Pandemic Love, by Charles E. Moore, is one of my favorite articles. I had found it a few years ago on http://www.plough.com. It is the website
for the journal “Plough Quarterly.” But I can’t find the article there anymore. Then it was on http://www.barclaypress.com. But I can’t find it there either. FORTUNATELY, around 5 or 6 years ago I had asked permission to reprint the article from Plough.com, and was given permission as long as I referenced them. Since it is no longer on their website, I can only reference their site as a whole. Although it was written a few years ago, and references historical events from almost 2 millenia ago, it seems especially relevant during this time in March 2020.
The avian flu, and the possibility of a world pandemic, is not only in the news, it is unnerving. One has only to recall history to realize that global killers have plagued human civilization. Gruesome details abound. But, surprisingly, so do acts of love.
Greek historian Thucydides describes the pandemic of 430 B.C., the world’s first recorded pandemic, as being characterized by sudden attack; inflammation of eyes; burning in the stomach and throat; bloody coughing; diarrhea; violent vomiting; livid, ulcerated skin; and then death. Those who survived were often left without toes, fingers, genitals, eyesight, and even with an entire loss of memory. One-third of Athens was killed.
Other plagues mar history. Under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, disease-ridden fleas killed 40% of Constantinople’s population and a quarter of the whole region’s population. Another outbreak occurred in France in A.D. 588, where an estimated 25 million lost their lives. Under a new name, the disease returned in the middle of the 14th century. Known as the Black Death because of a blackening of the skin due to hemorrhaging, people fled its path and in so doing aided its spread across the continent. A quarter of Europe’s population was decimated, and Asia and the Middle East were also hit. By the 18th century, an estimated 140 million people had died from the bubonic plague. Then in the 20th century, the Spanish flu came and went like a flash, killing an estimated 40 million people—more than were lost in the Great War.
Pandemics are real, and we are not exempt. Our natural instinct is either to worry about what might happen and become obsessed with protecting ourselves, or to ignore the doomsday prophets all together by burying ourselves deeper into a life of distraction and diversion. Neither response prepares us.
The history books are full of horror. As it is today, death and the horrid get the headlines. But throughout history, there exist stories of hope, not just horror. I can’t help but think of the early church in this regard.
In the Roman Empire…
In A.D. 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. The mortality rate was so high in many cities that Marcus Aurelius spoke of caravans of carts and wagons hauling the dead from cities. During the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, between a quarter and a third of the empire’s population died. Almost a century later, a second terrible epidemic struck the Roman world. From 251 to 266, at the height of what became known as the Plague of Cyprian (Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage), 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome. Two-thirds of Alexandria’s population most likely perished.
Pagan Rome was completely ill-prepared to help the sick or deal with mass death. People knew that their priests were clueless as to why the gods had sent so much misery to earth, or whether the gods were involved or even cared. Worse yet, the doctors, priests, and nobles fled infected areas in droves. Since pagans had no belief in immortality, and Stoicism demeaned any sort of heartfelt compassion, the plagues were meaningless and cruel. The basic response of pagans was one of flight.
The best of Greco-Roman science knew nothing about how to treat epidemics other than to avoid all contact with those who had the disease. And this they did, often evacuating entire towns, being afraid to visit one another. Hence, it turned out that the famous physician Galen who lived through the first epidemic during the reign of Marcus Aurelius got out of Rome as quickly as possible.
In stark contrast to such hopelessness and fear, Christians showed how their faith made this life—and even death—meaningful. Cyprian, for example, almost welcomed the great epidemic of his time, knowing that it was an opportunity for the church to give witness to the hope that was within them. He was so overwhelmed by a sense of confidence that the members of the Alexandrian church were accused of regarding the plague as a time of festival.
Instead of fear and despondency, then, the earliest Christians expended themselves in works of mercy that simply dumbfounded the pagans. For them God loved humanity, and in order to love God back they believed they needed to love others. God did not demand ritual sacrifices; he wanted his love expressed in deeds of compassion on earth.
This love took on very practical, concrete forms. In Rome, Christians buried not just their own, but pagans who had died without funds for a proper burial. They also supplied food for 1,500 poor people on a daily basis. In Antioch of Syria, the number of destitute persons the church was feeding had reached 3,000. Church funds were also used in special cases to buy the emancipation of Christian slaves.
During the plague in Alexandria when nearly everyone else fled, the early Christians risked their lives for one another by simple deeds of washing the sick, offering water and food, and consoling the dying. Their care was so extensive that Emperor Julian eventually tried to copy the church’s welfare system. His efforts failed, however, because for Christians it was love—not duty—that was their motivation.
The first Christians not only took care of their own, but also reached out far beyond themselves. Their faith led to a pandemic (pan = all; demos = people) of love. Consequently, at the risk of their own lives, they saved an immense number of lives. Their elementary nursing greatly reduced mortality. Simple provisions of food and water allowed the sick who were temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.
Pagans couldn’t help but notice that Christians not only found strength to risk their lives, but they also noticed that in caring for one another they were much less likely to die. Christian survivors of the plague became immune, and therefore they were able to pass among the afflicted with apparent invulnerability. In fact, those most active in nursing the sick were the very ones who had already contracted the disease early on, but who were cared for by their brothers and sisters. In this way, the early Christians became, in the words of one scholar, “a whole force of miracle workers to heal the ‘dying.’” Or as historian Rodney Spark puts it, “It was the soup they [the Christians] so patiently spooned to the helpless that healed them.”
In the midst of intermittent persecution and colossal misunderstanding, and in an era when serving others was thought to be demeaning, the “followers of the way”—instead of fleeing disease and death—went about ministering to the sick and helping the poor, the widowed, the crippled, the blind, the orphaned, and the aged. The people of the Roman Empire were forced to admire their works and dedication. “Look how they love one another,” was heard on the streets.
What about us today?
Our time is not unlike the twilight years of the Roman Empire. The god of materialism provides no hope; the structures and institutions of society that are meant to address social needs are indifferent and cold; and the current adversarial atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion, and violence breed fear and loneliness.
In an age of impersonal medicine, fear of death, social isolation, and mounting catastrophe, today’s church has the opportunity of going beyond the precautions of quarantine and vaccine by trusting in the ultimate protection: love. Instead of retreating from the onslaught of pain and death, the church has the chance to demonstrate that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Instead of fear, which makes it difficult to look beyond the precautionary, followers of Christ can show the world that it is in giving our lives away that we find life. How we live and how we die is our message. If we would but dare more in faith in the here-and-now, then perhaps, as with the early church, an outpouring of new life and real hope—instead of terror and flight—will sweep the earth.