Facing Coronavirus, Colonialism, and Corrupt Theology Like Gandalf the White

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January 30, 2020
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February 13, 2020

by Nabil Habiby

Gandalf the Grey, a wizard in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic, stands before the Balrog, a rather malicious creature of the caves, and shouts with a great voice: “You shall not pass!” Gandalf’s friends escape, but he is downed in a great pit with the Balrog. Gandalf eventually rises again, now Gandalf the White, victorious over the Balrog. The above scene is one of the most memorable in the Lord of the Rings movies and it imagines a question for us: when should we take a Gandalf-like stance in theology? When should we raise high our proverbial staff and shout in the face of some notion or idea: You shall not pass?

January is over and, for all we know, 2020 might as well be over. In the first week of this New Year, we came close to the edge of a third world war sparked by the American assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani. We are now on the edge of a global health epidemic as the coronavirus continues to grow in China and beyond.

Things do not look much better on a more local scale. Lebanon is still in the eye of an economic storm. Political protests have waned, for now, but the calm feels very much like a temporary break in the action and not a resolution. On the Palestinian front, President Trump has unveiled his “Deal of the Century.” Everyone is upset with it.[1] Everyone excluding, not surprisingly, the right-wing Israeli government and Zionist Christians in the US[2]. Palestinians and their seventy years of yearning for justice and a state are reduced to accepting or rejecting a spatter of a few towns and villages linked together by Israeli checkpoints and a tunnel.

It has been an eventful month for death theology. This topic is almost too frustrating to write about. Let’s begin with China. Several religious voices, both Christian[3] and Muslim[4], have claimed that the coronavirus is God’s punishment to China for their persecution of religious people.

Israel, historically the last colonial state in the modern world, is again defended by Evangelicals in the West and worldwide. I see no need to expand on this too-obvious point, but I take great issue to those claiming that the Deal of the Century is a viable solution, and that Palestinians are right to be vilified for refusing to accept this “gracious” offer. [5]

I will not present theological arguments against attributing the coronavirus outbreak to God, or against defending the colonial state of Israel as the people of God. I’ll save that for a future post. However, I do want to discuss the issue death theology.

In all honesty, Christians who defend the state of Israel, or those who see the judging hand of God in the coronavirus, are not villains. They are well-meaning faithful Christians who want to be good Jesus followers in the world. They see in their defense of Israel, or their condemnation of China’s poor human rights record, as a Gandalf-like stand. They are being faithful, even against general cultural trends, to their theology. Even if the entire world sees that Palestine is oppressed, they stand with Israel. Even if the entire world sees that China is in pain and in need of help, they assert that coronavirus is the work of God. They have taken their stand.

So, how do we discern between life-giving theology and death theology? I believe the answer is simple- perhaps too simple for some. We can differentiate between life-giving theology and death theology on the basis of the person of Jesus Christ. Our theology, indeed our entire faith, hinges on his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  Everything hinges on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. If Jesus is Lord, then our Christianity makes sense. If he is not, then we are following empty beliefs.

What was the main trait of Jesus? What set him apart from the other teachers of his day? I believe it was his life-giving theology; his grace, his insistence that the Sabbath- all the law- was to be placed under humans, and not the other way around. Above all, it was his love. Who is our God? Quite simply for us, he is reflected perfectly in our Lord Jesus. How should we live? In accordance with this image, Jesus.

Therefore, before going into biblical passages and discussing theological ideas, important as that is, let us pause. Would the Jesus of the gospels infect masses with the coronavirus to show God’s anger? Would the Jesus of the gospels condone Israeli violence towards the Palestinians? Would the Jesus of the gospels be okay with kicking people out of their land to erect a state in their place?

I believe that both a superficial and a deeper reading of the scriptures would bring the same answer to the above questions: no.

This is not a call for some wishy-washy Christianity based on the What-Would-Jesus-Do? bracelet. As a student and teacher of the scriptures and their original languages and contexts, I shrivel in fear in front of such an option. On the contrary, I believe that the above “death” theologies can be easily counteracted by a balanced reading of the Bible.

As 2020 proceeds, and as we continue to endure local and global events, we will face local and global theologies that claim God for different causes. We may not have the skills or time to do proper research on every subject in order to judge every theology, but we do have Jesus. Let us then ask, is our theology life-giving? Does it resemble our lord and savior Jesus Christ? Only then should our voice ring high: You shall not pass!


[1] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200203-deal-of-the-century-backfires-on-israels-netanyahu/ spells out the reaction of the Arab league. Various such articles with negative reactions from other world powers can be found online.

[2] See for example: https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Donald-Trump-Deal-of-the-Century-peace-plan-proves-Israel-kissed-by-God-615570

[3] https://www.newsweek.com/christian-pastor-claims-coronavirus-gods-death-angel-blames-parents-transgendering-little-1484473

[4] See for example the following opinion article: https://caravandaily.com/coronavirus-may-be-divine-punishment-for-china/. I have seen a lot of such views on the Facebook feed of my Muslim friends.

[5] See Martin Accad’s take on the deal from June 2019: https://abtslebanon.org/jordan-brief-june-2019/

4 Comments

  1. Thank you Nabil, for that call to know Jesus in more profound simplicity, to dare to believe that his scandalously counter-cultural way of self-giving love is indeed the way of God’s kingdom, and to be more authentically aligned to it as we follow him through all that this year brings. May God continue to shine light on your pathway and lead all of us in the way of peace.

  2. Jonathan Andrews says:

    Wow. Thank you Nabil for cutting to the essence of such debates. It prompts me to keep praying to healing, reconcilation and peace wherever they are lacking.

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