COVID from historical, literary, political, ecclesiastical, and Bible perspectives. An eclectic mix from a Canadian viewpoint that produces surprising results.
History has a lesson of repeating itself and COVID is no different. Each plague unearths a new set of social problems that need address. There comes a point where history cannot give all the answers. Contemporary society is forced to make difficult but necessary changes within their particular context while avoiding the dangerous pitfalls on the way.
The goal here is to briefly touch on the history of pandemics through historical literature including the Bible, explore theological questions, and arrive at some political realities.
Table of Contents
There usually is a precedent in history for almost anything that is happening today. There are only a handful of good accounts from the ancient records to build a full framework from a religious or historic literary perspective.
Out of curiosity with the information at hand, the author is challenged to at least try and make some meagre connection.
Perhaps, a parallel is the plagues of Egypt, where it was a story of pride and oppression. Their leadership resisted necessary change, even to the point of death. Today, one could insert the poor, a race, gender, or the disabled for the Israelites, and the Government for Pharaoh. However, this connection is tenuous.
One could ponder about the Mosaic Law, the basis of the first five books of the Bible, and where the Ten Commandments are found. The Mosaic Law had a fixation on bodily purity, which takes on new meaning with COVID. The Mosaic Law stipulated anyone with a particular disease, sickness, or bodily imperfections were to isolate themselves outside of a city. An examination reinstated the person by a priest. With no knowledge of bacteria, germs, or anything close, they were on to something. Three thousand four hundred years later, we are still struggling with isolation rules and getting it right.
Another perspective is the religious moral high ground. COVID is a bad omen against humanity, and the counter is to living a just and holy life. A church writer named John of Ephesus recounted the bubonic plague (alternatively known as the Black Death) that first inflicted Alexandria, Egypt, and then Constantinople in 542 AD. He wove a cautious story about the chastisement. Within his narrative, he wrote the agent and purpose of the plague was a severe judgement which he called chastisement. “Such was the message of that angel who was ordered to fight people with this scourge until they should spurn all matters of this world—if not of their own will, then against it—so that everybody who might incite his mind to revolt, and still covet things of this world, was by him quickly deprived of life.”1
The Venerable Bede echoed a similar sentiment. He was an 8th century English Benedictine Monk who lived in a region previously called Northumbria (North East England). Bede recounted a plague that happened to England in the 5th century. He blamed the plague on people turning their backs on God and living a life of luxury, deceit, drunkenness, violence, and a few more negative human traits.2
Some may argue a greater commitment to the poor, better sanitation, hygiene, isolation, and a healthier social system is the answer. We know that these would go a long way to postponing or delaying a virulent disease but does not prevent it.
Any analysis through a historic Christian perspective has to refer to the thirteenth-century theologian, philosopher, and teacher, Thomas Aquinas. He is one of the most brilliant Christian thinkers ever.
Dawn Eden Goldstein, author of, Would Thomas Aquinas wear a mask to Mass? for the America: The Jesuit Review believes Aquinas would teach us to endure the pain rather than fight it. We are “to stand immovable in the midst of dangers rather than to attack them.” Aquinas’s advice is a good one that should be applied today.
But there is another dimension that Aquinas addresses in an indirect manner. What is a plague? People did not understand diseases well in his time and were quick to blame it on spirits, moral character, or other entities. Aquinas did not jump to such conclusions. He would likely order this in the laws of nature. He may suspect many in society would list plagues in the order of the supernatural because of ignorance. It is misclassified as supernatural because they do not understand its natural origin or its spread.
Those people who ascribe such a phenomenon solely to the religious or moral realm naturally shift it to the realm of fear and blame.
A glance at a plague reference in Jewish literature shows an important reminder about the devastating effects of fear and blame. Deborah Camiel, “a news and documentary producer in Los Angeles,” discovered this aspect while researching the bubonic plague in the 1300s:
In those desperate days, even if Jews escaped the bubonic plague, they often met with another brutal fate. Early in the outbreak, accusations circulated that they were poisoning wells to cause the plague. Thousands were tortured, burnt or beaten to death in pogroms that swept through what is present-day Spain, Germany, France, and Switzerland. The wave of violence exterminated more than 200 Jewish communities, large and small.3
On the other hand, fear of disease has moved whole communities to positive change.
