Across my desk: whether one may flee from a deadly plague

Across my desk: whether one may flee from a deadly plague

One of the privileges I have in the course of my week is receiving notes or emails or having conversations with the people of our church family that stimulates my thinking and helps me be a ‘life-long learner’. So I thought I would start a regular article called ‘across my desk’ with the aim of sharing some thinking on a topic of ‘applied theology’ or something I am reading that has relevance to the practice of church or ministry or Christian living. Often you might discover that I don’t have a definite answer, but you may be interested in my ‘thinking journey’, and indeed you may have some thoughts of your own that might add a piece to the jig saw puzzle. So this month…

Whether one may flee from a deadly plague

This is the title of a published piece from Martin Luther in 1527 when the bubonic plague (as we now call it) struck Wittenberg – Luther’s home city. Luther refused to leave the city, despite orders for the university faculty (he was a professor of theology) to do so, and he stayed to minister to the sick and frightened people. As I write this, in early March 2020, I am reading reports that Australian supermarkets are out of toilet paper rolls (of all things) as people ready themselves for the COVID-19 virus. There is now confirmed cases in NSW including person-person transmission. There is speculation that the World Health Organisation will soon declare a pandemic. The subject even occupied some time in the clergy conference I attended this week in Canberra, with diocesan guidelines on church activities soon to be released. I noticed a few articles on Facebook quoting Luther’s open letter, and as a fan of Luther, I thought I would read his publication for myself, and share with you some of his insights.

Firstly, Luther recognises the dread of death which is overwhelming to some, and the need to not burden such people with an obligation to ‘stay’. However, he is clear that those engaged in spiritual ministry (pastors and preachers) must remain steadfast before the peril of death. After all, a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11). Indeed, he exhorts the sick to call the clergy early to ensure meaningful ministry of word and sacrament, and all unaffected people should ensure they are attending public worship once every week or fortnight. The people, Luther emphasises, are responsible for their own spiritual welfare! However, where there are sufficient clergy for a city, some may leave so as not to expose themselves needlessly to danger. All those in public office who administer the good of the town, should also stay. As divinely appointed authority (Rom 13:4), they have a responsibility to not abandon the city which would leave it at risk of fires, murder, riots and other disaster. The same is to be said for parents who are to help their children, or children who have the care of their elderly parents, and physicians and other such vocations should not flee unless they can ensure sufficient resources to administer essential services. If such essential services are in place, then Luther judges it an equal choice to either flee or remain, recognising that to flee from death and save one’s life is a natural tendency implanted by God (Eph 5:29).

Later in his letter he commends public hospitals as appropriate places to send citizens, but where there are insufficient beds, care must be provided in homes – we must ‘be nurses for one another in any extremity’, for God’s word commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves. However, Luther does not commend recklessness in our care for each other but commends responsible measures to protect oneself such as medicine, purifying air, isolation from others, and even ensuring cemeteries are of sufficient distance from the cities.

Without modern biological germ transmission theory Luther offers (what seems to us as odd) spiritual causation of disease spread but does so in order to exhort us to spiritual courage and trust in God’s promises which might only be realised in the world to come.

So, to flee or not? To stockpile toilet paper or not? Luther’s fundamental reflection is that the Christian trusts in a Saviour who has overcome the peril of death and whose promise of eternal life is true. Therefore, he encourages service of others, and courage and trust in God, while taking responsible precautions for oneself and for others.

Luther lived in the pre-scientific era, where life was fragile and not easily controlled or managed. We on the other hand live during a time of world history where we scientifically explain everything (everything we can anyway – and we distract ourselves from the terror of the inexplicable) and have a perception that we can largely control our lives. I wonder if the potential effect of COVID-19 has awakened us from this slumber and allusion of control, and reminded us of our frailty? May God give to us all the courage which Luther exhorts, and a firm trust in the Saviour Jesus, who has overcome the peril of death and now lives and reigns with God the Father and Holy Spirit, for all eternity. Amen.

Please do drop me a line on this or any other matter that will help us in our ‘thinking journey’ of being Christ’s people in Wagga and the world.

Blessings, Scott