A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: A Good Friday Lamentation: God is dead!

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 11 April) — No one saw it coming! The world was going to face a frightening surprise, but did not see it coming! No one predicted it in a way that could have forewarned all of us and be prepared for the worst that was to unfold!  It of course is COVID 19.

But, of course, there are those who would dispute this. Scott Garceau writing in the Philippines Star insisted that this pandemic was predicted, not just once but three times. First there supposedly the claim of our favorite soothsayer Nostradamus whose prophecy went like this: ““There will be a twin year (2020) from which will arise a queen (corona) who will come from the east (China) and who will spread a plague (virus) in the darkness of night.” Fast forward  to 1981 and a book, The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Kooritz,  was published.  The story concerns a deadly bioweapon called “Wuhan-400” created in a Chinese laboratory that gets unleashed upon the world. And lastly, Garceau turns to American psychic Sylvia Brown whose 2008 book – End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies About the End of the World – made this claim: “In around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments.”

There is also the film Contagion directed by Steven Soderbergh  and released in 2011, with an all-star A-list cast that includes Matt Damon, Marrio Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Laurence Fisburne. The plot concerns the spread of a virus transmitted by fomites, attempts by medical researchers and public health officials to identify and contain the disease, the loss of social order in a  pandemic and the introduction of a vaccine to halt its spread.  There is also the claim that Bill Gates in 2015 insinuated that given the experience with the 2014 Ebola outbreak, another pandemic could happen which would be more devastating than the Ebola and thus the need for the world to be prepared for that eventuality.

Granted these were “predictions” – although perhaps only a miniscule of their followers would have taken these into serious consideration – by and large, it can still be said that no one  imagined the kind of devastation that a virus could inflict on practically the whole of humanity.  There have been pandemics in the past from the bubonic plague (which  was the cause of the Black Death that swept through Asia, Europe, and Africa in the 14th century and killed an estimated 50 million people) to the Spanish flu (the  influenza pandemic  which spread worldwide during 1918-1919 infecting about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population and the number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide).

Considering the advancement of medical science and its quick response to finding a cure to any disease, as well as a more sophisticated technological gadgetry in our medical institutions along with the availability of artificial intelligence in the laboratories, the world assumed that if ever a pandemic rears its ugly head , it could easily be quelled. Or so was our assumption, and naturally, we have all been complacent and did little to develop a system of preparedness in the event it does make an appearance anywhere in the world. It is perhaps this assumption – which could easily have been the mindset of only the underdeveloped Third World countries, but alas we now realize has been also that of  even the advanced Western economies – that caught us unprepared when COVID 19 appeared on the global stage!

Its first appearance which was in China ironically coincided with a happy occasion, just when the Chinese all over the world were going to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  For Christians, the virus that has caused  more infections and death in numbers that are both staggering and frightening  was peaking as they entered into the Lenten season. And now our commemoration of the Holy Week events of our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection coincides with a period when the statistics’ curve continues to rise globally and is not expected to flatten any day soon. If this is not perfect timing to bring us into a somber mood for Good Friday, I do not know what is!

God – that is the son of God, in the person of Jesus Christ – is dead.  God dies on Good Friday while crucified on a cross that symbolized the punishment of subversive criminals! But the phrase – God is dead! – has been used in various other circumstances. A major moment is when the German  philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used this phrase in his writings. Being an atheist most of his life, he didn’t really mean that there was a God who died; instead it was the people’s idea of a God that died. For him Europe no longer needed God as a source for all morality, value or order in the universe as philosophy and science could provide that.

For him, the dawn of the Enlightenment epoch eliminated the possibility of God’s existence.

But I would dare invoke this phrase – God is dead! – in reference to COVID-19. As an anthropologist-theologian, I posit that since time immemorial, humanity did its best to live in peaceful co-existence with the world around them, oftentimes referred to as Mother in their indigenous lexicon.  Ever since the dawn of humanity’s existence, there was always some semblance of an indigenous belief system constituted with the primal belief of Creator Deity and a world of spirits whose abode was in and around their environment which made the whole habitat sacred.

