Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Rolf Wischnath on the Coronavirus Pandemic: The Questioners Are Questioned

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Rolf Wischnath. Rev. Wischnath is an honorary professor at Bielefeld University. He was a reformed pastor in Soest and Berlin. From 1995 to 2004 he was general superintendent for eastern Brandenburg. This article is taken, with permission, from the biweekly magazine "unterwegs" of die Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche (The United Methodist Church in Germany) - number 07/2020 of March 29, 2020. It first appeared online on the EmK’s website. The translation is by UM & Global’s David W. Scott.

In the history of Jewish and Christian religion, epidemics were signs that intolerable things were happening in the people of God's way of life. That is why God, with a fatal illness, executed a punitive judgment against sinners and non-sinners. There is an old word for it: "the scourge of God."

So is the corona pandemic a scourge of God?

If that were true, incomparably worse epidemics in the southern half of the world would be drastic forms of the scourge of God. The Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (German World Hunger Relief) recently sent a letter with a message that everyone could understand: "About every ten seconds a child under five years of age dies from the consequences of malnutrition. Over sixty million children in India suffer from malnutrition."

There is no scourge of God
Jesus gives an example and explains: “Do you think that the eighteen people whom the tower at the pool of Siloam fell upon and killed were more guilty than all the other inhabitants of Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but if you do not repent, you will all perish as well” (Luke 13: 4-5). He ties this to an accident: a tower collapsed at the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem and buried eighteen people under it. According to the understanding of the time, this could not be a coincidence: Such a misfortune could not happen without the will of God. This is so because God determines a man's hour of death. The slain must have done something unforgivable.

"Do you think that the eighteen people were more guilty than all the other residents of Jerusalem?" With only one question, Jesus cuts down the dogma that special guilt leads to special misfortune. There is no scourge of God. God in Christ does not torture and kill. Humans should not question God. Rather, God questions the questioners: "If you do not repent, you will all perish as well."

An unsolvable question
Jesus dares to remove the differences in the question of guilt and set out of bounds accountability for sin among the victims of the Siloam accident. We won't solve the agonizing question of why Almighty God allows Siloam and Corona and so many other mass diseases and mass harms. It cannot be answered. It has never been solved philosophically and theologically.

Jesus also does not answer the question of why the tower collapsed. Therefore, we should definitely decide similarly not to know and to say where the misfortune gets its deadly potency from and why it is able to come into God's world. Given our inability to reconcile God who in Christ loves us unconditionally with the experience of limitless suffering, we should admit that we cannot settle it. We can only ask that God's love carries us and others through guilt and misfortune, through epidemics and death. However, we information-less people longingly expect more: nothing less than the new heaven and the new earth and with them God's answer to so many questions.

About face to engage the world
This hope "for the end" is not a consolation. It is a promise. And it is also an invitation to human care. Christ who came and who is coming gives present strengthening and instruction. Only then does hope prove true. Only after Corona, only one day will Christ's return and the new creation come. That is why the question of why no longer relates primarily to one's own suffering but becomes a question of solidarity with the suffering of others. You are by no means the victim of a scourge of God.

"If you do not repent, you will all perish as well," Jesus warns. Where does repentance happen? First in the turn of humans to God. The penitent begins to trust and obey God in Christ. After that, it consists of turning to others. The penitent begins anew to do his/her part for a world in which the sick will be comforted and illnesses will be treated with sense and understanding. And many, many sufferers - no matter where they come from - need to be better received and nourished, respected and protected by us. And in the foreseeable future, justice and power, wealth and poverty must come to a better balance.

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