Serving, Safety, and Social Distancing
Over the past few weeks, I’m sure you’ve heard it, if not said it yourself: “These are unprecedented times in my lifetime.” I know that I have said it, because they are. I can’t remember a time in my short life that resembles what we are going through as a world, nation, and church right now. None compare—in my lifetime.
But these are not unprecedented times. Historians are quick to point out that pandemics have come and gone through the centuries. This means that many of the questions we are asking, and situations we are facing are not new. Other believers have forged a path for us to follow as we pursue Christlikeness in this uncharted territory.
One helpful insight that was brought to my attention last week came from the pen of Martin Luther almost 500 years ago when the plague reemerged in his hometown. The quote was so relevant, I thought it must have been written by someone today and then attributed to Luther to garner authority. So, I did some digging. Sure enough, this quote was Luther’s. Not only that, but the context in which it was shared with me accurately resembled Luther’s intent when he penned it (I read the whole work to make sure.). Luther’s insights are particularly relevant to Christians today as we wrestle through how to live in the midst of a pandemic. Here’s the quote:
"No, my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore 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 infect 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 Works, Vol. 23, 132)
This paragraph comes in the midst of Luther addressing believers who may be tempted to downplay the seriousness of the plague. Therefore, he assumes you have already read the previous paragraphs addressing how one should think of the plague and act in the plague. From this quote, I think two valuable insights can be extracted.
Obey the second commandment. Therefore, help even if it means putting yourself in danger. You would do well to read all of Luther’s letter, not just this isolated paragraph. Earlier, he masterfully articulated the need for Christians to engage helping those who are suffering, despite the ever-present danger. To obey the command to love our neighbors may put us in harm’s way, but would not our security in salvation compel us to move towards danger for the souls of those who are doomed? We may get the virus, but who better to get the virus than those who will wake up in glory! If we no one else can help, we help. If this pandemic cripples our healthcare system and many are left with no one else to care for them, we go. We go because we love God and because we care for more than the body—we care for souls!
Obey the second commandment. Therefore, avoid others when you cannot help. The reason I became aware of this quote was due to the social distancing measures that the government started implementing early last week. Luther makes an important point. We should not spread the disease through unnecessary contact. Social distancing has its place, even for believers. Our love for fallen humanity compels us not to be negligent in our contact with others. We should not unintentionally invite eternity into a home through our unnecessary proximity. Love for our neighbor compels us otherwise.
As I think through Luther’s advice in light of the current situation, I believe the current COVID-19 situation puts us in the second paragraph. Right now, we do well to social distance. We seek to “slow the spread” as it were. This situation does not keep us from sharing the Gospel, it just forces us to get creative. But we may find ourselves in the first paragraph in due time. We pray not, but if we do, we embrace our immortality as confidence to love our neighbors and move towards the danger when no one else will.