In 1527, the reformer Martin Luther was asked how Christians should respond to the plague. His response is gentle and challenging. You can download the whole letter from Lutheran Witness here.
His words are surprisingly relevant for us in 2020 as we face the upheaval of Covid-19. These are the four points I gleaned from his letter.
- Trust God – not tempt God
‘Why bother with all this social distancing and hand-washing? God will look after us.’ It is disappointing to hear this from fellow-Christians. Luther claims to admire those who have such strong faith, but most of us need to do what we can to minimise risk to ourselves and to others. Christians who ignore expert advice and carry on hand-shaking and not taking precautions are ‘putting the Lord their God to the test.’ (Deuteronomy 6:16)
- Love your neighbour, which is loving Jesus.
This is a time to look out for your neighbour, particularly your vulnerable neighbour. We should be ‘caremongering’ and not scaremongering. Caring for neighbour, even if that somewhat elevates the risks, is the way we show love for God. ‘Even as you did not do this to the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (Matthew 25:45)
- Don’t run from responsibility
There are people who are loading their vehicles with stores and heading out to farms where they plan to live ‘off the grid’ for as long as the pandemic runs.
Luther begins his letter by addressing ‘Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague’. In itself he can find no sin in running from the plague. Luther’s concern is that people with responsibility in both spheres of life, preachers and politicians, should not run away from their duties.
Clergy need to stay in their post to accompany their parishioners on their journeys through illness and death. Even if they cannot be physically present with their people, they should devise means of encouraging them in a time of fear. Our age has the internet, and churches are using email, Skype and live-streaming to maintain Christian connection as well as possible.
- Choose life – not resign yourself to death
We Aussies sometimes say, ‘If your number is up, it’s up’ in a fatalistic acceptance of death. Christians, however, should ‘choose life’. (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Death is part of life, and we should not fear it. We should approach the possibility of our own death through this time of plague with the assurance that whatever we think follows this life is better than we can imagine. (I Corinthians 2:9) On the other hand, we should honour the life that we have been given now by living it to the full, in self-giving to our neighbour and in gratitude to God.
To me that means living mindfully and choosing to find and share joy where we can.