In scary and uncertain times, many people turn to higher powers—for good reason. Christians like myself pray, meditate, and appeal to the Creator in unique and varied ways, but we must keep in mind that there’s a distinct, important line between magical thinking and prayerful, practical action. Over the next few weeks religious charlatans and some well-meaning people will be fostering magical thinking. Some of it will be relatively harmless; some will be quite sinister.
On the relatively harmless side, there are sentiments like, “God is greater than a virus,” “God is in control” or “this too shall pass.” I get it. We all need to hear reassuring messages at this time—and as a Christian I believe these statements are ultimately true. But we need much more than pious slogans for these unsure and unprecedented times. It’s harmful for Christians to focus so much on ultimate, cosmic truths that we downplay the significance of here-and-now truths.
On the sinister side, predictably, some American pastors blame LGBTQ+ people, abortion, opposition to Trump, or general ungodliness for the pandemic. Other charlatans claim that they can defy social distancing directives because God will protect them with mystical visions or enchanted handkerchiefs. If we’re going to entertain silly explanations like these, we might as well also consider the possibility that COVID-19 is a mummy’s curse, unleashed because some Egyptologists opened a black sarcophagus in Alexandria two years ago.
As the economic and social fallout mounts, expect more of this nonsense. Religious con artists will be working frantically to divert attention from the social and economic implications of the pandemic toward scapegoats and fanciful, otherworldly explanations. Their cults are crude perversions of Christianity in the service of a demonic “free-market” god. And the devotees of this god are dedicated imitators of him. They are money-making entrepreneurs using the language of Scripture, and exploiting humanity’s deep desire for meaning and comfort, to hawk their wares of pure fantasy, group-think and bigotry.
Shockingly, but unsurprisingly, some lobbyists and politicians even schemed to pass legislation to help their friends make a buck off of this tragedy—while doing as little as possible to help the hurting workers of this country.
Of course, the collection plates of these charlatans depend on the ideological and economic status-quo. So rather than call this out, some Christians would rather scream Look over there! Look at the gays, the abortionists, the ungodly, China, the liberal media, magic handkerchiefs, my eccentric visions—anything but that!
What this crisis cries out for is a radical reevaluation and transformation of business as usual both on an individual and social level. It demands that Christians revisit the values that inspired biblical ideas like Shemittah, Jubilee, looking out for the vulnerable, and taking care of the “least of these.”
If we’re not careful with even benign “God-is-in-control” slogans, we risk shaming those suffering from understandable anxiety and dismissing those suffering from even greater crises at the moment.
People are being laid off though their rent is still due. Many small businesses are truly in mortal danger. Some, including schoolchildren, are being forced into all-day quarantine with abusive members of their family. The virus poses a clear and present danger not just to the elderly and those with complicating factors, but also young, “healthy” people as well. There is a great deal about which to be anxious, scared, and worried.
Anxiety cannot just be prayed away or willed away with pious slogans. Nor can the awful circumstances in which many will find themselves. So we ought not add to the burdens of the anxious or scared by piling on religious guilt. Worse, as a result of this theological shaming, people who are actually scared might deny even to themselves that they’re afraid, simply because they don’t want to seem unfaithful.
There’s a difference between being afraid and letting fear dictate actions. It’s absolutely legitimate to respect the awesome destructiveness of this virus. But we need to react appropriately, listening carefully to those whose opinions are based on experienced analysis of data (CDC, WHO, respected epidemiologists), and not to social influencers, Tweets, and Facebook posts. Acting out of fear, which includes hoarding, often makes things worse both for ourselves and others.
Ironically, some of the very same people who proclaim, “God is greater than a virus” also spread conspiracies like “It’s a Chinese bioweapon!” or “It’s a plot to make Trump look bad!” This is not “putting faith over fear”; it’s unleashing more chaos and confusion in the midst of a crisis.
Prayer, willpower, and magic charms will neither whisk away feelings of fear and anxiety, nor shield us from illness. The clichéd doctrines sold by magical thinkers will hold no water in the face of this pandemic’s reality. Rather, Christians should look to the best concrete resource God gave us in the here-and-now: each other. Faith and prayer can inspire us to reach out to others for support, and also inspire us to mobilize ourselves and our society to serve as support for others.