The global Church has been living with epidemics and plagues for its full 2000 year history. This article documents how Christians have responded to epidemics through history and asks what we can learn.
Christianity Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2000 Years
Practical theology says care, sacrifice, and community are as vital as ever.
BY LYMAN STONE – WRITING IN FOREIGNPOLICY.COM
MARCH 13, 2020, 1:31 PM
To find the moral resources to tackle COVID-19, both its possible death toll and the fear that stalks our communities alongside the disease, we have to look at the resources built in the past. For me, that means examining how people of my tradition, Christians, have handled the plagues of the past. And while people of all faiths, and none, are facing the disease, the distinctive approach to epidemics Christians have adopted over time is worth dusting off.
The Christian response to plagues begins with some of Jesus’s most famous teachings: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; “Love your neighbour as yourself”; “Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” Put plainly, the Christian ethic in a time of plague considers that our own life must always be regarded as less important than that of our neighbour.
During plague periods in the Roman Empire, Christians made a name for themselves. Historians have suggested that the terrible Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which might have killed off a quarter of the Roman Empire, led to the spread of Christianity, as Christians cared for the sick and offered a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.
But the more famous epidemic is the Plague of Cyprian, named for a bishop who gave a colourful account of this disease in his sermons. Probably a disease related to Ebola, the Plague of Cyprian helped set off the Crisis of the Third Century in the Roman world. But it did something else, too: It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Cyprian’s sermons told Christians not to grieve for plague victims (who live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”
Nor was it just Christians who noted this reaction of Christians to the plague. A century later, the actively pagan Emperor Julian would complain bitterly of how “the Galileans” would care for even non-Christian sick people, while the church historian Pontianus recounts how Christians ensured that “good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” The sociologist and religious demographer Rodney Stark claims that death rates in cities with Christian communities may have been just half that of other cities.
This habit of sacrificial care has reappeared throughout history. In 1527, when the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg, Martin Luther refused calls to flee the city and protect himself. Rather, he stayed and ministered to the sick. The refusal to flee cost his daughter Elizabeth her life. But it produced a tract, “Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague,” where Luther provides a clear articulation of the Christian epidemic response: We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.
For Christians, it is better that we should die serving our neighbour than surrounded in a pile of masks we never got a chance to use. And if we care for each other, if we share masks and hand soap and canned foods, if we “are our brother’s keeper,” we might actually reduce the death toll, too. The Christian motive for hygiene and sanitation does not arise in self-preservation but in an ethic of service to our neighbour. We wish to care for the afflicted, which first and foremost means not infecting the healthy.
Early Christians created the first hospitals in Europe as hygienic places to provide care during times of plague, on the understanding that negligence that spread disease further was, in fact, murder.
When good sanitary procedure stops being about saving our own skin and starts being about loving our neighbour, it becomes not just lifesaving but soul-enlivening.
- Be eager to sacrifice for others, even at the cost of your own life.
- Obsessively maintain a scrupulous hygienic routine to avoid infecting others.
- Maintain a lifeline to a meaningful human community that can care for your mind and soul.
These are the guiding stars that have shepherded Christians through countless plagues for millennia. As the world belatedly wakes up to the fact that the age of epidemics is not over, these ancient ideas still have modern relevance.
Lyman Stone is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and an advisor at the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence.