What are religious leaders saying today about the Ebola virus? A lot depends on geography as well as religion.
According to one newspaper article in Lagos, Nigeria, a pastor explained that the Bible forewarned about the Ebola virus by quoting Isaiah 66:24, which says, "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me, the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched and they will be loathsome to all mankind."
The minister was reported as saying, "Go to Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries where it is found, including Nigeria, you will see that people live dirty lifestyles and involve themselves in dirty deals, dangerous and disgraceful lifestyles."
Once again, there are always clergy who use Scripture as a moral hammer to slam the people for the moral failings that supposedly cause disease. We saw this same paradigm with the AIDS virus years ago.
According to the Religion News Service, there was a council meeting for African Christian clergy back in August on how to explain the reason for Ebola and what it means from a spiritual perspective. A retired bishop from the Lutheran Church in Liberia said, "People are having different misconceptions that (Ebola) is a curse from God. This is depending upon how they are interpreting the Bible. I do not think God is angry and is issuing a punishment."
According to the report, 100 Christian clergy met and declared that God was, in fact, angry and that the people should seek forgiveness and repent their sins, particularly "corruption and immoral acts such as homosexuality."
I have heard opinions expressed by some who believe that Ebola is a divine warning that we are reaching the point of the apocalypse and the end of days. We want to turn to God for support and to the clergy for answers to questions from their parishioners such as "Why is this happening to us? What can we do to stop this virus?"
Some use the Bible and such stories -- for example, the generation of the Great Flood in Genesis or God destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah -- to verify a theology that God rewards and punishes us. The condemnations of the biblical prophets against the moral decay of ancient Israel become a treasure trove of verses taken out of context to prove that disease is a tool God uses to punish humanity.
I am reminded, however, of the way the Bible treated the infectious skin ailments, which we typically call leprosy.
The first thing the priests did in those days was to isolate the patient and then disinfect the house and treat the patient, until the time came that the patient was healed and could be returned to the community. Never do we read in Leviticus that the reason for the disease, which was contagious in the Israelite community, had to do with moral failings.
Time and again we see the theme that illness -- and especially infectious disease -- is connected to sin and that God's way of punishing us for those sins is to inflict a virus upon us. Surely religious leaders can find inspiration from the Bible to comfort and give hope to the people in Africa and around the world to use their faith to work hard to treat the sick with compassion.
The World Wide Methodist Church, in its checklist for clergy working with communities where Ebola is present, got it right when it chose a verse from Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you," the Lord declares, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
The religions of the world, working in partnership with international health organizations and government, need to give hope to the people, now more than ever, that they can survive this terrible plague.
Even though some countries may close off their borders to Ebola patients to protect their own populations, hopefully the world will not close off its hearts to those who need our financial resources and medical expertise, as well as prayers and compassion, now more than ever.