One example was when cholera reached the shores of England around the 1830s. A historian, W. W. Knox, explains cholera’s devastating effects and how it motivated essential structural social change.
What made cholera induce social panic was its deadliness; 50% of those who contracted the disease in 1832 died. Another reason was the fact that it struck at all social classes. Other diseases such as tuberculosis and typhus could be dismissed by the middle classes as the result of filth and squalor and could be interpreted as a punishment of God. Cholera could not as it affected the virtuous and immoral alike. However, finding a cure for killer diseases proved difficult due to the disagreements among doctors as to the causes of disease.4
The leaders learned from the experience that substandard living conditions for the poor concomitant with tainted water, poor hygiene, overcrowded homes, and lack of health care were problems. Serious changes in poor laws and sanitary conditions followed.5
The polio outbreak in Canada in the mid-1900s is another example. The devastating effects throughout Canada, and especially on children, fostered the consolidation of universal health care.
Society is ever-changing, and history has few parallels in the past with what is happening today. The internet never existed. Breakthroughs include identifying the atom, discovering viruses and bacteria, creating penicillin, mRNA, and more. These are new concepts to humanity.
Institutional Church Hesitance
There are a number of church institutions and movements wary about the vaccine for different reasons.
The larger influence is among Pentecostals and Charismatics who originally sprung from an anti-medicine legacy. One has to go back into history to understand their tentativeness. Many Holiness and early Pentecostal leaders rejected medical intervention and promoted the sole dependence on the Great Healer. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the popular faith healer, Alexander Dowie, was an important figure in this doctrine. He started a city from scratch called Zion (a city that geographically middles between Chicago and Milwaukee). One of the fundamentals of his new community was no medical institution, physician, or pharmacy. Charles Parham considered one of the foremost pioneers of the Pentecostal movement, also promoted faith only. Although most Pentecostals and Charismatics have shed such an extreme, a modified view exists – faith first and science where necessary. Probably more so in the Charismatic world than the present Canadian Pentecostal one. It is doubtful that Canadian Pentecostals, especially the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, promote a conspicuous program of faith healing. Regardless, the thought of faith first, along with apocalyptic angst of too much Government control, has seeped into many segments of the Canadian Christian religious world.
A contingent of South American Mennonite Canadians reject the COVID vaccine for an entirely different reason. They are particularly concerned about Government encroachment. They are downright scared and sometimes quietly express it, flaunting COVID regulations. Their concern is legitimate, but they have chosen the wrong vehicles to express their displeasure.
Is COVID a Judgment by God?
History has shown that humanity has not become better or worse over the last 2000 years. It would be inconsistent for God to all-of-a-sudden change course and choose this moment in time against the greater atrocities resulting from the various wars and inhumanities over the centuries.
Nor is there anyone alive today who has the authority to speak on behalf of God and affirm whether COVID is a judgment unleashed by God.
Perhaps, God has left humankind to their own devices and refused to repair the injuries that we have done against each other and this planet. In short, He has left us to suffer the consequences of our actions. COVID is one of many growing symbols of our recklessness that God has decided not to intervene and restore.
Historical literary and theological reflections are inadequate to complete the narrative. The situation forces a move to contemporary political ideology. This section is lengthy and does not fit nicely in the above narrative. It is an attempt to describe for a general reading audience the Pentecostal/Charismatic and Conservative Christian perspective of contemporary society. They raise serious concerns though they are draped in religious vernacular. The following removes the religious jargon and demonstrate the underlying concepts.
COVID has revealed our lack of balanced media. The internet truncated our professional journalists who traditionally counterbalanced the Government. Their analytics and investigations uncovered the truth and spin. The absence of this medium has left a vacuous hole in the Canadian grassroots and has left citizens vulnerable to whatever message the Canadian Government chooses to bring. In the case of COVID, Canadians are confused with this absence. This circumstance has forced many to seek alternative views found on the internet or underground sources.
