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On pandemics and providence

Avoiding simplistic interpretations of deadly disasters

Influenza victims at an emergency hospital at Camp Funston in Kansas, 1918. National Museum of Health/AP

On pandemics and providence
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March 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish influenza in America, but the virus left no part of the earth untouched. An estimated 50 million or more people died worldwide. According to historian Howard Phillips, influenza stole 6 percent of the population of South Africa in six weeks.

Many pastors there and elsewhere declared the pandemic a divine retribution for sin. Whether they blamed drunkenness, poor church attendance, general wickedness, or war, sin caused the pandemic.

Those pastors were not the first to offer a simplistic one-to-one correspondence between sin and calamity. Disease decimated Native Americans in 17th-century New England. Why? God favored the Puritans. So said Cotton Mather. The Confederacy fell to ruin after the bloodiest war in American history. Why? God hated slavery. So said Henry Ward Beecher. Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, hitting the poorest neighborhoods the hardest. Why? God opposes homosexuality. So said John Hagee.

From diseases to wars to natural disasters, Christians cannot resist offering simplistic explanations for complex events. No sooner does an earthquake rattle the ground than we forget Isaiah 55:8-9: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God’s providence suffers no easy answers.

Laymen also tried to calculate the Spanish flu’s terrible math. Katherine Anne Porter survived it and translated her experience into Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The novel pits human graft, politics, inhumanity, war, and the expectation of death against the bonds of human love. Pale Horse captures America at its bleakest—a country at war, whose diminishing political and economic hope merged with disease to enforce a fatalistic submission to the Pale Rider.

And yet Porter also hints that human love survives death. She offers redemptive themes but no simplistic correlation between the pandemic and the actions of God. The providence of God remains mysterious.

Christians balk when celebrities such as actress Jennifer Lawrence imply that Hurricane Harvey points to “Mother Nature’s rage” for the election of Donald Trump. But many of those same Christians accept equally simplistic pronouncements from pastors and Christian celebrities. The Lord’s rebuke of Job’s counselors still applies: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right.” What had these faithless counselors said? They drew a one-to-one correspondence between Job’s calamity and the Lord’s actions. In short, they lied about God.

Nearly 675,000 Americans died in 15 months during the pandemic. As much we’d like to know why, we don’t. When the next calamity befalls our nation—whether war or waves or pestilence—many preachers across this land will likely draw a simple line between sin and calamity. They would do better to remember the words of William Cowper:

“God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.

“Deep in unfathomable mines Of never-failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs And works His sov’reign will. ...

“Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.”

Few calamities more thoroughly confounded human understanding than the crucifixion of Jesus. It seemed an irreconcilable contradiction that the Messiah should die. Then Jesus rose, and by His resurrection the Father explained the inexplicable.

When God Himself interprets His actions, Christians should believe and worship Him, even amid calamity. When He does not, honesty forbids speculation and faith demands silence.

Russell St. John Russell is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and holds several degrees, including a Ph.D. from the London School of Theology. He covers religion and the church for WORLD. Russell resides in St. Louis.


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