What Martin Luther Can Teach Us About Coronavirus
Things are beginning to open up in the U.S. after several months of this current shut-down. But Dr. Anthony Fauci expects a second wave of infection and deaths later this summer and fall. So, Christians have time to thoughtfully consider how we might respond differently, if and when it does return.
In the 16th century, German Christians asked theologian Martin Luther for a response to a similar epidemic in his day.
In 1527, less than 200 years after the Black Death killed about half the population of Europe, the plague re-emerged in Luther’s own town of Wittenberg and neighboring cities. In his letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” the famous reformer weighs the responsibilities of ordinary citizens during contagion. His advice serves as a practical guide for Christians confronting infectious disease outbreaks today.
First, Luther argued that anyone who stands in a relationship of service to another has a vocational commitment not to flee. Those in ministry, he wrote, “must remain steadfast before the peril of death.” The sick and dying need a good shepherd who will strengthen and comfort them and administer the sacraments—lest they be denied the Eucharist before their passing. Public officials, including mayors and judges, are to stay and maintain civic order. Public servants, including city-sponsored physicians and police officers, must continue their professional duties. Even parents and guardians have vocational duties toward their children.
Luther did not limit tending the sick to health care professionals. In a time when some areas of our country face a shortage of hospital beds and personnel, his counsel is especially relevant. Lay citizens, without any medical training, may find themselves in a position of providing care to the sick. Luther challenges Christians to see opportunities to tend to the sick as tending to Christ himself (Matt. 25:41–46). Out of love for God emerges the practice of love for neighbor. Is there a nursing home near you, desperately in need of volunteers or paid staff? Is there an elderly person sick at home, without someone to care for them? Christians should be the first to run in to the fire!
But Luther does not encourage his readers to expose themselves recklessly to danger. His letter constantly straddles two competing goods: honoring the sanctity of one’s own life, and honoring the sanctity of those in need. Luther makes it clear that God gives humans a tendency toward self-protection and trusts that they will take care of their bodies (Eph. 5:29; 1 Cor. 12:21–26). “All of us,” he says, “have the responsibility of warding off this poison to the best of our ability because God has commanded us to care for the body.” He defends public health measures such as quarantines and seeking medical attention when available. In fact, Luther proposes that not to do so is to act recklessly. Just as God has gifted humans with their bodies, so too he has gifted the medicines of the earth.
What if a Christian still desires to flee? Luther affirms that this may, in fact, be the believer’s faithful response, provided that their neighbor is not in immediate danger and that they arrange substitutes who will “take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them.” Notably, Luther also reminds readers that salvation is independent of these good works. He ultimately tasks “devout Christians … to come to their own decision and conclusion” whether to flee or to stay during plagues, trusting that they will arrive at a faithful decision through prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. The Bible, not CNN, or FOX News should be the primary source for our moral guidance. Participation in aiding the sick arises out of grace, not obligation.
However, Luther himself was not afraid. Despite the exhortations of his university colleagues, he stayed behind to minister to the sick and dying. He urged his readers not to be afraid of “some small boil” in the service of neighbors.
Though God’s children face earthly sufferings, those who proclaim faith in Christ share in a heavenly promise of freedom from illness and suffering. Luther acknowledge the reality of suffering but recognize that death and suffering do not have the final word. God decides the hour of every person’s death, not a disease.
Frankly, I’m surprised at the number of Christians I know who are scared to death over contracting Covid 19 and dying. It has to disappoint Jesus to see how tenaciously Christians cling to life, in light of Scripture teaching about the heaven that awaits believers. If I’m describing you, or another Christian friend, please take time to meditate on why you are afraid and what that fear communicates to your family or friends about your faith in God’s promises.
“When did we see you sick?” ask the righteous in the parable of the sheep and the goats, to which Jesus responds, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:39–40). If and when the coronavirus encroaches upon your community, or church next week, or next fall, how will you respond differently?
This blog has been heavily edited and expanded from a January 30, 2020 article in Christianity Today.
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