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Caring for neighbors during epidemics has long Christian history

ST THECLA
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Acting on the Gospel message of charity, Church has been on front lines since early times.

The current pandemic of COVID-19, the lung infection caused by a new coronavirus, has naturally summoned up thoughts of medieval plagues. For at least one commentator, it has also been a reminder that while the world has been through terrible epidemics before, the Church has been at the center of the response to them as well.

From the earliest days of Christianity, the community of believers has by and large been motivated by the Gospel message of Jesus Christ to not run away from by persevere in the midst of suffering and take risks in the interest of charity.

To be fair, Christians don’t have a monopoly on public service and charity, writes Lymon Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and an advisor at the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence, in Foreign Policy. But, he says, “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.”

Stone provides an insightful overview of Christians’ response to plagues through the centuries, focusing in particular to his own religious tradition, that of the Lutheran Church.

There was, for eagle, the Antonine Plague of the Second Century, which, Stone says, might have killed a quarter of the population of the Roman Empire. It also might have led to the spread of Christianity, some historians suggest, 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.”

The Third Century Plague of Cyprian, which might have been related to Ebola, helped set off the Crisis of the Third Century in the Roman world, Stone notes. “But it did something else, too: It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity,” he writes. “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.'”

The pattern repeated a century later, when 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,” Stone sums up. “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.”

Stone notes that early Christians created the first hospitals in Europe as hygienic places to provide care during times of plague. Attention to hygiene, he says, was important early on, as Christians were well aware of the fact that serving the afflicted was limited by concern for not infecting the healthy at the same time.

The director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seemed to second what Stone said this week, when he was quoted by the Catholic Review, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

“I have witnessed firsthand the impact of the faith community’s work in global disease outbreaks,” said Dr. William Redfield, director of the CDC, in a statement. “The same compassion, counsel and care will be just as important as we confront this new virus and as many Americans and others around the world experience disruption in their daily lives.”

The Catholic Review article was about Redfield’s life as a Catholic. “The faith community has always stepped in to enhance response efforts where our public health and clinical settings lack the capacity or expertise to comfort patients, families and whole communities,” he said.

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