunday (ie one of the holidays when lax ass Christians who act holier than thou online actually make it to worship).
There have been other stories, deeply disturbing ones, from across the globe. Russian congregants saying they cannot get sick in church. A woman interviewed saying the blood of Christ makes her immune to the virus. Video of televangelists SPITTING on the coronavirus and demanding its submission to the will of the Lord. In 14 US states religious services are exempted from lockdown restrictions. This, we are told, both by the faithful and those who mock them, is what faith looks like. But to me it looks nothing like faith. It looks like a middle finger directly aimed at God.
There’s a story I like – a joke, really – that I may have written about here before. I come back to it all the time; it’s pretty hoary and cliche, and you’ve probably heard it in some fashion or another. It’s one of those stories that end up in Reader’s Digest, you know? But in the words of Ram Dass, “I’ll take my teachings wherever I find them,” and this dumb joke/story has been a teaching that has been important to me.
A flood hits a small town. John is a faithful man, a man of Christ, and his home is flooded. He retreats upstairs as the ground floor is inundated, praying to God for rescue. As the water comes up the staircase to his second floor he climbs into the attic and entreats God to save him. As the attic begins to get damp he climbs out onto the roof. Eventually his whole house is under water, and John is on the roof. He knows that in his hour of need God will come save him.
As he sits on the roof, a guy in a rowboat comes by. “Hop in!” the rowboater says. “I have room.”
“No,” John replies. “I’m here waiting for God to save me.”
“Suit yourself,” rowboater says and rows away.
Then there’s a rumble – a speedboat comes by. “Hop in!” the speedboater says. “I have room.”
John shakes his head. “I am waiting for God to save me.”
The water, by the way, has still been inching up. John is now up to his neck, even on the roof. As he stands in the deepening water the wind kicks up – it’s a helicopter, buzzing in from above.
“You!” comes the sound of a bullhorn in the helicopter. “We’re here to rescue you. We will lower a ladder – climb on up!”
“No!” John cries up at the chopper. “I am waiting here for God!”
The helicopter buzzes off. The water rises up. John drowns.
Cut to: Heaven. John stands before the throne of God, and to be honest he’s pretty mad.
“Lord,” John says. “I was a devout Christian. I lived my life by your rules. In my hour of need I cried out to You… and You forsook me! You let me drown!”
“John,” God replies. “I sent you a rowboat. I sent you a speedboat. I sent you a fucking HELICOPTER. What else do you want from Me?”
The lesson of the joke is that miracles don’t happen in showy, magical ways. They happen in everyday ways, and if we’re standing around waiting for a hand to reach out of the sky… we’re going to be waiting for a long fucking time.
The idea of miracles being showy and explosive is shared not only by the faithful but the unfaithful. “Where is God now?” the unbelievers will ask, and they won’t want to hear the answer “In the ICU, tending to the patients, wearing makeshift PPE and not getting enough sleep.” And honestly, a lot of faithful won’t want to hear that either – they’ll pray for the virus to go away, but won’t support paying the nurses who are aiding that effort.
I’m not even a believer in God – I don’t buy theism, the concept of a knowable or an understandable being with a personality that controls things – but I do have faith that the answers and hope are being provided, and that we simply have to take action to make it work. The idea of faith being one sided – that you just sit around and good things will come to you – is foolish and small-minded. Faith is about taking action, stepping out into the unknown and believing that whatever happens, it’ll work out.
This isn’t just wisdom found in Reader’s Digest jokes. There’s a Midrash – a Rabbinical textual commentary on the Torah – that talks about this almost specifically. It’s Midrash Shmuel 4:1, and I’ll paraphrase it here:
Two rabbis are walking down the street in Jerusalem with their buddy when they get stopped by a sick man. “Rabbis, how can I get better?” the sick man asks. They give him some prescriptions and he runs off.
The buddy was SCANDALIZED by this. “Who made this man sick?” he demanded.
“The Blessed One,” they replied, because you couldn’t say the name of God so they were always talking around it.
“And yet you think you can intervene in the plans of the Lord?” the man said. “He made this man sick and you presume to heal him?”
“Listen bud,” the Rabbis said. “What do you do for a living?”
“I till the soil,” the buddy said. “Look, I’m carrying my sickle. You know this.”
“And who created the land you till?” the Rabbis asked.
“The Blessed One, duh,” the guy answered.
“And yet you go into the land that is His and you intervene in His plans for it?”
“If I didn’t till the soil and fertilize the trees and water them and trim the branches and weed the lot nothing would grow!” the guy protested.
“Bingo, asshole,” the Rabbis said, knowing they got him. “Just as a tree that is not fertilized and weeded and pruned does not grow, and if it grows and does not drink (or take fertilizer) it does not live and dies, so to the body is a tree—the medicine is the fertilizer and the doctor is the farmer.”
It’s doubtful that any of you really need this, but maybe you have friends or relatives who are planning a quarantine break to go to mass, or to have a family seder or something. Maybe the joke about the flood will help, or maybe the Midrash (which dates to maybe the 11th century, and is certainly compiling teachings and folklore that’s even older) will allow them to see what faith really means in times like these – it’s trusting in the people who know better, the ones with more information and expertise, and realizing the miracle is that we can understand this illness, that we can treat it and that we can take steps to mitigate its growth.
People who are gathering for religious reasons during this quarantine are not celebrating God, they’re telling Him “Fuck you.”
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