As COVID-19 continued its spread throughout the United States, leaders from the three main Abrahamic religious traditions gathered for a virtual interreligious dialogue, encouraging people of faith to meet the moment with compassion for their suffering neighbors, a renewed trust in God, and a vigilant eye toward justice.
More than two thousand people registered to view Wednesday’s online dialogue, “Communities of Faith and Covid-19,” which was hosted by Baylor in Washington’s Robert P. George initiative on Faith, Ethics and Public Policy and moderated by Cherie Harder, President of the Trinity Forum.
“We don’t know why God permits suffering,” said George, the McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence at Princeton University and Distinguished Fellow in the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.
“Rather, it falls to us to say how we can meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, how we can serve those who are suffering.”
Referencing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., George added that the Christian tradition sees undeserved suffering as redemptive as “we unite ourselves by our acts of will, our acts of faith, our acts of hope and charity, to the redemptive suffering of Christ.”
Dr. Cornel West, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, explained that in the absence of answers about why people suffer, humans are called to “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with their God.”
West said It is also a time to “fortify ourselves to be of service in solidarity to respond to the suffering, attempt to alleviate as much of the suffering using the best scientific weaponry of fallen human beings such as ourselves” as a way of witnessing to God’s love and mercy.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, President of Zaytuna College and Co-President of Religions for Peace, said that the Qur’an is clear that “tribulation is part of life on earth” and that Muslims believe that it is in these times of tribulation that people grow to appreciate what they have.
Less willing than George and West to set aside the “why” question regarding suffering, Yusuf explained that “the Prophet was asked about plagues” and had taught that “they were an invasion of the unseen world upon you” but that “they’re a mercy for believers.”
Turning to a 14th century book, The Virtues of Plagues and Epidemics, Yusuf highlighted three types of blessings in moments like this one: “It could be worse, it’s in your worldly matters and not your other-worldly matters, and it’s in this life and not the next life.”
Representing the Orthodox Jewish community, Dr. Daniel Mark, Assistant Professor of Politics and Religion at Villanova University, argued that “especially because we don’t know why, we have to take every crisis as a call to repentance.”
He then brought up a recent New Yorker cartoon that depicted Vice President Mike Pence telling an audience that the best protection is washing hands and repentance. “For half the country, that’s a punchline, but for the other half of the country, that’s an absolute truth,” said Mark.
For each of the four panelists, the current public health crisis presents an opportunity for people of faith to refocus on what matters most.
“Our Prophet said if you wake up in the morning, don’t expect to see the evening, and when you go to sleep at night, don’t expect to see the morning, because we’re all in a state of uncertainty,” said Yusuf. “The point is to be vigilant, be aware that life is temporal and it’s very fragile, and we have to really appreciate it while we have it and be grateful for it and honor it in others.”
Similarly, Mark drew on the insights of a rabbi who recently said that the crisis is not placing us in radical uncertainty but unveiling the radical uncertainty that is part of everyday life.
“On the ground, in the Jewish community that I’m a part of, there’s really a message of this crisis as an impetus to redouble our trust in God and to recognize that the deep anxiety and uncertainty we feel now is something we should carry with us all the time so that we’re constantly reminded of how deeply we depend on God for every moment, for every breath, for every beat of our heart,” added Mark.
West pointed out that now is the moment for people to prove themselves by their fruits, showing the world that people of faith are concerned about something other than the “dominant ways of the world” such as “worldly success, obsession with status and money, and accommodation to unjust status quos.”
“Whether we meet this challenge, of course, is still an open question, but it becomes an occasion for us to show these genuine fruits of our trust in God, our love of justice, our concern about mercy, our willingness to acknowledge when we’re wrong, and most importantly, the ways in which we can fuse forms of solidarity rooted in a love that is bigger than each and every one of us,” added West.
George described this recalibration in terms of a shift from what New York Times columnist David Brooks has referred to as “Curriculum Vitae values” to “tombstone virtues,” explaining that Curriculum Vitae values like academic success and career prospects are secondary and that what matters more are “faith, family, virtue, solidarity with others, and compassion.”
Running throughout the conversation and the audience question period that followed were concerns about specific matters of justice as the virus strains families, government, and health care systems.
George warned that while a story of an older individual choosing to sacrifice her ventilator so that a younger person can survive shows Christ-like sacrifice in the face of scarcity, it also should serve as a warning. “I do not want the government or the healthcare system to discriminate on the basis of age or disability, and I think there’s going to be a lot of temptation to do that, to involve ourselves in that kind of invidious discrimination,” he said.
Both Mark and West referred to the challenges that individuals living paycheck to paycheck are facing in the midst of the crisis. Mark highlighted the witness of faith communities’ willingness to step up and make sure that these people’s bills can be paid, noting that religious communities are probably “the best at doing that, at rallying together to meet the needs of people in times of need, in times of crisis.”
West highlighted this “fact that almost 40 percent of our fellow citizens live check to check” as evidence that hesed – a Hebrew term that roughly translates to loving kindness – has not been at the center of our souls or our society even prior to the COVID-19 era. He called for people of faith to “put primacy on the moral and spiritual so we don’t degenerate into partisan noisemaking.”
“The question becomes how do we become more morally and spiritually vigilant, to generate some political consequences – and by political I’m not talking about Democratic or Republican parties, I’ve got critiques of both of them – I’m talking about public interest, common good, forms of solidarity that have moral content and spiritual substance to them,” he continued.
“That’s the only way to keep alive fragile experiments in democracy” added West. “There’s no democracy worth talking about without healthy public life, common good, moral and spiritual dimensions that keep track of our humanity as opposed to other identities that we might have.”