Metz, a German who promoted a “new political theology,” associated interruption with the promise of glory for sufferers and used it to warn against the embourgeoisement of religion. Now, the world is experiencing an interruption that crosses borders and society. The coronavirus knows no boundaries: COVID-19 is a pandemic, a global threat. The world stands still; the world is in fear.
When hundreds of thousands of people die in Africa as a result of famine, when a volcano spews ash and lava in Iceland, when a mtsunami brings suffering and death to Asia, most of the world’s population can watch the events unfold from a distance. Those times are over. The coronavirus pandemic affects everyone. That makes the outbreak a religious and spiritual question. Pain, sorrow, doubt, anger — the faithful have to accept that all those things are possible in God’s creation.
There are some who paint the pandemic as divine retribution. But that speaks of a confused image of God.
Jewish, Muslim responses
Christians all over the world were observing the Holy Week and the celebration of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the Jewish community, Passover began on Wednesday, commemorating the exodus from Egypt and liberation from slavery. And, in two weeks, Muslims will be getting ready for Ramadan.
Across the three religions, the central theme is eating together as a community: the Jewish Seder, for Christians the Last Supper, the Muslim breaking of the fast. This year, the holidays will be marked by interruption. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews are failing to comply with government restrictions. Saudi Arabia is considering canceling this summer’s Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. As difficult as it may be for some, the way religions are dealing with regulations aimed at fighting the coronavirus shows a position contrary to modern-day necessities. In an unprecedented move, chief rabbis have called upon Jews worldwide to adhere to national coronavirus restrictions.
An empty square
The urbi et orbi — to the city (meaning Rome), to the world — blessing that Pope Francis gave on St Peter’s Square at the end of March has been called a defining image of the pandemic by some. The old man prays, pleading to his God. In front of him is a deserted square: symbolic of an empty place left for all the victims and those infected who are fighting for their lives. Even for believers, the situation is serious.
Clergy across the world now celebrate liturgies in front of cameras, and ceremonies are broadcast to followers in a number of ways. Believers, and those who doubt, join in or search out alternatives. They will eat together with friends in a spiritual sense, rethink the ancient scriptures and seek discussion about faith — or a lack of it. The comforting words of years past will not be enough this year. The function of the Church today is in its symbolism, rather than the words.
But there is another word that is important to Christianity: resurrection. Especially these days.
The writer is a journalist with Deutsche Welle