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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Losing the human in divine conjecture

On April 14, the New York Times ran a story under the headline, “Pastor Who Defied Social Distancing Dies After Contracting Covid-19, Church Says.” Gerald O. Glenn, 66, the bishop and founder of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield, Virginia, had preached to a few dozen worshipers at his church on March 22, a week after his governor had asked Virginians to avoid nonessential gatherings of more than 10 people. Local media reported that Glenn had said he would keep preaching “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.” He died in the hospital.

Two details of the story arrested my attention. One was that an elder of the church who announced the death said, “The first thing I asked God is, ‘Why?’ The bishop has touched our lives in so many ways.” The other was that Glenn had justified his defiance of the governor’s directive by asserting, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.”

I confess to having laughed at both utterances — at the first because the answer seemed so obvious that it reminded me of the elephant-in-the-elevator joke, and at the second because it struck me as just plain goofy. Yet, both were sincere expressions of faith. They deserve from me some effort at understanding, especially of how one gets from the premise (true by definition) that God is larger than the coronavirus to the conclusion that we should disregard commonsense measures to protect ourselves and others from it.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, affliction has occasioned the construction of theodicies — justifications of the ways of God to humans. Almost invariably, they end in collective self-abasement, sometimes mixed with individual self-exaltation.

Beginning in biblical times and continuing into ours is the association of suffering with sin. The Book of Job was a powerful repudiation of this crude notion, but it endures, I think, because it promises us some measure of control over calamity. If we’re just good enough or faithful enough, we’ll be immune to suffering. Taking this belief to the extreme, small groups of Christians in Appalachia handle poisonous snakes and even, though rarely, drink poison during their church services, citing verses appended at some later time to the Gospel of Mark: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name ... they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.” Deaths from snakebites are fairly common among these folks, and from strychnine invariably.

Then, there’s the understanding that suffering tests our faith, which strikes me as true regardless of what faith one has unless it’s coupled with the belief that God afflicts us for that very purpose. That feature of the Job story is its most troubling element, theologically and dramatically. If humans shouldn’t put God to the test by drinking poison, God shouldn’t put humans to the test by covering us with boils.

Doubtless there are more sophisticated theodicies than these I’ve mentioned. Yet, we’re better off without any of them. Let God — if there is such a reality — be God, and let us be humans, whose moral nature has been formed by affliction. How we respond to suffering, especially to the suffering of others, is the measure of our humanity. Our tears are the ground of our solidarity. Neither politics nor religion should distract us from marveling at the essential decency now on display around the globe.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.