Omar Ricci knew the title of his khutbah, or sermon, at the Islamic Center of Southern California would catch some people off guard. “Thank God for the coronavirus,” read the headline, which made more than one Muslim in the audience do a double-take.
When he spoke, Ricci explained what he meant: Thank God for this reminder that we are not in control and must always be dependent on God. Thank God for this reminder that we should be grateful for all things – for groceries, toilet paper, good health. Thank God for reminding us life is fragile, and “we had best appreciate the miracle and blessing that God has given us in creating us as souls.”
As a spokesperson for the ICSC, home to one of the oldest and most prominent mosques in the USA, Ricci is one of many faith leaders around the world helping their congregations navigate the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus, which has killed more than 66,000 worldwide, infected more than 1.2 million and crippled the global economy.
As church services go viral and newsletters promising of God’s goodness throughout this tragedy populate inboxes, questions about whether God created coronavirus – or if it’s God’s will for the virus to flourish or if it was sent as some sort of punishment – abound. Many faith leaders say this is not a punishment, and they challenge their followers to find God even in suffering.
From Ricci’s perspective, coronavirus is not only a test of faith but a “solidifying agent of faith,” he says. “When you’re in difficult times, that’s when you actually get to practice faith.”
He points to the 67th chapter of the Quran, verse 2: “He who created death and life – to test you – as to which of you is better in conduct. He is the Almighty, the Forgiving.”
From an Islamic standpoint, Ricci says, part of that test includes how Muslims react in difficult times.
“The Quran says trials will come and to be prepared for them,” Ricci says. “So how do we react – do we go off and hoard toilet paper? Or do we take care of others? If we know trials are coming, that’s where faith is supposed to kick in.”
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Rabbi Chaim Bruk, co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic Jewish community in Bozeman, Montana, says it's normal in times of heartache and fear to wonder, "How do I get through this and maintain my faith in God?"
For Bruk, it's personal: In Brooklyn, where Bruk grew up, his father and three uncles have all tested positive for the virus (one uncle is in ICU at New York University's hospital in New York City.) Ages 52 to 77, the four brothers are experiencing various levels of illness.
Overwhelmed by the situation, Bruk opened the book of Psalms last week and took a minute to pray. His 10-year-old daughter found it odd, because typically Bruk prays at particular times, as mandated by his religion. She asked what was going on and was everything OK.
“Probably for the first time in my life, I wasn’t praying because that was the order of the day or there was a particular holiday,” Bruk says. “I told her, ‘I need to have this moment with God. I need to talk to him a little bit.’ ”
He had an epiphany then, he says, a startling realization that all he could do, all he could control, were his prayers. He knows that for many, the virus and the accompanying havoc across the globe will result in doubts. That's normal, he says. It's more about what someone does with those doubts.
“I don’t care if you’re the greatest atheist in the world, something of this magnitude requires introspection on some level, and there will be a spiritual component to that,” Bruk says.
“We’ve always said that for every breath we take, we should thank God. I always thought of that as a cute concept, but in the last few weeks, it’s become very real,” he says.
Suffering, he points out, has been experienced for centuries, by people of all faiths, as all religious texts document. If there’s comfort in suffering, Bruk says, it comes from the knowledge that God suffers with you. Although Bruk doesn’t know the why behind this particular suffering – which includes terribly sick people on the brink of death as well as those who have lost their jobs and aren’t sure how they’ll feed their family – he does believe there’s a reason for it. He just doesn’t understand it. He might never get to, either.
“It’s not my job to be God’s lawyer,” Bruk says. “I’m his salesman. I do believe he’s the greatest thing that ever existed, and I encourage people to get to know him without trying to explain what he’s doing or why.”
Why something is happening, and whether it's God's will, is a topic Thomas Jay Oord thinks about a lot.
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A Christian theologian, author and teacher at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, Oord has been busy the past few weeks giving guest sermons via the videoconferencing app Zoom as he tries to answer the question “If God is good, then why does the coronavirus exist?”
There are, he says, a lot of bad answers to that question. When he preaches, Oord explains that there are two types of evils: moral evils, such as murder, and natural evils, such as hurricanes, tornadoes or in this case, the coronavirus. People often respond in one of three ways.
First, there’s the group that says God is “angry about sin or gays and lesbians or whatever,” Oord says, and he’s using a natural evil to punish the world. Oord rejects that view because “God is a god of love, he’s not in the business of doing evil.”
Next comes the group that says God hasn’t caused a natural evil but allows it. If you buy into the theory that God is a god of love, Oord says, that doesn’t make any logical sense. Letting something horrible happen goes against God's nature.
Then there are the people who chalk it up to a mystery.
Oord doesn’t buy any of those. In his teachings, he presents a fourth option: God can’t simply prevent the coronavirus – or any other natural evils – singlehandedly but requires “our participation and cooperation” to fight it, he says. In keeping with his foundation that God is a god of love, Oord says, “I don’t think God is in the business of punishing and harming the most vulnerable, the people on the margins.”
Oord does believe God is omnipotent but not in what he calls "the classical view." God can't make a square round, Oord says, just like he can't contradict his nature, which is good and loving.
That was the message Oord brought to Clackamas United Church of Christ in Milwaukie, Oregon, a Portland suburb. The Rev. Adam Ericksen, who had Oord speak, has been thinking a lot about people on the margins, too. He’s adamant that no matter your belief in the meaning (if one exists) behind coronavirus, “the role of the church in this moment is to make sure no one, including people on the margins, falls through the cracks," Ericksen says.
It’s not lost on Ericksen that this pandemic is spreading and halting normal life as major religious holidays such as Passover and Easter approach.
In Judaism, Passover commemorates the liberation of Israelites, who were led out of Egypt by Moses after God sent 10 plagues to the Egyptians. In Christianity, Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. The joyous holidays acknowledge the deep suffering that preceded them.
“I think the big question here is, how do you give a sense of hope in the midst of this,” Ericksen said. “How do you make sure that coronavirus, and death, doesn’t have the last word? That’s what the resurrection is all about. And now we’re being asked to enact that.”
That some people are so quick to compare the current world to Passover is a bridge too far for Danya Ruttenberg.
Affectionately known as “the Twitter rabbi,” Ruttenberg has been answering questions on social media since coronavirus blew up, often beating back the idea that God is somehow punishing the world by unleashing a plague for the new millennium.
“People want to make meaning in a time of fear, uncertainty and suffering, and that’s totally understandable and natural,” she says. “And Passover is coming up, so people are making those comparisons. But no, I do not think God is smiting us. My theology does not involve a man in the sky with a pair of dice saying, ‘It’s smite-the-people o’clock.' That’s not how I understand what God is.”
Ruttenberg is quick to point out that people have agency and free will, a concept often referenced in the Judeo-Christian creation story about Adam and Eve. People have choices today, too, she says – whether they’re going to self-isolate and practice social distancing or if they’re going to be reckless and let the virus spread.
She finds comfort in a passage from the Talmud, the two-part Jewish text that contains centuries of thought, debate and discussion. In Talmud Brachot 32b, Rabbi Elazar said, “Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked … though the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears were not locked.” The idea, Ruttenberg explains, is that we are always able to cry out to God and that in times of heartbreak, there are still powerful ways to connect spiritually.
Although uncertainty abounds, she can find hope, too.
“I don’t think God caused the coronavirus, but I see God’s work everywhere,” she says. “In every single person who makes the decision to love their neighbor as themselves, in every person who’s staying home even though it’s not convenient, in every doctor and nurse and health care worker who are putting themselves at risk, in every grocery store worker.
“The proof of the holy is a lot of places.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus and God: What faith leaders say about pandemic