Not that it’s much immediate consolation, but we’ve been through this before, in the church and the world. Plagues from the Black Death to Yellow Fever, smallpox, polio, AIDS, Ebola and SARS have been part and parcel of the human condition across the centuries. Now it’s our turn, and it’s global.
While our times and infections (COVID-19) are distinct, there are striking historical parallels, even insights, we might consider.
In her classic text, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, historian Barbara Tuchman documents the bubonic plague’s impact on medieval Europe. In a chapter entitled “‘This is the End of the World’: The Black Death,” Tuchman writes:
“Rumors of a terrible plague supposedly arising in China and spreading through Tartary (Central Asia) to India and Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and all of Asia Minor reached Europe in 1346.”
Lacking “a concept of contagion,” few were worried until trading ships carried the infected (humans, rats, fleas) into France in 1348. It spread to Spain and Italy, England, Ireland and throughout the continent.
Seven centuries later, does this sound familiar?
“Racism, whether medieval or modern, is its own ceaseless plague.”
Soon the dead stacked up like cordwood, numbers so extensive that many of the dying received no last rites, interred “without prayers.” One English bishop permitted the dying to make their confessions to laymen, “or if no man is present then even to a woman.” An Italian chronicler observed, “nobody wept no matter what [their] loss because almost everyone expected death.” Half the population of Siena, Italy, died with the plague.
Agnolo di Tura, a citizen of Siena, documented the terror of contagion that impacted every relationship:
“Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another, for this plague seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so, they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship.… And I, Angolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands, and so did many others likewise.”
Twenty-first century Italians are experiencing similar realities. A jolting March 17 front-page New York Times headline read, “Lonely Deaths and Funerals As the Bodies Pile Up in Italy.”
Although no sector was spared, the underclass bore the brunt of the pandemic. Another chronicler recorded, “only the stench of their bodies informed neighbors of their death.” Many declared, “This is the end of the world.” It wasn’t, at least not for everyone.
Conspiracy theories abounded, blaming Romani (Gypsies), “foreigners,” Jews. Tuchman notes, “While Divine punishment was accepted as the plague’s source … people still looked for a human agent” as a focus for the anger they feared to direct toward God.
Jews, she adds, were the primary scapegoats:
“The Jew, as the eternal stranger, was the most obvious target. He was the outsider who had separated himself by choice from the Christian world, whom Christians for centuries had been taught to hate.”
In 1349, 2,000 Jews were slaughtered in Strasbourg, and Jewish populations in Mainz and Cologne were murderously wiped out.
“Learning from Jesus – amid natural and unnatural causes, online and in person – how to live and how to die, together.”
When COVID-19 is repeatedly labeled by our president as the “Chinese Virus” or by others as the “Kung Flu Virus,” and Asian Americans are increasingly harassed, it seems 21st-century scapegoating has again reared its ugly head. Racism, whether medieval or modern, is its own ceaseless plague.
The Black Death began to subside by 1351, having decimated 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. Yet outbreaks continued, another exploding in Germany in 1527, 10 years after the Protestant Reformation began. Catholics and Protestants blamed each other.
Martin Luther responded with “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague,” a 16th-century admonition that informs our 21st-century COVID-19 bio-cultural dilemma. He wrote:
“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 neighbor 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.”
Luther’s insights, while contextually medieval, somehow are shockingly contemporary, at once pragmatic, communal and spiritual then and now. Amid scientific and medical knowledge vastly more sophisticated than that of the medieval era, the COVID-19 virus reinforces our individual, communal and global vulnerability. That reality compels us to:
Promote social, but not spiritual, distancing.
Luther’s counsel is clear: We must “fumigate,” “purify” and “avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated … and pollute others.” Self-care becomes community-care. Yet we also “ask God to protect us,” and reach out, in whatever form possible, when “our neighbor” needs us.
Continue to offer the care of souls, mindful of necessary boundaries.
Luther wrote: “Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry and pastors must remain steadfast before the peril of death.” Yet the community required protection; thus “anyone who becomes infected will stay away from other persons, or allow [themselves] to be taken away and given speedy help with medicine. Under such circumstances it is our duty to assist such a person and not forsake him in his plight.”
For us, potential COVID-19 contagion dictates communal boundaries, right now requiring worship and ministry through social media, virtual venues that may be with us for some time.
Hold government officials accountable for the oaths they take in behalf of the American people.
Luther insisted that “all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain.” He warned:
“To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin…. the kind of disaster the devil would like to instigate wherever there is no law and order.”
Sound advice, even in the land of the free and the home of the CDC.
Sustain communities of faith now as best we can; we’ll need them even more when this is over.
In his treatise on the plague of 1527, Luther cut to the chase about the role of the church then and now: “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.” Online or as gathered community, through PayPal or the offering plate, when it is “sanctuary” and when it isn’t, we cling to the gospel and the church, not as a hymn-singing non-profit, but as the Body of Christ.
Learning from Jesus – amid natural and unnatural causes, online and in person – how to live and how to die, together.
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