Concluding Thoughts on the Sacred

Looking at the grand scope of our human existence, I believe, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, that we have a sacred duty to look after our neighbors.  As he wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[1]  It isn’t simply enough to be concerned only with one’s own wellbeing, assuming that each person will be able to take care of him or herself and each has a support network sufficient to his or her needs. 

The idea of this kind of interconnectedness is a thought echoed throughout Albert Camus’ The Plague.  For example, after Cottard attempted to hang himself, Rieux suggested that “somebody should watch Cottard tonight” to which Grand volunteered saying that “I can’t say that I really know him, but one’s got to help a neighbor, hasn’t one?”[2] Later in the work, the narrator continues this thought remarking that “They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”[3]  It is important to note here that he isn’t saying that freedom is absent when one is suffering from illness or if one’s house is afflicted but rather it is a call that a plague anywhere, whether it impacts us directly or not, is a threat to everyone as it has the potential to disrupt and destroy the entire fabric of humanity.

Continuing with The Plague, the author makes some important statements regarding organized religion.  While the plague ravages the city of Oran, many people who are not normally churchgoing folks turn to religion in the hopes that doing so might provide some relief for their condition.[4]  While in attendance, they find Father Paneloux who makes the claim that “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and my brethren, you deserved it.”[5]  The priest’s line of thinking is similar to what one can find in the book of Proverbs.  As wisdom declares in Proverbs 1:30, “They rejected my advice and paid no attention when I corrected them.  That is why they must eat the bitter fruit of living their own way.  They must experience the full terror of the path they have chosen.”[6]  We can find a similar pronouncement in Ezekiel 18:20, “Righteous people will be rewarded for their own goodness, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.”[7]  However, interest in religion faded as, the author tells us, “once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thoughts to pleasure.”[8] 

As the plague continued to ravage the city, Paneloux had a change of heart, urging his fellow citizens not to attempt to flee or surrender to the plague, but that each had a duty to fight for the betterment of all.  “Each one of us must be the one who stays!”[9]  Nevertheless, the priest continued in many of his old ways, refusing to see a doctor despite growing increasingly ill.  While Father Paneloux lay dying in the hospital, Doctor Rieux offered to stay with him to which the priest replied, “Thanks.  But priests can have no friends.”[10]  When the priest was found dead the next morning, based upon his earlier proclamations should the other characters have declared that the priest got what was coming to him?  That his death was good, a just punishment for his sins, in the same way that the priest once thought the plague was a punishment for the people of the city?  I should hope not.

If a person is suffering does that necessarily mean he or she deserves it, that he or she is experiencing a kind of divine karmic retribution?  To answer this question, I believe it is important to turn to the Book of Job.  Yes, it is possible that, like the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah[11], the plague came to punish the people for their sins, but it is difficult to make such a claim definitively.  Job’s friends tell Job that he ought to repent of his sins, but as God says in Job 1:8, “‘Have you noticed my servant Job?  He is the finest man in all the earth-a man of complete integrity.  He fears God and will have nothing to do with evil.’”[12]  Did Job deserve all of the calamity heaped upon him?  The Bible indicates that he did not.  From Job 42:7, “After the LORD had finished speaking to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘I am angry with you and with your two friends, for you have not been right in what you said about me, as my servant Job was.’”[13]  Moving to the New Testament, we find Jesus reject this line of thinking that suffering necessarily must be a sign of punishment for one’s sins.  From John 9:1-3, “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth.  ‘Teacher,’ his disciples asked him, ‘why was this man born blind?  Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?’  ‘It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,’ Jesus answered.  ‘He was born blind so the power of God could be seen in him.’”[14]

I believe it is nearly impossible for us to know if a person’s suffering is a result of his or her sins or rather an injustice inflicted upon him or her.  Furthermore, returning to the idea of helping those beside one’s friends, we must reject the argument of Polemarchus when, in Plato’s Republic, he declares that justice consists of helping our friends and hurting our enemies.[15] Instead, we ought to think like Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he wrote that Jesus “comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help.  He confronts you in every person that you meet.”[16]  Whether we like it or not, we have “a collective destiny”.[17]  Therefore, we ought to strive to erase injustice, regardless of whether it impacts us directly and whether it is for the sake of our friends or strangers.  That calling is part of our sacred duty and although it promises to be a never-ending struggle, it is a battle worth fighting.

…the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory.  It could be only the record of what had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.[18]

[1] King, Martin Luther. Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]. (December 13, 2019).

[2] Camus, Albert. 1991. The Plague. New York, NY: Vintage International. 20.

[3] Ibid. 37.

[4] Ibid. 93.

[5] Ibid. 94.

[6] Holy Bible: New Living Translation. 1996. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. 662.

[7] Ibid 836.

[8] Camus, Albert. 1991. The Plague. New York, NY: Vintage International. 121.

[9] Ibid. 227.

[10] Ibid. 233.

[11] Holy Bible: New Living Translation. 1996. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. 18-19.

[12] Ibid.  539.

[13] Ibid. 564.

[14] Ibid. 1077.

[15] Jeffrey, Andrew. 1979. “Polemarchus and Socrates on Justice and Harm.” Phronesis 24(1): 56.

[16]  Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 2012. God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 2.

[17] Camus, Albert. 1991. The Plague. New York, NY: Vintage International. 167.

[18] Ibid. 308.

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