The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting restrictions of free assembly and travel raise the question: How do Christians deal with such crises? In 1527, Dr. Martin Luther addressed similar concerns in his letter “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.”
In a nutshell, Luther found that elusive middle ground between panic and foolhardiness. Luther was aware some people were tempting God by refusing medicine or sensible precautions. He compares them to people who see their neighbor’s house on fire and do not help put it out, saying, “God, if he wills, can extinguish it without water. It’s probably his judgment.” Luther excoriates such senselessness as the mirror image of the hysteria that leads people to abandon their neighbors in time of grave need.
He encouraged people who were ill or infected to self-quarantine until they were completely well (this was unusual advice in his day). He chastised as murderers those who knew they were sick and yet exposed others to their illness. He said we should be gentle with and pray for those who are afraid and flee their civic duties. He encouraged the use of medicines and physicians, and recommended that public hospitals be established to treat this and other epidemics (they were few and far between in the sixteenth century). He wrote that public cemeteries outside of the town center (rare in his day) should be established in order to respect the dead and avoid infections from corpses. In all of this, he was far ahead of his time and would have sounded overly cautious to sixteenth-century ears.
On the other hand, there is no panic in Luther’s letter. He says that Christians ought not neglect their duties at home or in their communities over concerns of illness. He thought hysteria had gripped much of Europe and was leading to great harm. He insisted we have a duty to serve our neighbor at all times, even if it might harm or kill us—because we are all bound up together as Christ’s Body. He noted that if Christ or his dear mother were ill, we would rush to care for them, heedless of danger. Since Christ lives in every one of our neighbors, this should motivate us to care for the sick and to continue in our vocations for the good of our neighbor, even if that brings some risk to ourselves.
Luther also insisted the best defense against the Plague was regular public worship, hearing the Word, and receiving the Sacrament (which, in his day, involved drinking from a common cup). In his letter, he writes that one must “admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God's word how to live and how to die. . . . Second, everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight.” While this sounds foolhardy to modern ears, Luther believed—on the basis of Holy Scriptures, as all catholic Christians believe—that the consecrated wine is the Blood of Christ and the consecrated bread his very Body. As he writes in the Large Catechism, “No poison can be in that cup; and we should never treat the Sacrament as something harmful from which we should flee, but on the contrary as a pure and healing medicine which benefits body and soul and protects against death and all evils.”
We can differ from Luther on the medical realities of the common cup, but the general point is indisputable. According to Luther, public worship is more necessary, not less, in times of Plague. The devil would terrorize us with our fears of death, but in the Divine Service, the Mass, we learn not only how to live but how to die with Christ our Lord—because only there are we fully fed by Christ’s Word and Spirit, his Body and Blood. There we are encouraged to face the devil and his terrors with faith in God and love for our neighbor. Our safety is not guaranteed by the means of grace, but a joyful life and a good death certainly is.
Here’s a sample from that letter (which can be found in its entirety in Luther’s Works, American Edition v. 43):
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 . . . but such a person becomes a murderer in the sight of God, as I John 3:15–17 states. . . . If it be God’s will that evil come upon us and destroy us, none of our precautions will help us [though Luther does encourage sensible precautions as long as we’re still helping and serving our neighbor in our vocations]. We can be sure that God’s punishments come upon us not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love . . . for 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. . . . Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back at him!
It’s a fair question to ask, “How would I minimize fear and dread?” Again, for Luther the real weapon against the devil’s plagues is true worship. Luther encouraged healthy people to attend worship because only the medicine of immortality makes us joyful, mettlesome, and merry even in times of Plague.
The true worshipper puts his life every day in Christ’s hands—whether we live or die, it all works out for good for those who are Christ’s. So the faithful race to him, saying:
No, Satan, you’ll not have the last word! If Christ shed His blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for His sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with His precepts, His kindness, and all His encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil, with your false terrors in my weak flesh? God forbid! Get away, devil. Here is Christ and here am I, His servant in this work. Let Christ prevail! Amen.
Kevin Martin is a parish pastor serving Our Savior Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Raleigh, North Carolina.