In the last few days, I have been reading over and over Martin Luther’s pastoral letter Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague. He wrote it in the middle of an outbreak of the plague in his town after bring asked whether Christians should flee the plague. It is wonderfully nuanced. On the one hand, Luther saw in the Bible that, all other things being equal, the fear of death is normal. So people who flee danger are acting wisely.
To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor
He answers those who think it is wrong to protect one’s self against an epidemic with this observation.
By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also a punishment from God. Anyone who falls into deep water dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to the water as to a divine punishment.
So Luther thought it reasonable that people flee the plague in his town. We can’t really flee the corona virus, so the equivalent for us is social distancing, even self-isolation. Luther puts a condition on protecting one’s self, however, and it’s a big one.
unless it be against God and neighbor
In his view, we should not protect ourselves if that involves abandoning our responsibilities toward others.
A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor. He will always reckon with the possibility that doing so will bring some disadvantage and damage, danger and loss.
Luther deals with the biggest reason why people abandon others in the face of danger – fear. He wrote:
When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart. He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles. We would sin thereby against God and man; that would be the devil’s glory and delight. Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him.
The writer of the book of Hebrews says of Jesus that
… he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. – Hebrews 2:15
Fear enslaves us when it prevents us from fulfilling our obligations toward others in order to protect ourselves.
Here’s a nice summary of Luther’s thought from his letter.
Therefore 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 infect 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 neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.
Luther noted that Christians don’t take precautions for selfish motives, but to protect others. A person who gets the desease might infect others, and he or she will require medical care, taking up resources that could have been used on others. So sensible precautions are a way we love our neighbors.
Here’s the advice I think Luther would give about the corona virus.
- Trust God. Don’t be enslaved by fear.
- Don’t hoard or profiteer as that hurts others. Being reasonably prepared is not hoarding.
- Do a sober assessment of your risk given your age and health. Take the commensurate precautions as recommended by experts. Do this even if you feel no strong need to protect yourself, but do it to protect others.
- If you have family or professional obligations, ask God for the courage to fulfill them. Understand your professional obligations as a vocation from God. Seek to be fulfilling that vocation when you die. If you have high risk and obligations, you might seek a way to hand them off or delay them in a way that does not abandon others.
- Don’t criticise those who choose to take risks to serve others. Don’t feel condemned by their actions.
- Don’t engage in self-agrandizing heroism.
- Don’t engage in reckless behavior because by doing so you are endangering others, not just yourself.
- If you feel God wants you to take risks to serve, don’t criticise those who take a more cautious approach.
You can read Luther’s letter here.
Here’s a good article on historic Christian responses to pandemics.
And here’s a good article with practical guidance.