In the year 1527 theologian and prominent Protestant reformer Martin Luther chronicled in a letter to the Reverend Dr. Johann Hess, a fellow German Lutheran theologian, the regimen he was undertaking to reduce the chance of being infected by a Bubonic Plague sweeping through Wittenberg, the university town where the 33-34 year old Luther was professor of Moral Theology.
As the town’s population were being encouraged to leave for their own protection, Luther took the view that not only was death inevitable for all but that it was a direct consequence of our sinful nature, and something that must be waited upon in situ, to in effect await God’s punishment, and Will, or be spared the fate of so many others. Those with a specific spiritual ministry and tasked with religious enlightenment must, according to Luther’s interpretation of the Scriptures ‘remain steadfast’ in the face of death – even if their flocks have long since fled – and not set an example of being faint at heart.
Those within the church were rightly expected to place the lives of parishioners ahead of their own and set an appropriate example by serving those in need, if only be being there as good shepherds would be, by laying down their lives for the good of their flock.
There are obvious similarities with the current Covid-19 outbreak but inevitably many that bear little or no relation. Should a localised outbreak of infection stemming from a wider pandemic greatly affect a settlement in the modern era, placing a quarantine around it would make more sense that instructing a whole population to up sticks, a move which would only serve to transport the affected into areas where others will more than likely also succumb.
The very nature of the Bubonic Plague that is/was spread from infected fleas piggybacking onto rats is of course different to the invisible Covid-19, where carriers are often asymptomatic and can infect others without ever presenting symptoms of their own. This again would make the removal of whole populations to supposedly safer areas pointless; without mass testing, it is impossible to grasp the actual scale of how many people are infected, and have been, with this new strain of coronavirus.
Dealing with an invisible contagion is one thing; the mass extermination and safe disposal of rats is quite another. The former cannot have the realistic timetable of control and eradication that the latter could in theory possess.
Martin Luther was of course writing from a theological, not epidemiological, perspective that echoed the message within Psalm 23 – The Lord is my Shepherd.(2) As believers in the face of a deadly plague potentially walked through their own valley of death, God remained steadfastly with them.
There are though some parallels with Luther’s response to the Bubonic Plague, some 493 years ago, which constitutes advice as good as that contemporarily issued by any government or chief medical officer:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”(1)
The principles of self-isolation and social distancing are already alive and well nearly five centuries past: the keeping out of harm’s way and not bringing it to the doors of others underpins Luther’s thoughtful message, as does selflessly coming to the aid of those in need without thought for one’s own health.
In an epoch characterized by such seemingly unbridled greed and selfishness the real characters of many are being shown up for what they really are during unprecedented times in the so-called modern era. Whilst humanity’s traits and tendencies are often replicated the world over there are significant differences between areas of the world where individuality is more prevalent in some nations than in those with a more communitarian ethos. This does explain the many instances of panic/bulk buying in supermarkets by individuals at the expense of the weaker, more marginalised in society, but can also account for greater levels of infection in countries, for example in Spain and Italy, where communities and families are closer, and more cohesive.
Luther espoused the putting of others first, to keep one’s own house and health in order and to leave the rest to God. To spare our own loved ones, the wider population, and besieged national health services, we would do well to follow this succinct but timeless piece of advice.
Source material and further information:
Insight for Living/The Bible Teaching Ministry of Charles(Chuck) R. Swindoll: https://insight.org/general/virus/
(1): Luther’s Works – Volume 43 Page 132
Trinity Lutheran Church, Boulder Colorado: http://www.trinityboulder.org/trinitys-response-to-the-coronavirus/
(2): Bible Hub(Psalm 23): https://biblehub.com/psalms/23-4.htm