You may have summoned the courage to venture out to the grocery store sometime over the past two weeks, like I did. If your experience was anything like mine, it was a surreal outing. My local grocery store resembled a set from The Road or one of the Mad Max movies: barren shelves, haggard workers, and debris in the aisles—an every-man-for-himself, post-apocalyptic hellscape. The disease sowing so much fear and distrust is sometimes called the “novel coronavirus,” but in one sense there’s nothing novel about it. Terrifying pandemics like this have a long history, and human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries.
As I watched news footage of people literally punching each other over toilet paper, I was reminded of a scene from Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, where the Greek historian recounts a plague that ravaged Athens between 430 and 427 B.C. Many, he recalls, “died with no one to look after them; indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of attention . . . For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion and law. . . . No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence.”
Forgotten in all the pandemonium of this unrestrained survivalism—in ancient Athens and in suburban Denver—are the vulnerable, at risk of “perishing through lack of attention.” The COVID-19 outbreak raises a number of searching questions: What does all this say about our society? And what does this crisis require of Christians? How should the gospel shape and discipline our desires and behaviors while fear and panic rage around us?
A New Kind of Martyrdom
Writing in the aftermath of a series of plagues, probably smallpox, that had decimated the Roman Empire between about A.D. 165 and 250, the African theologian and bishop Cyprian of Carthage reflected that there’s nothing quite like an epidemic to test the mettle of a society. Pestilence, he said, shows what a people is really made of: “whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsman as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted.” In Rome’s case, the plagues had mostly exposed the moral rot of a decadent commonwealth, and by Cyprian’s metrics, Rome showed itself to be a very cruel society indeed. During the outbreak in 165, as bodies literally piled up in the streets—discarded like trash—the famed pagan physician Galen ran for the hills, holing up in his country estate until the disaster passed. There was no refuge in religion, either. Pagan priests had also fled the city, leaving sanctuaries and temples vacant.
Christians stayed behind. It was in such dire circumstances that our mothers and fathers in the faith showed almost inconceivable moral courage. Here’s how Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt between A.D. 248 and 265, described it:
Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ . . . Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead . . . in every way the equal to martyrdom.
What possessed early Christians to act like this? Why did they consider care for the sick as a new kind of martyrdom? And what does it mean for you and me?
What the Strong Owe the Weak
The answer is less dramatic than we might imagine. When Christians like Basil of Caesarea, who founded the world’s first hospital in the 370s, wrote about their motives, they used the language of responsibility and obligation. In other words, they knew that the most vulnerable among us make a claim on us; if we are strong, then we owe something to the weak. This, of course, is a radical inversion of our muscular American virtues of independence, individual autonomy, and fierce defense of our personal freedoms. But all rights come with responsibilities. Our obligations to the sick and vulnerable are obviously different than they were in the second century; to rush into physical contact with the sick would make things worse, not better. But we are no less accountable to figure out what it means to be attentive to our neighbors, especially the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
This challenge requires us to recover biblical wisdom about the notions of strength and weakness and liberty and obligation. Take a moment to read and consider Paul’s argument about food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 10. In Corinth, the “strong” of the congregation—those who felt free to eat whatever they wanted—were being reckless with their liberty, trampling over and humiliating the “weak”—those overly-cautious and scrupulous ones who consciences were burdened by the thought of eating meet that may have been consecrated to idols. Now, listen to what Paul says. In this circumstance, the strong must accommodate the weak: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (v. 24). We might paraphrase Paul like this: “Look, I know you don’t see what’s the big deal, and you think these precautions are ridiculous. But out of love for one another, I expect you to consider what you owe to your weaker brother or sister.”
I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot these days, and I thought about it when I read a recent interview with Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and a very thoughtful Christian. Here’s what he says to “the strong”—that is, to the healthy and the young: “I think we as a nation have to get into a place of not just thinking about ourselves, but thinking about everybody else around us, and particularly the most vulnerable people.” That’s advice formed by a Christian imagination. Actually, it sounds an awful lot like the Apostle Paul. And to behave like this demands the kind of strength that Paul might call the strength of humility: the strength it takes to buy only what we need (and not to hoard), the strength it takes to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are not suffering through lack of attention, and the strength it takes to do nothing but sit in our houses even if we feel healthy enough to go out.
A Reputation for Love
When it was all said and done, and more than one-fourth of Romans had died, even the emperor Julian begrudgingly admitted that Christians had put pagans to shame when it came to love of neighbor. “These impious Galileans,” he wrote, “in addition to their own, support ours also, and it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.”
I wonder, what would it take for Christians to earn a reputation like this in the age of COVID-19?
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This post was published March 20, 2020
Ryan serves as theologian-in-residence for Denver Institute for Faith & Work, where he writes and teaches on the integration of faith and work. Alongside his work with Denver Institute, Ryan is an instructor in the Division of Christian Thought at Denver Seminary, where he teaches theology and the history of Christianity, and associate pastor at Foothills Fellowship Church in Littleton. He holds a Th.M. in ecclesiastical history and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has published in the areas of inter-religious dialogue, historical theology, and Christian ethics. Ryan lives with his wife, Adrienne, and their daughter in Lakewood. Most importantly, Ryan is a diehard fan of the Denver Nuggets—and he liked them even when they were terrible.