The coronavirus has served, with tragic results, as a reminder of the interconnectedness of humanity. Nations have attempted to close their borders, hoping to isolate themselves from the pandemic. Yet, like a steamroller, people, especially the elderly, in nation after nation have suffered the effects of this deadly virus. Hopefully, one positive outcome of the pandemic could be a stronger sense of global interconnection and responsibility.
Up to the present, cooperation does not seem to the reaction of choice by most of the world’s nations. Border after border has been closed, while the wolf is already in the chicken coop. While quarantine and social separation may indeed be the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus, tribalism in all its aspects (especially of nation, class, ethnicity, and religion) will only exacerbate the suffering. There has been a significant rise in bigotry and attacks against Asians across the globe. The wealthy have also been prioritized in the unfair distribution of testing and perhaps treatment. Indeed, instead of working together it appears that many nations are treading their own paths, focusing on their internal economic well-being, rather than the threat to human life and health posed by the COVID-19. The virus has been utilized as an excuse to strengthen political agenda’s, having little to do with slowing its spread. Instead of empathy, too often selfishness has been revealed through actions of nations and individuals. This virus, and the fear it engenders, will be defeated only when the nations and peoples of the world come together in cooperation, taking joint responsibility for the world in which all of us dwell.
It is precisely a crisis such as this where the world’s religions can be at their best, both individually and jointly. People across the globe are suffering and are also questioning why we face such times.
Let us be tentative in offering answers, as these most often are facile and appear self-serving. There is also the temptation to explain away suffering of the innocent by connecting it to particular religious agendas. We should, however, be quick to offer words and prayers of hope and comfort. We should be there for the suffering, with both physical and spiritual support. We should be speaking out for empathy rather than selfishness. Yet, as noted, COVID-19 is a worldwide crisis, where adherents of every religion (and no faith) in every community and continent are threatened. All humanity needs comfort, and for those who seek solace in the Divine, that comfort can be best provided as the world’s religions join together, offering our unique prayers of healing and hope.
Such unity of purpose was demonstrated at a joint virtual interfaith service hosted here in Tokyo by the Tokyo Interfaith Council, of which I am a member. Members of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action (Alberta, Canada) and the Interfaith Leadership Council of Detroit (Michigan, USA) also joined with us. Eleven prayer leaders representing diverse religious traditions – Protestant, Catholic, Later Day Saints, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Jewish, and Bahai – from three countries, and attendees from many more joined “together” on their computers for an evening (or very early morning) of hope and comfort. The service on the 21st had been long in planning. It initially focused on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (sadly, the necessity of such a day is revealed yet again by the rise in bigotry and hatred against Asians in recent months). As Tokyo and the world effectively closed up shop, the service was moved online and refocused on healing and hope. What did remain, however, was the structure, which asked both for respect and authenticity. Each tradition presented its prayer in its own words and language. Though the prayers were each unique and called upon the Divine using many different names, they all reflected our universal care for humanity and the world in which we dwell. Taken together, they could not help but offer comfort and renewed hope for the future. It is just this unity of purpose which transcends but does not erase (but celebrates) diversity, which points to a path for hope in the future of humanity and the world built on a sense interconnection and joint responsibility.