Religion can be a healing balm for COVID-19’s disruption, if applied judiciously

The robust spiritual response to the pandemic should come as no surprise. But without interfaith solidarity, the help faith offers can be misapplied and drive further death and disruption.

Medical workers cheer and acknowledge pedestrians and FDNY firefighters who gathered to applaud them at 7 p.m. outside Brooklyn Hospital Center, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(RNS) — Coming at the time of year when Christianity, Islam and Judaism celebrate their most sacred periods of fasting and feasting and when Sikhs worldwide gather for Vaisakhi, COVID-19 has changed how we practice our religion just as it has our daily lives. But the pandemic has also caused many people to turn to their ancient traditions to find wisdom and connection. 

For millennia, people have dealt with disasters, whether made by humans or by nature, through the stories and rituals our ancestors adopted in their own times of trial. This past week, who participated in a Passover Seder, in which plagues are recounted, and did not find resonance in our current moment of plague? Who heard the Christian story of an empty tomb and did not feel a surge of hope that humanity will persevere through this moment? Who can listen to the invocations of God’s mercy in times of many crises peppered throughout the Holy Quran and not wonder whether these are such times?

These religious responses have in turn directed many toward collective action: to build mutual aid networks in cities; to locate or make protective gear for health care workers; to advocate for the most vulnerable, including refugees, the internally displaced, the disabled, the economically insecure or the homeless.

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In the face of insecurity and vulnerability, this robust spiritual response should come as no surprise. But when we draw from spiritual wells to interpret this crisis, or our leaders do, the help faith offers can be misapplied and drive further death and disruption.

We’ve already seen the exacerbation of religiously tinged nationalism across the world. In India, Muslims are accused of a murky and nefarious “COVID jihad” plot. In the U.S. and across Europe, old anti-Jewish conspiracy theories are re-emerging, along with swastikas painted on the sides of synagogues. In Pakistan, Shi’ite communities faced backlash as infected pilgrims returned home from Iran.

As the virus continues to spread, it risks deepening divides in societies that have long suffered religious tensions within and between groups. These divisions can stymie attempts to respond to the virus and can prolong suffering.

As noted by the Rev. Stephanie Paulsell of Harvard, while a vaccine against the virus will likely be discovered and disseminated, there is no easy vaccine against racism, xenophobia and religious prejudice.

Except perhaps one: multi-religious solidarity. For decades, global leaders and the United Nations have worked to create interfaith bodies to advocate against exclusionary religious tribalism and contain the contagion.

In a few places, we are already seeing religious leaders and communities rise to the occasion. In Afghanistan, the government convened a commission that includes religious leaders, tasked with looking at the impact of the conflict. Venezuela’s Interreligious Council has joined in calls for hundreds of civil society organizations to come together in dialogue.

In Sri Lanka, religious communities have drawn on their religious teachings to increase awareness of preventive measures to tackle the spread of the disease, while inter-religious groups reinforce government instructions, not least by encouraging the island country’s often warring religious communities to exercise kindness and forbearance as they address the common challenge.

In the Central African Republic, members of Religions for Peace are working with a local inter-religious platform that has sought to mitigate tensions between Christians and Muslims after violent episodes in recent years. In Israel and Palestine, rabbis and sheikhs connected with Mosaica’s interfaith network are coordinating joint public awareness messages that reinforce the directives of public health officials while monitoring and responding to the rising rate of domestic violence.

These are only a few examples. While this kind of action is not a panacea in itself, it is a critical part of the solution. But more multi-faith responses are needed to help contain social disruption and truly transform how we deal with disasters going forward. We should be looking beyond the immediate need for cooperation to build the world we want to see emerge out of this crisis. Amid the heartbreak of this pandemic, there is enormous opportunity for multi-faith organizations to advocate for long-term structural changes to curb the religious, economic and political injustices that the virus has brought into sharp focus.

Let’s hope that the rich diversity of divine expression on display in these recent holidays will inspire us all to come together across religious lines in solidarity. This virus will no doubt devastate our communities in many ways that are out of our control, but how we respond to illness and disruption is up to all of us. A response that uses the power of interfaith solidarity is not optional. It is a divine command. May we heed it.

(The Rev. Susan Hayward, a United Church of Christ minister, is senior advisor for Religion and Inclusive Societies at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Azza Karam is secretary general of Religions for Peace International and professor of religion and development at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. Katherine Marshall is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions for whom the authors work or for Religion News Service.)

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