As the deadly Ebola virus continues to spread in Liberia, religious leaders there are claiming that “immoral acts” are responsible for the catastrophic outbreak. Christian leaders meeting at the Liberian Council of Churches unanimously agreed: “God is angry with Liberia.” The statement released by the council declared, “Ebola is a plague. Liberians have to pray and seek God’s forgiveness over the corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexualism, etc.) that continue to penetrate our society.” Their recommended solution to the disease ravaging the nation is that everyone should stay indoors for a three-day period of fasting and prayer.
The belief that Ebola is a sign of judgment is shared by some in the evangelical community. “Bring on the Ebola virus,” one website proclaims. “God does not exist to give us what we want, and if killing off our loved ones is going to help us realize this, then this is what He will do.” The Christian radio host Rick Wiles warned that “if Ebola becomes a global plague, you better make sure the blood of Jesus is upon you, you better make sure you have been marked by the angels so that you are protected by God.”
The “God is angry” explanation for the Ebola outbreak is reminiscent of the reaction to other recent episodes of crisis and disaster, as is the broad targeting of “corruption and immoral acts.” Similar responses came in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Asian tsunami of 2004, and Hurricane Katrina, the last of which was blamed on everything from abortion to homosexuality to antagonism against Islam to insufficient support for the state of Israel. “Providence punishes national sins by national calamities,” said the group Columbia Christians for Life. “We believe that God is in control of the weather,” announced the head of the evangelical group Repent America. The specific mention by the Liberian council of “homosexualism” is also a familiar refrain: In the 1980s the religious right claimed that AIDS was a judgment on gay people.
Commentators at the Daily Beast and elsewhere have argued that divine punishment is simply a well-established mechanism for understanding horrifying disaster. They note that during the Black Death of the Middle Ages, the personification of death as the Grim Reaper emerged, the very embodiment of the pervasive cultural fear of contagion. The reaction we are seeing in Liberia, it is argued, is nothing more than human nature: This is how we make sense of disease and disaster seemingly beyond our control.
To an extent they are right: The outbreak of Ebola, a truly horrific and devastating disease, taps our most primitive fears and is met with our most weighty emotional and theological response. But to attribute these theories of divine punishment merely to the need to understand an outbreak of disease, to limit them to something like an emergency response, is mistaken. The religious connection between sickness and sin is a constant, as present in times of calm as it is in times of crisis.
In the Bible, where most people mentally situate the word “plague” and envision just the sort of grand catastrophes that are being invoked in the Ebola crisis—picture the 10 plagues of Egypt—the link between disease and divine punishment is pervasive. Individuals who offend God, or God’s agents, are suddenly struck with a variety of ailments: skin disease, infertility, blindness, or just generalized “sickness” are all leveled as punishments by an angered deity. And, in turn, these conditions are “cured” only as a result of prayer, a display of faith, or beseeching the forgiveness of the offended God. Even if Jesus says on one occasion in the Gospel of John that a man’s blindness is not the result of either his own or his parents’ sins, the rest of the Gospels portray Jesus as a physician to sinners who constantly equates sin and sickness. The dominant biblical understanding of disease is that it is caused by sin and cured by God.