Covid conspiracies can invite us to channel fear into impotent rage
Making sense of pandemic must make us more human - not scapegoat-seekers
People outside a disco bar in Wuhan in September as life there returns to normal. We must not let stories invite us to circle the wagons and close off our hearts. Photograph: Getty Images
Humans are meaning-making creatures. We want to find a narrative – a story – to make sense of the coronavirus crisis that has engulfed the world. There are many stories on offer at the moment. Some are conspiracy theories which invite us to channel our fear into aggressive or impotent rage. Some entrench divisions between “them” and “us”, however we draw those lines.
The most common stories to reach for in a time of fear and powerlessness are scapegoating stories that blame individuals or groups whom we label, probably subconsciously, as “dispensable”. If we can put the blame on “them” and then somehow exclude them, the problem – we tell ourselves – will go away.
The narratives we tell as we struggle to make sense of the global pandemic should make us more human, not less
And so we are told that the new coronavirus was deliberately manufactured or that it is part of a global plot to undermine human rights and religious freedom. We hear it called the “Chinese” virus. Common to all these kinds of stories is that they make us afraid, they invite us to circle the wagons, and they close off our hearts.
Those of us who identify with a faith tradition are looking for a God-sized story, but the tendency is always there to construct a story that shrinks the divine to the size of our own hopes and fears. Such stories remake God in our image so that God’s agenda perfectly matches our own.
Arrogance and idolatry
In these scenarios, tellingly, God ends up disliking the same people that we do. Stories that present God as a little deity fighting our battles for us are the product of human arrogance and the epitome of idolatry. Stories which make of God a caricature, rewarding and punishing according to our own simplistic calculations do not draw on the best of our religious traditions.
The narratives we tell as we struggle to make sense of the global pandemic should make us more human, not less.
It can be hard to navigate the different stories out there and to assess them wisely. Jesus offered a good barometer for judging what we see by looking at the fruits (Matthew 7:15-20). Here are some fruits which are not the result of the divine spirit at work in the world and in human hearts: an anger that paralyses us or makes us hate others; a selfish concern for “me and mine” that lets the rest of the world go to hell; a despair that kills off hope; a complacency that leaves us with our heads in the sand; and a numbness that makes us stop caring.
You can add to that list anything that closes us off and diminishes our compassion.
Our explanations and meaning-making stories are always going to fall short of capturing the complexities of this calamity.
Conversely, the fruit of any narrative worthy of our shared humanity will be compassion, truthfulness, and profound respect. It will open us up and inspire a costly but joyful solidarity. I see this in the oft-repeated mantra of the World Health Organisation’s Dr Mike Ryan: “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”
Complexities of calamity
If we take those words seriously, we will treat everyone as our neighbour and place the most vulnerable at the centre of our concern. Any protest or resistance arising out of that vision will not spring from a place of fear, hatred or selfishness, but be inspired by a genuine concern for social justice and involve a principled stand against dehumanising policies and actions.
The universe is big and we are small. Our explanations and meaning-making stories are always going to fall short of capturing the complexities of this calamity. Still, our story-making impulse is core to what makes us human; we need to keep weaving those stories. But we also have a responsibility to reflect on them.
What spirit are they promoting in the world, and what spirit are they blocking? What are they doing to us as individuals and as a society? Are they diminishing us? Are they helping us to persevere and adapt so that we can emerge stronger and kinder?
The stories we tell ourselves shape our responses and shape our lives. There are real and enduring consequences when we are seduced by the wrong ones.