In comparison to the President of the United States, the Prime Minister’s office in Canada has much more power and skews our understanding of current events. The Canadian political system is a democratic autocracy. Every eight years Canadians choose a new autocrat. Sure, there are elections every four years, but the people usually only vote out an entity in the fourth year if they are awful. Bills and orders are processed and enacted in the Prime Minister’s office or his cabinet in secrecy. If it is a bill, Parliament and its debates are just window dressing. It makes little difference. So, if the Government decides an action on COVID, whether right or wrong, it is the way it is going to be. The PMO, with its spin doctors, can shape how we think, feel, and react.
The younger Canadian generation has thoroughly accepted the Government mantras on COVID, while the older one is apprehensive. The older generation recalls the many examples that give caution. One reminder was the public fear about getting AIDs through the transmission of a toilet seat. Being in a room, within a distance of anyone, or worse yet, associating with anyone having AIDS was taboo. Older Canadians recall these wrong actions and are hesitant to repeat a similar mistake.
Some can recall the 1992 referendum to the Charlottetown accord that ceded certain rights to Quebec to secure their place in the Canadian system. The Government and the media colluded with a campaign to vote yes and gave grave pronouncements if the vote was no. The feelings and emotions were strong. The referendum also brought up similar tensions of race, equality, and change that COVID has similarly inspired.
The general public remained quiet on their convictions out of fear of countering the media campaign. There was little reflection on the national conscience by the media leading up to the vote. The Canadian response in the referendum was no. In the end, the dire prophecies of Canada’s downfall, especially by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, did not occur. Both the media and the Government were surprised at the grassroots reaction. They did not understand how they failed even with such significant threats.
On the other hand, the younger generation sees the Government working towards a utopia that is free of the exploitation, abuses, and prejudices of the previous generations. An exciting and just future that the next generation and present politicians must plan carefully. Safeguards are necessary at every stage to avoid too much Government control.
Recently, the Government has introduced legislation to control or restrict information through broadcast media, including YouTube, Facebook, or similar. It is very concerning where we are heading as a society.6
And then, one can factor in the Google algorithm, Facebook, and many others, that design information that suits your bias and does not generate a comprehensive worldview for the reader to pay attention.
That, too, is dangerous.
One can assert that the most powerful entity in Canada is the medical system. 40% or so of all taxes collected go to it. Right now, health directives can override regular Canadian Law and the Charter of Rights. There are no clear boundaries to how far the powers the Government and the Medical Health authorities can exercise this authority. This circumstance is very concerning.
On the other hand, Canadians find doctors and scientists the most trustworthy figures. In an era where there lacks any social, moral, or ethical compass, Canadians look to these people for stability.7
Even when the pandemic is over, and introspection begins, Canadians have to wait for an internal audit by the medical community. The Toronto Star headlined that an inquiry should occur with international oversight. However, the Government has remained non-committal.8 This process will take years to separate fact from superstition. Haec, experts, and historians took over 500 years to solve the origin and cause of the bubonic plague.
The nature and effects of COVID are massive. So big that no one person or institution can explain the cause or repercussions. Armchair medical experts and politicians find easy solutions, but those deeply embedded into the problem are still scratching their heads.
The underlying theme between COVID, the Government, and clusters of some Christian groups and individuals is concern over too much Government interference. It is a legitimate concern. Those who are religious, and public citizens in general who have similar thoughts, must take the COVID vaccination request seriously. The benefits outweigh the risk. No different than a flu shot. However, not taking the vaccine, for whatever reason, strengthens the Government’s resolve to reduce the rights of Canadians. The more people that take the vaccine, the less power the Government has to wield absolute control.
History demonstrates that neither should we have a knee-jerk reaction and blame a class of citizens, a race, religion, or political orientation for the COVID crisis. As Aquinas asserted, if we cannot understand the problem, we need to endure until the crisis is over.
- https://www.scran.ac.uk/scotland/pdf/SP2_3Health.pdf Page. 3
- https://www.scran.ac.uk/scotland/pdf/SP2_3Health.pdf Page. 4
- (1) Ottawa’s move to regulate video posts on YouTube and social media called ‘assault’ on free speech ; (2) The Canadian Government’s Bill C-10 has opened the door to serious state regulation of the internet; (3) Bill C-10: An Act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts
- Josh Cobden, Executive VP of Proof Strategy as interviewed by Geoff Currier. May 13, 2021. See also Trust and the Pandemic. CanTrust Wave Three Update Study May 2021