Right now we are in the midst of another global epidemic – this one from a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Nobody knows how far this COVID-19 disease will spread, or how bad it will be, but it has arrived now in our community here in Washington and has already caused some deaths. Most likely it will be similar to other epidemics we’ve experienced in recent decades, and it will be a cause for legitimate concern, will peak, will wain, and in the end will probably cause less deaths than the Flu this winter. But right now we don’t know, and it is in that space of unknowing that fear breads.
As I write this, though I have not seen it myself, I am told that there has been a run on the grocery stores, hardware stores, warehouse stores, etc. People are stocking up and hoarding food, hand sanitizers, surgical masks, and apparently toilet paper (I admit I don’t get that last one: “It might be the end of the world! You know what we really need in order to survive? Toilet paper!). The stock market has fallen about 10%. I wouldn’t be surprised, as has happened in past times of crisis, that we will also hear that gun sales have spiked this week and that generators are sold out. There is a sense of “Every man for himself!” that seems to be spreading through the nation. As a pastor I wonder: what should a Christian response to this crisis look like?
This is not the first time that the world has faced an epidemic and it won’t be the last. In fact, this may turn into a “pandemic” before it is all over. We are, after all, much more connected globally than at any other time in the world’s history. Lately I have been reading through Jerry Sittser’s book Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. In it, he describes how the response of Christians to a plague in the Roman Empire in AD 250 had a big impact on their witness to the love of Jesus Christ (146). Scholars estimate that up to one fifth of the population of the Roman Empire died during this plague! It was so bad, that people began leaving bodies and dying people littering the streets. One biographer from the time wrote “All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also” (Sittser 147). But while many were fleeing and hunkering down and looking after only themselves, the Christian response was different. They began to wash, wrap, and bury the bodies.
Not only did these early Christians take care of the dead, but they also took care of the sick. While they had no understating of germs and viruses like we do today, they knew that if they cared for the sick, then they were likely to get sick too, and perhaps even die themselves. They also knew, that if cared for, some of the sick would survive. Their theology developed to be something like this: If we Christians step in and care for a sick and dying person, we may be able to take their sickness from them, prevent death, and take their place in sickness and in death as Jesus has taken ours. Some miracles of healing did happen – the Spirit was at work – but the larger miracle was in the way the Christian Church became knows as the one community that would care for and love those who had nowhere else to turn – even if it was a risk to their own life and comfort. So I wonder… do we still carry this same faith and witness today?
I’m certainly not suggesting that we Christians need to begin rushing to put ourselves in harms way of this disease. We live in a different world with different ways of caring for and managing an epidemic. However, I do know that our response should be to give rather than to hoard, to live in hope rather than fear, to seek the welfare of others ahead of our own, and to be people of courage, hospitality, faith, and love. Rather than hunker down and bar the doors, we are called to reach out in the love of Jesus Christ.
“…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”2 Timothy 1:7