By Welton Gaddy
April 21 at 5:57 PM
“Our world has turned upside down.” Over the past few weeks, I have thought that silently, and sometimes spoke the words out loud. Honestly, that exclamatory statement is relevant to virtually every dimension of our lives right now. And that reality evokes a terribly unsettling mixture of raw emotions.
I have spent most of my life at the intersection of religion and politics, dealing with the relationship between religious institutions and governmental offices. Since the murderous onslaught of the pandemic began, I have been amazed at the raging battle between the medical community’s insistence on the protection of social separation, and numerous clergy’s opposition to the government’s decision that religious institutions, like all other institutions, must refrain from convening large groups of people attending worship services.
Especially among rabid evangelical leaders, pastors have encouraged their congregations to defy both the government and the medical community — and gather for worship faithfully. Earlier this week, a news story broke that muddled both my empathy and reasoning. I am now speaking as a minister of well over 50 years and as a theologian who studiously has read the literature of many religions, examined spirituality, and sought to understand the nature of God, holiness, YAWEH, ALLAH, and other recipients of worship, never thinking I could feel competent speaking about the mystery I find and respect in religion.
Like numerous other religious leaders, Bishop Gerald O. Glenn, pastor of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Richmond, Virginia, insisted his parishioners come to the church house as usual, despite warnings by both the governmental and medical authorities. Glenn said to his congregation, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.” He said that people are “healed” in his church, and their fellowship would be open in violation of safety protocols because he was an essential leader who talks to God.
In that church’s gathering this past Sunday, the congregation was told that their pastor had died a week after being diagnosed with Covid-19. The pastor’s daughter now begged people to take seriously the pandemic assaulting our nation.
Immediately, conflicting emotions clashed in my head and heart. I remembered a woman leaving a church house last week saying, “The blood of Jesus will cover us and protect us from the virus.” I wanted to ask, “What happened?” I know some are feeling, “He got what he deserved.” But I could say neither. I did not and do not want anyone to die. In my most rational moments I know the God I worship favors life; but God also favors wisdom, humility an awareness of humanity, and gives no favor to people trying to play God or to test God or to use God’s name as a way of saying “I am right and others are wrong; look at me.”
Through the years, embedded in the teachings of all great religious leaders, are the trait of care and the practice of healing.
Divinity is not about competition. God does not use stunts to show off power. I still remember Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin condemning Islam and bragging that because we are a Christian nation, our God, his god, is bigger than the Muslim’s God.” But no religion has been spared the touch of this pandemic. The God in whom I believe does not show off to prove divinity. Where there is holiness, safety and health are religious values.
I am sincerely sorry about the death of the pastor. I grieve with his daughter. Three of the pastor’s children, as well as his widow, have now tested positive. At the same time, I have nothing “positive” to say about people who play God, people who use God to prove their supremacy, and people who boast that their God is greater than the God of anyone else.
God is getting a bad name. Can God no longer stop a pandemic? Now politicians show us that God wins and loses elections. Congressional votes claim divine direction whether they lose or win their would-be laws. Scores of people serve God to get rich, but it does not always happen that way. Must we tease God to show our power?
Sympathetic sadness and empathy are what’s badly needed right now, along with sincere humility and active love. None of those essentials require being physically together, And, truth be told, mere physical proximity alone does not guarantee any of them.
Life is difficult enough when we seek to be good human beings. Why in God’s name would we ever think of ourselves as bossing God around, or employing God to give us success? A lot of people, in the name of God, are giving God a Bad name.
And by the way, another name for God… is Love.