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What We Can Learn from Christian Responses to Past Outbreaks

By Andrew Warren

The word “unprecedented” has been thrown around so frequently that it is easy to think the world has never experienced disease before. However, historical outbreaks and the response of contemporary church leaders provide a remarkable precedent for us to follow. From third century plagues of the Roman Empire to the recent Ebola outbreak, spiritual leaders have wrestled through the same issues we face today and offer insight into our modern struggles.

Cyprian and the Freedom from Fear

Between the years 250 and 270 AD, the Roman Empire was ravaged by the Plague of Cyprian, named for the bishop of Carthage who noted the symptoms of the disease: “fatigue, bloody stool, fever, esophageal lesions, vomiting, conjunctival hemorrhaging, and severe infection in the extremities; debilitation, loss of hearing, and blindness followed in the aftermath.” A contemporary historian estimated that the plague cost 5,000 deaths a day, a toll that appears far more destructive considering the fact that the population was a mere 3% of today’s. Despite such dire circumstances, Cyprian did not waver in his faith and instead asserted that hardship is cause for neither surprise nor undue alarm.

In his treatise “De Mortalitate,” he considered the distinct possibility of death and concluded that there is nothing to fear. Rather than fearing death, Christians ought to think on the immortality that follows, for “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” We should not forget the world has faced extreme hardship before and that it will continue to do so, while acknowledging that the hardships of the past do not negate the validity of present suffering. Remembering those who have bravely faced adversity and death before can encourage, inspire, and challenge us to face similar challenges boldly. While it is important not to disregard the severe pain inflicted by COVID-19, it is also important not to fixate on it. Cyprian wrote that Christ “said that wars, and famines, and earthquakes, and pestilences would arise in each place… that adversity would increase more and more in the last times.” The present hardships the world is facing must not be diminished, but they also need not be surprising or fear-inducing.

Throughout history, this ethic has enabled Christians to work on the front lines of disease alleviation. Christians who do not fear death can pursue their calling to love their neighbors. For centuries, Christians have moved to care for the sickest and most at risk members of society. In the midst of the plague of Cyprian, the bishop of Alexandria wrote, “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another… nursing and curing others.” About a century later, it seems that such radical care-giving still marked Christian activity. Roman Emperor Julian (AD 332-363) complained that Christianity was converting people from the Roman gods specifically because of its kindness:

“Atheism [i.e., Christian faith; Emperor Julian was a believer in the Roman Pantheon and would consider Christians to be atheists] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

These Christians refused to insulate themselves from the problems of the world around them. Instead, they chose to love those in need at such risk to themselves that it became impossible to ignore.

Martin Luther and the Courage to Care

About 1000 years later, the Bubonic Plague spread across Europe with devastating virulence. Although the worst outbreak occurred in the mid 14th century, smaller outbreaks continued to crop up. Martin Luther faced one such outbreak in Wittenberg in 1527, but rather than fleeing the city to a safer area, Luther chose to remain and care for the sick. Luther outlined his philosophy of disease response in a letter to fellow pastor John Hess titled, “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.

Luther began by saying that certain people have a distinct obligation to remain: magistrates who have a responsibility to their constituents, pastors who have a responsibility to their congregation, and family members who have a responsibility to each other. If one is not constrained by such obligations, Luther determined that they can either remain or flee in equally good conscience. However, he repeatedly emphasizes the importance of care for others as the primary concern a Christian should address when faced with disease.

Neglecting one’s community for the sake of self-preservation is one of two primary temptations Luther perceived. He quoted 1 John 3:15,17 saying, “If anyone has the world’s good and sees his brother in need [yet closes his heart against him], how can God’s love abide in him?” He encouraged Hess to take this as an opportunity to fight fear with faith in God and love for other people.

The second primary pitfall in Luther’s estimation was the urge to tempt God. He described these people who, “disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid persons and places infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are.” Luther harshly censured such people, saying that refusal to take logical protection against the plague is akin to seeing a house burning in a city and giving leeway for the flames to spread rather than putting them out. Those who fail to protect against the plague as they are able are responsible for the death of their neighbor.

Overall, Luther’s advice still remains incredibly relevant today, particularly in his emphasis on care for others. As modern Christians, we should not use the coronavirus as an excuse to withdraw from society and neglect caring for others. Instead, this season should compel us to help those who need it most. At the same time, no Christian should neglect proper precautions against coronavirus, as doing so is the opposite of caring for people.

