Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Beliefs and knowledges – Coronavirus, Theodicy and Capitalism
Bartholomew A. Konechni, Sciences Po, Paris, France
More than eleven million people turned to watch Pope Francis give his exceptional Urbi et Orbi address to a deserted Saint Peter’s Square on the 27th March 2020. Not only was it a remarkable point that the Pope should give such an address, for the Urbi et Orbi is reserved almost exclusively for Easter and Christmas celebrations, but also that Pope Francis should make such a candid recognition of the central problem of theodicy in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. As he said, “Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities … we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away”.
Some five days earlier the Archbishop of Canterbury gave his address to a primarily British rather than global congregation, through BBC Radio 4 and thirty-nine local radio stations, in recognition both of Mothering Sunday and the Coronavirus pandemic. Although recognising that “this day is a strange one … when we are torn between our need to keep life going and the fear and imposed isolation that we face”, his sermon struck a different chord altogether. Distant were the apocalyptic warnings of Pope Francis and more emphasised was the importance of remaining calm in the face of adversity. In an age of mass digital communication where the salvific power – as Max Weber would have called it  – of religious leaders can touch millions remotely, it is important for sociology not to ignore and indeed to scrutinise the politics which lie behind the religious messages of these church fathers. In answering the central problem of theodicy – i.e. how can a supposedly omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient God allow evil in the world – these leaders communicate messages which address the contemporary ills of society and what is to come after the pandemic.
In his address, the Pope turned towards the Gospel of Mark for inspiration, and in particular the passage in which the disciples of Christ find themselves caught upon the sea in a tempest . The message for Francis is not that Christ saves his disciples from the storm, for in fact he sleeps through most of the events in this passage, but rather it is that the storm reveals the lack of faith within Christ’s followers. The storm is a passing moment which demands from those who experience it an awakening, a revelation of the ongoing crisis in the lives of humans, and a moment of reflection as to how to bring about change. As Francis commented, “Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste … Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”. Importantly, the Pope did not in his address make reference to the second tempest in the Gospel of Mark, off the shores of Beth-sa’ida, in which Christ would walk on water . Indeed, this is a curious choice, but one which Pope Francis makes clear. For Francis, the moment which humanity finds itself in will not be brought to an end by God, but rather by human endeavour. As the Pope himself made plain, “It is not the time of your [God’s] judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away … It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people … who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves”. As one hears the words of Francis, it becomes increasingly clear that the evil he is reflecting on is not the evil of Coronavirus, rather it is the evil of consumer capitalism. Coronavirus has only left exposed the anomie which such a system produces.
In his sermon, Justin Welby looked instead towards the Gospel of John and the second Letter to the Corinthians to illuminate the current situation. Welby chooses to reflect on the greatest passion of the Christ figure, the crucifixion. Here the disciples find themselves not in peril, but rather they console one another at the loss of Jesus . Similarly, Paul, in starting his second letter to the Corinthians speaks not of danger but rather of the “God of all comfort” . For Welby, God is not playing the role of the social critic or the source of revelation. Liturgically, one may well regard this as a most orthodox choice, especially given that Welby finds himself in the Lenten period in the run-up to Easter. But this is not just a liturgical choice, for Welby communicates a clear and explicit message about how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic through these biblical readings. He says: “In all of the current troubles … looking inwards will only reveal the limit of our own resources, and lead to deeper fear and selfishness … As we share our consolation the mother love of God will enfold them. As we love the poor … we will find that we are deeply consoled by our own gift of consolation.”
For this sitting Archbishop of Canterbury, it is consolation and not revelation which forms the core of his message. Gone are the references to corporate profit and greed which one found abounding in the address of Pope Francis. Rather Welby reflects a message of action without critique, in which introspection and reflection lead only further down the path of crisis. This is not to say that Welby does not address the subject of anomie, but he does not see it as a structural question so much as a problem to be overcome through fostering new relationships at the interactional level. Through a parable of his own making the Archbishop describes how “Someone I know well … posted a letter through every door in her street, inviting people to join her in caring for one another. … Of such small acts of love we make new communities as Jesus did with his mother and the beloved disciple. Of such small consolation we create hope in a time of sickness”. It is in the personhood of Christ in the Gospel of John that Welby finds his model of a simple man who, rather than seeking to change the world, seeks to create a community of mutual support.
The politics of theodicy in the words of these two men cannot be ignored. Through parable, Biblical teaching and interpretation, they both stake out a distinct vision of how to respond to the intrinsically political problem of Coronavirus. On the one hand, there is Pope Francis, who sees the true danger not as the passing tempest of this pandemic, but as the deep-rooted structural problems of a world in the grip of corporate mammon. On the other hand, one finds the Archbishop of Canterbury seeking to solve all problems through a universal and unquestioning agape, which speaks to this moment of isolation, but which sees nothing beyond the eye of the storm. Most importantly, these two men differ in what humanity needs to be saved from. For Francis, humanity does not need to be saved from Coronavirus itself, but it needs to be saved from a social and economic system which allows the afflicted to lie in hospital beds without respirators. For Welby, it is fear in the moment which presents the true danger. This is a fear which drives otherwise calm and collected individuals to stockpile toilet paper in their homes beyond any measure of what they could need. Thus, it is that for Francis critical reflection and change is the order of the day, while for Welby attempting to maintain some semblance of normality and the status quo can be the only compassionate response.
It is often tempting to simply take the position of humbly respecting religious leaders as existing in a neutral and apolitical domain beyond the reach of sociological analysis. But what is clear once one starts to closely read and examine the sermons of both Francis and Welby is that far from being neutral, both men assert radically different narratives of Coronavirus. To ignore these differences is to ignore a chasm opening up in society between those who understand Coronavirus to be a potential moment of change, and those who fear the disease as a threat to their lives. It is to ignore how globally different groups have come to diverse understandings of the evil of Coronavirus, and how from that evil they project a future good.
 Weber, M. (1993) The Sociology of Religion. Beacon Press.
 Mark 4:35-41
 Mark 6:45-56
 John 19:25-27
 2 Corinthians 1:3-7
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