Christianity and the Pandemic

Last week we talked about how secularism doesn’t consistently live by its own worldview. The pandemic has exposed that. Today, we’ll look at what it teaches us about the Christian worldview.

The global pandemic has caused us to rediscover man’s longest known companion, the existential fear of death. Mortality is something that in the modern world we’ve often been able keep at a distance. We separate ourselves from the daily reality that none of us will live forever. We isolate people who are dying in places where we don’t have to watch the process. And so, when the global pandemic began earlier in 2020, what we discovered is that we are psychologically and culturally unprepared to face the challenge of a disease that is sweeping the globe in a single generation.

In order for us to see how Christians should respond, frankly we have to look deep into our past to find resources that the church has always drawn on in times like this. As a Church historian let me take you on a journey through some of the responses that Christians have had in pandemics before this year.

The great Antonine pandemic of the Roman Empire occurred in the second century AD. And it was said to have caused the death of one-third of the entire Roman Empire. During that second century pandemic Christianity took off and swept across the empire primarily because it was Christians who were caring for the sick and offering a spiritual model that took the pandemic out of the realm of punishment by a series of capricious Roman gods and explained it as simply a rebellious creation working against the God who created it.

The Plague of Cyprian a century later, one of the most famous plagues in Christian history, is named that because of the Bishop named Cyprian who described the plague so graphically in his sermons. In that plague, that was probably related to the Ebola disease, it triggered an explosive growth within Christianity because Cyprian’s sermons helped guide Christians in their response to plague victims. He, in fact, encouraged Christians not to spend time grieving for their family and loved ones who were killed by the plague and made their into heaven. Instead they should concentrate their efforts on providing care for those still living.

A fellow bishop named Dionysius described Christians in this period as “Heedless of danger they took charge of the sick attending to their every need.”

A century after that it wasn’t just the Christians who recognized that Christianity was ministering in these difficult times. The pagan emperor by the name of Julian the Apostate, complained bitterly about what he called “the Galileans.” Speaking about Christians he said, “They would care for even non-Christian sick people.” While the church historian Pontianus recounts that Christians insured that “good was done to all men not merely to the household of faith.”

In other words, in plagues that have come into western civilization over the last two thousand years it was inevitably Christians who were the ones on the front lines giving attention to the needs of those who were sick and dying.

Rodney Stark, a religious demographer, says that “the death rates in that period in cities where there were strong Christian communities were estimated to be just half the death rates of other cities where there were no Christian ministries.”

That habit of sacrificial care on the part of Christians continued at other times. In the 16th Century when the plague appeared in Europe, Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, found himself in Wittenberg dealing with those attacked by the bubonic plague. In 1527 he refused calls to flee from the city to run away from his parish. He stayed and ministered to the those who were sick and dying. In fact, it was during this time that he wrote a pamphlet called, “Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague.” He says this:

“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.”

Think about it this way. In 2020 as we approach the needs around us in this global pandemic, for Christians it is better that we should die serving out neighbor than surrounded by a pile of unused masks.

Now to modern people, when we talk about Christians being on the front line of ministry and service to people who are affected by this pandemic, it sounds kind of silly. We know more than they knew in ancient world about how diseases are transmitted through germs and how viruses pass from one person to another. And so, there’s an element in our generation that says, “Maybe we should just leave this to the professional experts.”

Well, that leads to a second element that is a part of the tradition of Christian response to these kinds of moments in history. Our first response is that we give ourselves to our neighbor. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He said that “there’s no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend.”

Well, that principle is balanced in Christian history by the idea that we are taught to avoid suicide and self-harm. In other words, it is appropriate for us as Christians to pay attention to bodies as gifts from God that must be protected. The fifth commandment says “You shall not murder.” But traditionally in times of plague the Christian church has interpreted that phrase by saying that it actually means “we must never endanger others through our negligence or recklessness.” In fact, if we go back to Luther’s essay about Christians and the plague, he encourages believers to obey quarantine orders, to fumigate their houses against the plague and to take precautions to avoid spreading the sickness. In fact, the Christian motive for hygiene and sanitation was one of the compelling factors that lead to the creation of hospitals as clean places where the sick could be treated.

