The people of God have been serving as a community through thick and thin and have weathered many epidemics. In our Old Testament, the many detailed teachings about personal and community hygiene, quarantine and food laws were simply because these were laws for a gathered community.
The Christian response to plagues begins with some of Jesus’ 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 put in service of our neighbour.
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. The more famous epidemic is the Plague of Cyprian in the third century, 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 set off a crisis in the Roman world. But it did something else, too: it triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Bishop Cyprian told Christians not to grieve for plague victims 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.”
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 recounted how Christians ensured that “good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” Other church leaders observed and clearly taught that Christians were not immune to epidemics, who died along with everyone else. There is no “faith crisis” if Christians got their faith right and biblical in the first place. This is something which Singaporean Christians need to reflect deeper on.
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.”
How do we apply this in our modern societies, especially given the fact of how modern healthcare has evolved? It will be seen as foolishness if we needlessly sacrificed our lives. Acts of self-giving must be truly giving, i.e. of some benefit to others, even when no one is watching. Many who are serving in healthcare work are already imbibing these values, even if they are not of the Christian faith. Bishops and pastors should not abandon their posts but the way we offer in situ leadership will be different today. We who are “on the pews” will also need to reflect. The Christian motive for hygiene, sanitation and other forms of preparations should not arise solely from self-preservation but in an ethic of service to others.
The Church needs to help to “flatten the curve” and “gather responsibly.” But the dispersed Church community also needs to be out there - leading, serving, encouraging and giving.
This article draws from Lyman Stone’s "Christianity Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2000 Years” at https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/christianity-epidemics-2000-years-should-i-still-go-to-church-coronavirus/ and Revd Daniel Wee’s video talk at https://youtu.be/Qw0yC8mpqD4. This audio talk is also being looped at Cathedral SG Live.