An employee of the municipal company Veritas sprays disinfectant in public areas at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, on March 11. Marco Sabadin/AFP via Getty Images
The modern world has suddenly become reacquainted with the oldest traveling companion of human history: existential dread and the fear of unavoidable, inscrutable death. No vaccine or antibiotic will save us for the time being. Because this experience has become foreign to modern people, we are, by and large, psychologically and culturally underequipped for the current coronavirus pandemic.
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, and especially Lutherans, 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 neighbor 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 neighbor.
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 an 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 colorful 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 neighbor 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.
To modern people acquainted with the germ theory of disease, this can all sound a bit foolish. Caring for the sick sounds nice, but it’s as likely to infect others as to save lives. In an intensely professionalized medical environment, should common people really assume a burden of care?
Here, a second element of the Christian approach appears: strict rules against suicide and self-harm. Our bodies are gifts from God and must be protected. Or, as Luther says in his essay on the topic, we must not “tempt God.” The catechism Luther wrote for Christian instruction elaborates on the Fifth Commandment (“Though shalt not murder”) by saying that this actually means we must never even endanger others through our negligence or recklessness. Luther’s essay encourages believers to obey quarantine orders, fumigate their houses, and take precautions to avoid spreading the sickness.
The Christian motive for hygiene and sanitation does not arise in self-preservation but in an ethic of service to our neighbor. 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.
Since religious bodies in South Korea, Singapore, Iran, Hong Kong, and even Washington, D.C., have been at the forefront of coronavirus transmission, this injunction is worth remembering. Motivated by this concern, I have prepared an exhaustive handbook for churches about how they can fortify their services to reduce coronavirus transmission, informed by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and my experiences working as a missionary in Hong Kong. The first sacrifice Christians must make to care for our neighbor is our convenience, as we enthusiastically participate in aggressive sanitation measures and social distancing.
This kind of humble care for others is a powerful force. I’ve seen it at work in my neighbors in Hong Kong, whatever their beliefs. The ubiquitous surgical masks may not actually prevent infection, but they serve as a visible reminder that we’re all watching each other’s backs. When good sanitary procedure stops being about saving our own skin and starts being about loving our neighbor, it becomes not just life-saving but soul-enlivening.
This brings me to one of the more controversial elements of historic Christian plague ethics: We don’t cancel church. The whole motivation of personal sacrifice to care for others, and other-regarding measures to reduce infection, presupposes the existence of a community in which we’re all stakeholders. Even as we take communion from separate plates and cups to minimize risk, forgo hand-shaking or hugging, and sit at a distance from each other, we still commune.
Some observers will view this as a kind of fanaticism: Christians are so obsessed with church-going that they’ll risk epidemic disease to show up.
But it’s not that at all. The coronavirus leaves over 95 percent of its victims still breathing. But it leaves virtually every member of society afraid, anxious, isolated, alone, and wondering if anyone would even notice if they’re gone. In an increasingly atomized society, the coronavirus could rapidly mutate into an epidemic of despair. Church attendance serves as a societal roll call, especially for older people: Those who don’t show up should be checked on during the week. Bereft of work, school, public gatherings, sports and hobbies, or even the outside world at all, humans do poorly. We need the moral and mental support of communities to be the decent people we all aspire to be.
The Christian choice to defend the weekly gathering at church is not, then, a superstitious fancy. It’s a clear-eyed, rational choice to balance trade-offs: We forgo other activities and take great pains to be as clean as possible so that we can meaningfully gather to support each other. Without this moral support, as the citizens of Wuhan, China, can attest—and perhaps soon the people of Italy—life can quickly become unendurable. Even non-Christians who eschew church-going can appreciate the importance of maintaining just one lifeline to a community of mutual care and support.
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.