Plagues, Pandemics, and Panic: Our Family's Response

Plagues, Pandemics, and Panic: Our Family's Response

Christians and non-Christians have faced disease and tragedy in similar ways across the ages. Their approaches to their circumstances, however, have often been markedly different. The historic Christian response has been founded upon Jesus's most important teachings: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength," and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31); "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Matthew 7:12); and "Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). It seems our forebears considered others' lives to be of greater value than their own. Many examples exist, as Stone and Stark and others have reminded us in recent days.

When the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century killed a quarter of the Roman Empire, Christians cared for the sick and reassured their communities that the illness was caused not by angry gods and goddesses, but instead by a broken Creation rebelling against a loving God. When the Plague of Cyprian occurred in the 3rd century, one that sounds like a disease related to Ebola, Christians again cared for the living, attending to their every need. The pagan Emperor Julian remarked that the Christians cared not just for the "household of faith," but for non-Christians too. Sociologists have suggested that in cities where there were strong Christians communities, the death rates may have been half that of other cities. Christian hospitals began during this period, where skilled doctors and volunteers attended the sick.

During the Middle Ages, in a three-year period, from 1347-1351, up to 100 million people died in the bubonic plague across Europe. As wave after wave hit, the Church built thousands of hospitals in the Benedictine and other monasteries, where there were "infirmaries" and "herbariums" to supply comfort, healing, and medicines. Other Christians cared for the sick in their villages and towns, earning reputations for delivering personal care, food, healing, comfort, and prayer to individuals and families who suffered. Katherine of Siena was one of these who cared for souls.

Two centuries later, when the same plague hit Zurich in 1519, the Reformer Zwingli stayed to attend the sick. In Wittenberg in 1527, Luther ministered to those who were too ill to flee, even while others urged him to leave. Luther wrote a tract about whether Christians should flee the plague, and reminded those who love Christ to remain calm, go about their work, and help everyone they possibly could. He said that Christian doctors should continue to heal, Christian public officials should stay in their districts to help their people, and Christian pastors should minister to the living and the dying. Christians in these times did not pretend that danger was not present. They simply determined instead to continue working for the benefit of others in spite of it.

At the same time, Luther advocated a second approach to add to the first. He reminded his flock that their bodies were gifts from God, were valuable, and must be protected. He explained that one must never endanger others through negligence or recklessness. He cautioned people to obey quarantine orders, fumigate their houses, and take precautions to avoid spreading the sickness. These procedures for hygiene and sanitation were not for self-preservation; rather, they were done in service to their neighbors. In other words, we care for others first by not transmitting disease to them. The first sacrifice Christians must make to care for our neighbors is our convenience, so we participate in aggressive sanitation measures and "social distancing."

The last approach the Church has used through the ages concerns how the People of God gather. The Church has never closed its doors. Instead, Christians have come together, however they could, because they understood that the Community of Faith must be just that - a community devoted to Christ and to each other. Out of love for God emerges the practice of love for neighbor. Christians have noted the isolation, anxiety, fear, and despair that have accompanied pandemics. They know that without human contact, people do not flourish. So, they check on each other and their neighbors, concerned for their well-being and finding ways to be an encouragement.

We live in a different age than our forebears, of course, and our ways of responding may look much different as well. Yet throughout the ages, Christians have approached pandemics with courage - sacrificing their own desires for the good of others, taking rigorous precautions not to infect others, and ministered to those within their circles in the name of Jesus. They continued to cultivate around them a meaningful human and spiritual community that cared for mind and soul and body.

We are thankful today for such good models. We may take their lead as we move forward in hope, ministering even in the midst of this Coronavirus, as God gives us opportunities. "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
"God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging."
Psalm 46:1-3
Acadeldridge singing Horatio Spafford's  "It Is Well With My Soul"
-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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