Ulrich Zwingli and our Hope in Suffering

Ulrich Zwingli was another 16th century church leader who faced a localized outbreak of the Bubonic plague, but his experience became far more personal. Upon the arrival of the plague in his former home city of Zurich, Zwingli returned to care for the sick but actually contracted the disease himself. He penned a 12 stanza “Plague Hymn” that records his prayer both when the disease was intensifying and after he began to recover. His prayer is a plea for God’s healing while simultaneously an expression of faith no matter the outcome. He says, “I fear no loss for here I lie beneath the cross.” Even after his hymn shifts to praise for being healed, Zwingli recognized that it is only a temporary status: “Though now delayed my hour will come.”

For Christians today, Zwingli’s hymn provides a blueprint for how to deal with actually contracting a life-threatening disease. He did not deny the suffering he is undergoing (“My pains increase”), but he presented his plight to God and asked for deliverance. Importantly, though, he also did not demand healing: “if thy voice… recalls my soul, then I obey.” His entire response was governed by a prevailing faith in God and mirrored Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane that, “not my will, but yours be done.”

Archimandrite Adamopoulos

More recently in 2014, much of West Africa faced the Ebola virus. Transmitted through direct contact and with an average case fatality rate of 28% in Sierra Leone, it naturally induced considerable fear. The exceptionally high risk of death rendered withdrawal from risky areas a matter of mere self-preservation, but many Christians chose to stay and provide aid. Archimandrite Themistcoles Adamopoulos, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church in Sierra Leone, wrote of the fear experienced by himself and many others. Because the most infectious period of a victim of Ebola occurs immediately after death, many people would simply abandon corpses. Adamopoulos describes how any deviation from proper protocol or lapse in concentration has the potential to be fatal and how every cough or other bodily abnormality is cause for instant concern.

However, he does not dwell on the risks in his letter, but instead focuses on the mission ahead of him. He writes, “For the present time God has placed me here in West Africa.” In a statement strikingly similar to Luther’s assertions, he says, “As the shepherd of the flock in Sierra Leone it is my duty to stay with them, to care for them, to instruct them, to console them, to guide them and to protect them from an evil that kills without pity.” Adamopoulos was faced with a clear choice: he could easily leave his mission and preserve his own life, or he could stay with the people he pastored and face the distinct threat of death. He chose the later, knowing that caring for and supporting his congregation was the task God had called him to.

What can we learn from these figures?

This brief discussion shows that disease and other forms of suffering are neither new nor unexpected. Jesus promises that in this world [we] will have trouble,” and a brief glance at any major figure in the Bible proves his claim correct. Paul describes his sufferings in detail, saying,

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

The disease we face today is merely another form of the many sufferings Christians have been called to face throughout history.

In one sense, the coronavirus is a reminder that this world is deeply flawed. Our world and the people in it are far from perfect. Weltschmerz is a German word adopted to English that describes the mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state. Now would be an apt time to feel Weltschmerz, if it were not for the second half of Jesus’ statement in which he promised trouble: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

The Gospel of Jesus transforms our understanding of COVID-19, and the disease itself becomes a call to remember that there is a better world coming. Fear of death should not be allowed to dictate our actions. Cyprian and Zwingli both consider the distinct possibility of death and ask themselves, what is there to fear? For the Christian, death is merely a short passageway to eternal life in heaven. God promises a day will come when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Instead, our actions and lifestyle in a time of pandemic should be governed by concern for the people around us. If we are unfettered by fear of death, we are free to express the radical love for our neighbor modeled by Martin Luther and Archimandrite Adamopoulos. Galatians 6:9 enjoins the reader to “not grow weary in doing good.” At a time like this, it is exceptionally easy to grow weary of doing good. However, it is at such a time that doing good and serving our neighbor becomes increasingly important.

Such service will look different in each situation and all actions should be governed by individual Christians’ talents and resources as well as wisdom in addressing the situation. The church ought to be taking an active role in providing care for those particularly affected by the virus and in supporting those who need it. Christians’ actions should be motivated by love rather than fear or selfishness, but always informed by discretion. There is a long heritage of Christians who have modeled radical love in the midst of deep suffering, and the challenge before the modern church is to carry on that legacy.

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