Martin Luther on the Coronavirus

Martin Luther on the Coronavirus January 31, 2020

The World Health Organization has taken the rare step of declaring the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency.  The fast-spreading virus that originated in China has flu-like symptoms, but 20% of the cases develop into serious and potentially life-threatening conditions, such as pneumonia and respiratory failure.  Though the mortality rate is not high–so far, 171 people in China have died, out of some 8,000 cases–the prospect of a pandemic has shaken the stock market, shut down a great deal of international travel, and imposed severe restrictions in China and other countries.

Medical professionals around the world are making plans for how they might deal with a coronavirus epidemic in their countries.  Fear of the disease–or others, like it, perhaps more deadly–has Christians in many countries wondering how they should respond.  Should they evacuate areas that are threatened by the disease?  Should they find ways of helping the sick?  If they do, won’t that expose them to the virus?  These are especially urgent questions for Christians in China.

Medical student Emmy Yang has written an article for Christianity Today entitled  Is It Faithful to Flee an Epidemic? What Martin Luther Teaches Us About Coronavirus, with this deck:  “The German reformer’s pastoral reflection on the plague can guide both medical students like me and Christians in China—and everywhere the Wuhan virus has spread.”

In 1527, the black plague–which had wiped out half the population of Europe two centuries earlier–broke out in Wittenberg.  The whole city, understandably, panicked.  Luther wrote an open letter that would be entitled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”  (Luther’s Works 43:119-38).  It is a profound and practical reflection on the Christian’s response to death and suffering, the obligations that come from loving one’s neighbor, the legitimacy of self-preservation, and–as one might expect–vocation.

Here is Emmy Yang’s summation of Luther’s points:

First, Luther argued that anyone who stands in a relationship of service to another has a vocational commitment not to flee. Those in ministry, he wrote, “must remain steadfast before the peril of death.” The sick and dying need a good shepherd who will strengthen and comfort them and administer the sacraments—lest they be denied the Eucharist before their passing. Public officials, including mayors and judges, are to stay and maintain civic order. Public servants, including city-sponsored physicians and police officers, must continue their professional duties. Even parents and guardians have vocational duties toward their children. . . .

Luther challenges Christians to see opportunities to tend to the sick as tending to Christ himself (Matt. 25:41–46). Out of love for God emerges the practice of love for neighbor.

But Luther does not encourage his readers to expose themselves recklessly to danger. His letter constantly straddles two competing goods: honoring the sanctity of one’s own life, and honoring the sanctity of those in need. Luther makes it clear that God gives humans a tendency toward self-protection and trusts that they will take care of their bodies (Eph. 5:29; 1 Cor. 12:21–26). He defends public health measures such as quarantines and seeking medical attention when available. In fact, Luther proposes that not to do so is to act recklessly. Just as God has gifted humans with their bodies, so too he has gifted the medicines of the earth.

What if a Christian still desires to flee? Luther affirms that this may, in fact, be the believer’s faithful response, provided that no emergency exists and that they arrange substitutes who will “take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them.” Notably, Luther also reminds readers that salvation is independent of these good works. He ultimately tasks them to decide whether to flee or to stay during plagues, trusting that they will arrive at a faithful decision through prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. Participation in aiding the sick arises out of grace, not obligation.

However, Luther himself was not afraid. Despite the exhortations of his university colleagues, he stayed behind to minister to the sick and dying.

Here is a brilliant quotation from Luther’s letter, drawing on Matthew 25:31-46:

This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running. . . .If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him.

 Illustration:  Plague in the house of Sir Jordan Fitz-Eisulf, Stained glass window, Canterbury Cathedral.  Photo by Julian P Guffogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.  No alterations were made.


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