All creatures were interlinked and human beings developed a natural respect for  creation’s integrity; whatever they needed from their surroundings had to be sought via the permission of the spirits which necessitated the conduct of rituals. This explains why despite colonization, westernization and globalization, the remaining indigenous communities across the planet have held on to their indigenous knowledge, skills, practices and spirituality. If it were left only to them to decide what to do with their surroundings, there would never have arisen the phenomena of deforestation,  the loss of biodiversity and eventually global warming.

For the irony – insofar as faith believers are concerned – is that when humanity turned rational with the philosophical and scientific advancement that the Enlightenment epoch brought about, the intellectual elite began to discard many elements of the indigenous belief system. There is no Creator God, the spirit world is a body of superstition and nature is no longer considered sacred. And with the rise of capitalism, nature became the prime target for mass production aimed at a surplus that would amass wealth for those who own the capital which for a long time were colonizers of the West.  To fuel greater productivity that would yield almost unimaginable profits, energy generation became a must which led to the massive use of fossil fuels.  Raw materials that would feed the factories could only be accessed through extractive industries and so exploration of natural resources expanded to all corners of the planet. World wars and revolutions arose causing untold destruction of lives and property when competition for scarce resources and profit distribution could not be resolved peacefully.

So since the late 1700s, humanity went on its merry way abusing Mother Nature and no one seriously raised the alarm until the 1980s when some scientists began to notice that something not very pleasant was taking place in the atmosphere. Eventually there was enough evidence collected to show that the earth’s climactic reality was shifting. They concluded there has arisen a global warming and their warning was that this could lead to a  catastrophe if humanity remains indifferent to this phenomenon.  Pinpointed as the main cause of what then became known as climate change is the immense use of fossil fuels for production and transportation purposes.

When the United Nations began to gather nation-states to climate change summits to discuss how the world can collectively respond to this very important issue, agreements were oftentimes hard to achieve within what would be reasonable limits of the use of fossil fuels. And the ones who were playing the villainous roles in this process were the highest pollutants of the planet, namely the U.S.A. and China.  It has been such an uphill struggle to reach consensus to drastically limit fossil fuel use and to encourage more renewable sources of energy. Even the dramatic plea of the 15-year old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg – despite its wide coverage and popular support – has failed to move the minds and hearts of industrialists and big capitalists. Fully backed up by the elite leaders of their respective countries, they went home after the summits fully convinced that business remains as usual.

They didn’t see it coming! They had no inkling that a virus would soon arise in Wuhan in China at a time when business was at its peak owing to the Lunar New Year festivities. That when it would strike, stock markets would tumble down and some of them would lose billions in a few seconds.  Look at the world today in the time of COVID 19. It has caused untold grief and suffering and as of today there is no way of envisioning when the pandemic will end just like the bubonic plague and the Spanish flu. The curve of the statistical map showing total infections and deaths continues to soar high and there is word that it will take a while before it starts to flatten. It is mind-blowing just monitoring the daily statistics and to think that the highest numbers are those of the advanced and developed countries.  Most affected are of course the poorest among us who need to be out of their homes on a daily basis for work so they could feed their families. And the medical personnel – a big number of whom have succumbed to the virus – who battle it out in the frontlines.

But there is a spark of light in the midst of this darkness that has blanketed the world. Nature has been able to take a break!  Evidence from satellite monitoring shows a tremendous decrease of the earth’s pollution. The sky is clearer, the waters are bluer. In the silence caused by less traffic by land, sea and air, one can hear more the birds sing. And they do sing louder thrilled at the cleaner air. And who knows, if this improves even more, rivers and seas would teem again with bountiful fish and sea products.  We are almost tempted to conclude that this virus is how the earth has taken its revenge against the abusive human beings in a drastic manner. If Mother Nature knows what is best, the present scenario is perhaps a way out of her pain which has lasted for so long. Although one shudders at the thought that humanity only took less than three centuries to destroy God’s creation which had remained pristine for countless millennia.

So who benefits that God is dead? Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]