April's holy days open our eyes to the need for love during pandemic

April's holy days open our eyes to the need for love during pandemic
© Getty Images

Innocent suffering. As the Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist traditions celebrate major holy days this month, the question of why the innocent suffer is at the forefront of each commemoration. And little wonder.

All over the world, people of every faith and non-faith are suffering and dying in the thousands, many of them alone.  

Families are saying their goodbyes through barriers or via FaceTime. Last rites are being administered from behind surgical masks, if at all. Living rooms where families should be sitting shiva are empty. Priests and ministers preach to empty chapels, their words livestreamed to remote congregations. The magnificent Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City was considered for a makeshift hospital for coronavirus patients.

ADVERTISEMENT

Where I live, in New Jersey, there are echoes of 9/11, when everyone seemed to know someone who had passed, or who had lost someone. The difference is that this time multiples of the 3,000 lives lost on 9/11 will be taken; this time the families are grieving largely alone.    

At few times in human history has the need for the comfort of religious community been so acute, but at the same time so difficult — even dangerous — to achieve. But quite apart from communal rituals, the world’s major religious traditions offer a rich literature of consolation for times of innocent suffering.

Buddhism, which commemorated its founder’s birthday on April 8, begins with Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s insight that life is suffering, and that only spiritual enlightenment can free us from this essential condition.

The fasting, other forms of abstinence, and performance of good deeds during Ramadan, which Islam will observe later this month, are intended to bring, according to Shawaz Ghulan Yasin of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, “a unique sense of mental peace … something that takes a man away from this world for some moments, when he feels God’s presence with him.”

The Judeo-Christian tradition, which celebrates the holy season of Passover and Easter this week, gives us two compelling images of innocent suffering: Job challenging God in the depths of his despair, and Jesus dying abandoned on the cross.

ADVERTISEMENT

Job, a man who was “a perfect and upright man, one who feareth God, and escheweth evil,” becomes a paragon of innocent suffering when, despite his virtue, his lands and possessions are taken away, his 10 children are killed, his wife leaves, and painful boils appear on his flesh. Outraged, Job calls out God: “Oh, that I knew where I might find him … I would order my cause before Him and fill my mouth with arguments.” 

God never answers Job’s challenge. Instead, He speaks “from the whirlwind” of powers far beyond Job’s comprehension:

                       Where wast thou
                       When I laid the foundations of the earth? …
                       When the morning stars sang together
                       And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
                       Hast thou commanded the morning?
                       Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea
                       Or hast thou walked in search of the depth?
                       Have the gates of death been opened for thee?
                       Canst thou bind the sweet influences
                       Of the Pleiades?

This vision of the universe’s vastness has its desired chastening effect. Job admits having “uttered that I understood not: Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. … Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent.”

Today’s universe is, if anything, more dazzling but also more daunting than the universe God revealed to Job: sunspots four times the size of Earth; a volcano on Mars that is twice the height of Mount Everest; a centuries-old cyclone on Jupiter three times the size of Earth; asteroids that zoom past our planet, portending extinction if they strike; viruses that mutate incessantly and threaten to consume species with no developed immunity to them; the incomprehensible imagery beamed back from the Hubble telescope of uncountable stars, innumerable galaxies; and Earth itself, a mere dust mote in the last image sent back by the Voyager spacecraft before it turned to leave our solar system.                        

What is the measure of a human life against the backdrop of such enormity, such overwhelming beauty and terror? The poet Archibald MacLeish’s retelling of the Job story, “J.B.,” ends with the return of Job’s wife. After he tells her that he has seen “the wonder and mystery of the universe, the searchless power burning on the hearth of stars,” she tells him why she left:

                        You wanted justice, didn’t you?
                        There isn’t any. There’s the world …
                        Cry for justice and the stars
                        Will stare until your eyes sting …
                        Cry in sleep for your lost children,
                        Snow will fall …
                        Snow will fall ...
                        I couldn’t help you anymore.
                        You wanted justice and there was none —
                        Only love.

Love is also the answer to innocent suffering proffered in the New Testament’s account of the life of Jesus. One need not ascribe divinity to Jesus to be nonetheless moved by the story that God took human form to preach a ministry with the simple commandment that we love one another, “turn the other cheek,” “love thine enemies.” He then underscored the need for love in the world by exposing his Son to hate, allowing him to be betrayed, tortured, mocked and crucified with spikes through his hands and feet, leaving him broken, crying for his mother, crying at the last, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The COVID-19 pandemic occurs at a critical point in the history of our understanding of the universe. I believe that in all of our endeavors to gain understanding, from our different religious beliefs to our pursuit of scientific knowledge, we have been climbing the same mountain but from different sides. Our mountain can look completely different depending on where you begin your ascent; it can be dark and ice-covered, sunny and sheer, sloping or vertical. But it’s the same mountain, and you will begin to see that as you approach its summit.

Our great traditions are right. There is no justifying innocent suffering. But it can be redemptive.

In the vastness of creation, from the top of our world as we stare into the whirlwind, our lives have only the value that we give them. We have only each other. We are left, forsaken, to send out love. 

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.