We are to act in a way that we protect ourselves, not for self-preservation but because it is the way that we by extension protect our neighbors. It’s an expression of our love for them.

At our church we have tried to follow the instructions of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention by fortifying our services with extensive new processes of sanitation. Precautions that allow us to be together and make the space as safe and clean as possible. The first sacrifice that Christians must make to take care of their neighbors is the sacrifice of our own convenience. That’s why we enthusiastically participate in aggressive sanitation measures and where necessary social distancing.

Now here’s the reason. There’s a lot of debate in Christian circles today about masks. Do we wear masks? Do we not wear masks? Masks don’t do any good. They do good. They’re the key. They’re pointless. You can find whatever research you want to find to argue for or against masks. But from a Christian worldview standpoint, we wear masks even though they may not actually prevent infection, but they serve as a visible reminder that we’re watching each other’s backs, that we’re doing what we can do to show kindness and respect to those that we are responsible for. Cane asked God in the early chapters of Genesis, “Am I my brothers keeper?”  He was suggesting that he shouldn’t have to answer for anybody else. And yet, part of the core values of the Christian community is just that. We are our brother’s keeper.

This brings me to one of the most controversial elements of historic Christian ethics when it comes to pandemics. One the one hand we put ourselves on the front line. We don’t run away. We don’t hide in our houses. We don’t lock down in fear. We’re out ministering, touching the lives of people. We do that in a balanced way because we promote sanitation. We promote hygiene. We try and protect the ability to have human interaction.

But here’s the controversial part of all of this. And I want to be crystal clear about this. We don’t cancel church. The whole motivation for personal sacrifice for other people, the whole drive behind implementing measures that reduce infection, all of that presupposes the existence of community where people are connected for something even greater than life itself.

We may take the Lord’s Supper from different plates, drink in separate cups. We may minimize risks by not handshaking or hugging. We may even social distance from one another. But we meet together because we are the Community of Faith and we commune.

Now some people in our generation view that as a kind of fanaticism. I’ve been told more than once that pastors just want their church doors open because they’re greedy. They want money coming in. It has nothing to do with money. It’s not about some sort of superstitious idea that that we have to meet at churches. It’s not that at all. The fact of the matter is, the corona virus leaves breathing about 98% of those who contract this disease. But it leaves virtually every member of our society as an afraid, anxious, isolated, alone person wondering if anybody would even notice if they didn’t come out of their house ever again.

What’s happening is the risk of the disease is mutating into a devastating despair that will destroy our entire society. The solution to that is that the church becomes a kind of sacred roll call, especially for the elderly. It is a place where those who aren’t able to be at church should be checked on regularly. We miss those that are not here. And so, we look after them. We make contact. We stay in touch.

When you take away work and school and public gatherings and sports and hobbies and all the other events that have gone away in this pandemic; when you create a world of isolated alone human beings, all you’ve done is make the need for the connections of church that much more crucial.

In fact, to use the word in our generation that is popular, it makes church an essential service. We need the moral and the mental support of communities where people become who they mean to be together by sharing life. The Christian choice to defend the weekly gathering at church is not some sort of superstitious fancy. Rather it’s a clear-eyed rational choice to balance tradeoffs. The tradeoff between the things that we’d like to do and the tradeoff of what we must do to keep our society alive. Even non-Christians who don’t believe in church should appreciate the importance of maintaining just one life-line of mutual support and encouragement within the community.
Be eager to sacrifice for others. Obsessively maintain hygiene to prevent the spread of the disease. And connect to a body of believers who do life together even in a pandemic.
Here’s the thing. When Christians hide in their houses and act like unbelievers, we send the message that our God is not big enough to face what we face.

Here’s what I believe. Secularists are not living up to their worldview. Christians are not living up to their worldview. Whoever figures this out, whoever begins to live their worldview publicly and consistently in the days and months and years ahead, that group will win the culture wars. Let the culture wars be won by Biblically authentic Jesus followers who set an example for our decaying culture by living out loud for Jesus Christ even in the middle of a global pandemic.

This is TruthCurrents.