Over the last two weeks, my wife, Ginny, and I heeded the directives of medical professionals to “self-isolate” after returning from a trip to Northern Italy at the end of February. Thankfully, we have not exhibited any symptoms of COVID-19 and we will be re-entering society in a few days. In this work-from-anywhere, curbside-grocery-pickup world, we didn’t suffer any of the very real and damaging disruptions this disease is causing other communities across the globe, and for that, we are humbled and grateful.
We did, however, have ample time to observe how businesses and churches and news outlets and family members are reacting to this still-unfolding crisis. We had time to wonder together, “What is the appropriate posture for Christians to inhabit at this moment?” “What does Christian love look like in a time of Coronavirus?” In moving towards an answer to that question, I will tease out a distinction Ginny made one night between “treating” and “caring” while looking back at one of the first times when Christians found themselves in the midst of a public health emergency. Throughout, I will be drawing from Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, which I have found immensely helpful and hopeful in this season of rapid change and mounting anxiety.
251 AD. Trajan Decius rules the Roman Empire during a time of war and political unrest. Then, as if out of nowhere, a horrible plague sweeps across the city and empire. At the first sign of trouble, the wealthy elites (priests, senators, merchants, etc.) flee their cities in droves for their countryside villas. Streets are emptied, industry grinds to a standstill, and the general hysteria transforms friends and loved ones into hazardous threats. The government and health officials seem unable to mount any sort of effective organized response. “Fend for yourselves” seems the mantra of the day, and the death toll mounts. At its worst, the disease claims 5,000 lives every day in Rome alone.
Slowly, however, word begins to spread of a small and controversial religious sect, Christians, who seem to be living by a different mantra. Those of their sect with the means to leave their cities choose instead to remain. Rather than sequestering themselves and their resources, they open their homes and coffers to their neighbors in need. Christian religious leaders are constantly on the move, offering basic palliative and hygienic care for the sick in their flocks while exhorting and organizing their parishioners to follow their lead even beyond their faith-communities. They possess no “treatment” for the ravaging epidemic, but through the lens of their faith, they are able to re-imagine the devastation around them in such a way that they are spurred on to offer what care they can to their neighbors with courage and even joy.
Among others, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage re-frames the epidemic as an incisive examination of the hearts of every person:
“How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race: whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted… These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give to the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.”
This counter-cultural commitment to companionship does not make these Christians immune to the plague; in fact, many prominent Christians across the empire die. Writing an Easter letter to his congregation in 160 AD, still in the thick of the epidemic, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria eulogizes those who lost their lives in the care of others:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead… The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”
Obviously, quite a bit has changed since the mid-second century, and yet, here we are, in a time of growing instability and mounting public fear as we face down a novel disease without any substantive “treatment.” What mantras are you hearing as you read articles and watch news reports? How are you being nudged to view your neighbor?
But what if we re-imagine this pandemic as an opportunity to examine the “fortitude” of our hearts and minds? What would it look like to show “unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing [ourselves] and thinking only of one another” given the particular realities of COVID-19? How do we hold prudence in tension with the imperative to love and care for “the least of these” among us (Matt 25:35-40)? These are questions for collective discernment as members of Christ’s body in our diverse contexts, but here are a few preliminary suggestions:
- Look Out for the Lonely: The men and women who are going to be hit hardest by the increasing emphasis on “social distancing” are those who were already the most isolated. I encourage you to take a moment and make a list of those in your orbit who might be lacking a social support network at this time. How might you be a caring companion to the people on your list? From our brief stint of self-isolation, it was a tremendous gift whenever a friend reached out to talk or to ask how we were holding up and if they could help in any way. A little intentionality can go a long way.
- Technology as a Tool: We are equipped with a staggering array of tools for staying connected. Admittedly, these often work to isolate us when we are able to be together, but who is to say we cannot use them now to bring us together in the midst of our collective isolation? Modern technology also offers us the ability to meet many of our practical needs with a relatively low germ footprint. Ginny and I leaned on “no-contact” grocery pick-up and restaurant delivery during our two weeks of isolation; how might we be able to use these resources to better care for our neighbors in practical ways?
- Get Outside: Epidemiologists tell us that our risk of spreading or contracting the Coronavirus while outdoors is significantly lower than in closed spaces. This isn’t an excuse to get reckless (oft-touched surfaces should still be handled with care), but perhaps there are creative ways that we can continue to convene in small groups out of doors (hikes, jam-sessions, picnics, etc.) in order to promote community unity, bolster mental health, and inject a little joy into days that can feel restricted and stifling.
- Pray: This goes without saying, and yet, always needs to be said. Praying in the face of something so ubiquitous and impersonal may at times seem pointless, but I will leave you with some encouragement from C.S. Lewis:
“When we are praying about the result, say, of a battle or a medical consultation the thought will often cross our minds that (if only we knew it) the event is already decided one way or the other. I believe this to be no good reason for ceasing our prayers. The event certainly has been decided—in a sense it was decided ‘before all worlds.’ But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering… Something does really depend on my choice. My free act contributes to the cosmic shape.”
If you have thoughts or ideas about how we can continue to be the courageous and creative people of God in the midst of this pandemic, please Send Me an Email, and we can keep the discussion going!