Where is God and Grace in All This? An African Theological Reflection on Covid-19
By Odomaro Mubangizi
More than a year down the road with the current novel corona virus, code named Covid-19, there are still many unknowns. In fact, with Covid-19 and the pandemic it has unleashed, uncertainty seems to be more respectable than certainty. Hence, the impulse to start reflecting on the deeper meaning and connection with ultimate reality has been raging all along. This brief reflection responds to the perennial question of theodicy that interrogates the place of God amidst calamities such as Covid-19. At a much deeper level, the question is whether Covid-19 can be a graced opportunity to find God where we least expect the divine presence, power and even free and unmerited gift (grace). As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage, international travel is still heavily disrupted, schools in many places are still closed, and places of worship, regardless of creed, are either largely closed or used with limited capacity. Covid-19 has clearly disrupted how people normally relate with their creator or the divine. So where is God and grace in all this? I will use an African theological framework to respond to this question, since in African traditional philosophy and theology, the sacred and profane are not sharply divided, and religious beliefs form the basis for explaining every phenomenon.
God in suffering and of Suffering
In African theology and philosophy, the question of causality necessarily involves the question of theodicy, since nothing can happen without God’s influence. The Covid-19 pandemic cannot be explained without reference to the Supreme Being many refer at as God. Suffering such as the one caused by Covid-19 cannot be explained without reference to God. For those who think that God is there to eliminate all suffering in our world, the challenge of Covid-19 is even more troublesome. The quick accusation would be that God had failed to keep humans safe from the suffering inflicted by Covid-19. Others of more punitive disposition will quickly claim that this extreme suffering is God’s wrath on the sinful world that has forgotten God and gone about their daily business with impunity. And from an African philosophical theological perspective, the Covid-19 pandemic would be attributed to the anger of ancestors who have been offended by some major transgression of a global nature. A close reading of some sacred texts such as the famous book of Job, informs us that God can seem to be silent when an innocent person suffers terrible loss and pain. The suffering and eventual crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Son of God, is even more scandalous, that God can subject his only begotten son to rejection, suffering and a shameful death. These two lucid examples clearly demonstrate that God can co-exist with suffering, even in its extreme form. Strange doctrine, but it has persisted for millennia and over three billion adherents to the Christian doctrine hold this belief. But what does the suffering caused by Covid-19 reveal to us from an African theological perspective?
First, it is the same meaning that other past sufferings have revealed. HIV/AIDS, Ebola, extreme poverty, exploitation, oppression, tyranny, war, racism, slavery, sexism and colonialism, name them. These forms of suffering only differ in intensity and degree. Covid-19 is but one mischievous sort of global pandemic that has affected all classes of people and all nations on the face of the earth. Its much more global impact has made it a subject of tragic fascination and great attention. A pandemic that locks the high and the mighty in their homes as they attend to global affairs, even the UN General Assembly, cannot be ignored. From an African philosophical theological perspective, evil also has human agency. Among the major human causes of evil are sorcerers who are believed to possess evil power that they unleash on innocent people. Sorcerers are considered to be agents of demonic forces and evil spirits. Even deceased evil ancestors are believed to punish the living with suffering, disease and death, or any other calamity, including natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes. This African cosmology has persisted up today.
Second, Covid-19 has exposed the reality of human vulnerability, regardless of class, social and economic status. Human vulnerability is now fully acknowledged, where all human sciences are stretched to their limits. Even sacred sciences such as theology that studies issues of God, and human destiny are doing some soul-searching. At the same time this vulnerability has brought all people to the same forum of daily reflecting on the meaning and value of life, since all can be lost randomly. Nobody can claim to be immune from some serious reflection, even underage children are busy wondering why they are not at school and why their parents are now locked up at home.
Third, from a social ethical perspective, the key issues emerging are: structural, economic and political power dynamics that govern the world. The world system is on trial. Has Covid-19 probably caught humanity off guard and it is challenging the status quo on how the global economy and politics are arranged? Does the world system have room for God who looks at all humans as children of one heavenly father, who wishes abundant life for all? When Covid-19 challenges the world’s super-powers, does this curve some niche for theologians and so announce a new theology of history that injects in a heavy dose of solidarity, common good and preferential option for the poor and the marginalized, who daily suffer abject poverty amidst plenty? And if these structural causes are a result of human agency, then the intuition of an African philosophical theology is right that evil has some human origin and causality.
Where is Grace in All this?
Grace is briefly understood as God’s free and unmerited gift to human beings. All is gift except sin! So, if Covid-19 can challenge the world to think anew about God, and human relationships, it is an occasion of grace. Have we not heard inspiring stories of courage, where doctors and nurses go to great lengths to help those who are suffering from Covid-19, risking their lives? That Covid-19 brings out the worst and best in us is also true. The corrupt profiteers are also busy making a killing. The opportunistic politicians are also busy manipulating the Covid-19 pandemic for geopolitical interests. Names bring division. The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that have become the new normal, will remain part of the human effort to stay healthy and free from infections that are transmittable. Lessons learnt from Covid-19, even when it has long gone in the not so distant future, will also be used to contain the next pandemic that we are sure will come, as night follows day. Pandemics repeat themselves, with some slight modifications.
One major lesson, and a graced one at that, is the full realization that the globalizers will celebrate the fact that we are one world, tied together with common vulnerabilities. The theology of a global common good and global solidarity that gets expressed in cooperative ventures, direct foreign investment (mainly considered as a trade), aid, trade, humanitarian assistance needs to be more carefully developed, and linked to human survival. This is where the African theology of Ubuntu comes in. It holds that a person is a person because of others, and hence the need for reciprocity, mutual of social grace.
The aspect of social dimension of grace generally overlooked among theologians is what is at stake here. This is the transformative grace that operates in global systems, often times in tension with national interests and corporate greed and profit. If Covid-19 can open up avenues for a more robust theology of social grace, it will have done humanity a great service, even though a painful one at that. Note that Ubuntu, etymologically reefers to qualities of humanness.
So where is God and grace in all this? God and grace are all around us, we only need to sharpen our theological tools to find God in all that goes on around us, even if this might be indeed a tough kind of love, the kind we are not used to. The notion of God who is present in all things, nature included, that is a hallmark of African philosophical theology, is consistent with the Christian conception of grace. This is a new paradigm in the making that Covid-19 is ushering in. As schools begin to open and teachers start to impart knowledge, education on the deeper meaning of Covid-19 should be part of the new curriculum. We are waiting to see what will emerge in this new pedagogy.
The current race to manufacture and distribute Covid-19 vaccines should be looked at from the perspective of Ubuntu global ethics of care, compassion and reciprocity. Covid-19 should awaken a globalization of solidarity, where nobody is left behind. From an African philosophical and theological perspective, all realities are interconnected, and so are all people. Any solution to end the Covid-19 pandemic has to be premised on this fundamental assertion.
Odomaro Mubangizi (PhD) is Dean of the Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he also teaches social and political philosophy.