An Alternative to Panic: A Faithful Response to Epidemics

“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 the relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether the masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether the physicians do not desert the afflicted.”

The year was 251 A.D. and the second of two different outbreaks of two different diseases was ravaging the Roman Empire. The first plague, nearly 100 years earlier, was reputed to have claimed the lives of 2,000 per day in Rome, even devastating the imperial army to the point they postponed a major offensive attack. But this second plague seemed all the more destructive, nearly doubling the death toll. Life was disrupted, and sadness and panic filled the atmosphere just 200 years after the tomb was empty. It was especially terrifying to a world that knew nothing of the spread of disease, viruses, or even the microscopic world.

Yet the words of Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage at the time, reflect no evidence of panic or fear. Moreover, a second bishop of the time, Dionysus of Alexandria, describes the Christian community being transformed into a battalion of nurses, running toward the sick, “attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ.” Dionysus of Alexandria, describes the Christian community being transformed into a battalion of nurses, running toward the sick, 'attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ.' Click To Tweet

In his book The Rise of Christianity, author Rodney Stark writes that “though the plague terrified the pagans, Christians greeted the epidemic as merely ‘schooling and testing.’ Thus at a time when all other faiths were called to question, Christianity offered explanation and comfort. Even more important, Christian doctrine provided a prescription for action. That is, the Christian way appeared to work.”

The result? Communities in which Christians ministered to the ill experienced significantly fewer deaths than the rest of the populace during both outbreaks. But even more significant in the history of Christianity, these times of plague wound up contributing to the exponential growth of the number of those who professed faith in Jesus—not by fear, but by something else.

The Something Else

Admittedly, the two plagues of the first three centuries and their societal decimation are far cry from the COVID-19 pandemic in which we find ourselves today. Technology has advanced, and we can now see our virulent attackers under the microscope. But the writings by the early Christian bishops, compared against the backdrop of the “terrified” pagans, reveal two distinct reactions to out-of-control contagions, responses that are as different as night and day.

One is the merely human reaction not only of fear but of obsession. The other is a fearless and others-focused response, a response the early Christians lived into in the face of illness and even death. The former expands situational knowledge but has a negative psychological impact. The latter is an attractive force that embodies not only the teachings of Jesus but crucified love. The “Something Else” that led to the growth and spread of Christianity in this horrific time was the mind-boggling care and hope that Christ-followers displayed in such a time of need. Distinct from the masses who lived in despair and panic, the Christians embraced the time of ‘schooling and testing’.

What does a faithful response to COVID-19 look like?

I’d be lying if I said I was unaffected by the coronavirus situation in which we find ourselves. Every fifty seconds, I see a news update regarding the pandemic pop up on my newsfeed. A week ago, I flew in an airplane with people wearing masks. A national conference I was supposed to be part of has just been postponed until next year, and my parents, who are taking a trip at the end of the month, are on my mind. I find myself wondering about a huge baptism service my church is holding, and I check updates to see if a running race I’m registered for is still on.

Due to the interconnectedness of our world, technology, and travel, it’s impossible to avoid being personally affected. But as a Christ-follower and person of faith, I don’t think the solution is to shut it all off and go about business as usual, because business is not usual. However, I also don’t think panic and hoarding items at the grocery store is a faithful response either.

Taking cues from Cyprian, Dionysus, and third-century Christians, what if we saw this time as an opportunity to demonstrate a different, hopeful, others-focused response than the world around us? What if instead of focusing solely on loss, we harnessed its power for ‘schooling and testing’? What if this very different Lent in which we find ourselves this year became a time to more powerfully comprehend how God took it upon himself to stop down into a broken body in our broken world and suffered the cross? What if we saw this time as an opportunity to demonstrate a different, hopeful, others-focused response than the world around us? Click To Tweet

Share Wisdom, Not Panic

The Hebrew word translated “wisdom” 55 times in the Book of Proverbs is chokmah from the verb chakam, “to be wise.” Chokmah is the ability to judge correctly and to follow the best course of action, based on knowledge and understanding. In Hebrew understanding, it is also the ability to see something from God’s viewpoint: God’s character in the practical context of life. To have knowledge of a dangerous situation, yet fail to respond—especially claiming “God’s promise to protect the faithful”—is folly. Shepherds have a responsibility to act in wisdom in protecting their entire flock, no matter if the attacker is human, spiritual, emotional, or viral.

The word “panic,” on the other hand, has its origin in the Greek panikos, derived from the name of the Greek god Pan who was storied to cause humans to flee in unreasoning fear and terror. Panic’s response is never equivalent to the level of its knowledge of the threat. It resorts to a place of despair before facts even point there, but it spreads quickly, due to its emotional nature embedded in human beings. Panic stunts learning and leaves God on the sideline. Panic stunts learning and leaves God on the sideline. Click To Tweet

But wisdom requires contextual learning, reading your social context and what is happening in your state and county, in your neighborhood and community. It means learning and unearthing the underlying source of panic and worry beneath the arrival of a virus and demonstrating a response that does not involve rolling your eyes at those who are worried or calling people buying excess toilet paper “idiots.” Wisdom listens. It listens to experts and events, to others in similar circumstances, and to God, pouring all information and emotion through a sieve, straining out the most necessary nuggets. Wisdom listens without ignorance or asserting superiority. And then it requires contextual decision-making and clear communication, based on the needs of the family, the community, and the congregation at this time, in this place. What’s more is that wisdom remains humble, unafraid to reassess as time goes on.

Many churches around the world, large and small, have and are exercising contextual wisdom through adjusting practices of greeting, gathering, and worship. Many have written letters to adequately explain the reasoning behind such practices, also encouraging recipients to take their own personal precautions based on age, health, and location.

Focus on Others at the Expense of Self

Cyprian’s biographer writes, “The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ.” It’s kind of bizarre to me to think of these people throwing themselves into service of the sick, knowing that it could mean their own demise! What’s more, the spread of disease was still a mystery to them—so in effect they were also throwing themselves into a situation where anything could happen. I find myself questioning had I been there at that time, would I have done such a thing?

While I don’t believe that a faithful response to the coronavirus means Christians should clamor onboard infected cruise ships to serve the quarantined and volunteer at overloaded hospitals, I do think we can glean something very important from the focus of the third-century Christian nurses who took Jesus’ words to “love your neighbor” quite literally in sickness and in health. It was their focus on the well-being of others before themselves—even at a cost to themselves—that made them stand apart.

“But so very few people are infected; the symptoms are milder than the flu; the mortality rate is very low, it really only has the potential to harm older people.” Perhaps you’ve heard some of these popular reasonings as communities, schools, and churches are taking precautions, and events and travel are canceled. Being in my thirties, I can assume that even if I caught coronavirus, I’d probably be all right. But statistics show that others might not be, such as:

  • Nursing home residents
  • Your parents in their seventies, eighties, and nineties
  • Cancer patients and those in remission
  • Heart disease patients
  • The immunocompromised

When Jesus tells his famous parable of the Good Samaritan as an answer to a man’s question of “who is my neighbor?” he describes a Samaritan traveler who is minding his own business and is unrelated and unaffected by the state of the man he sees beaten up on the side of the road. Others have passed by because the man’s state didn’t presently affect them, and interaction could cost them. But the person who makes the difference in this story is the one for whom it was most costly—temporally, financially, physically.

We teach Jesus’ story by sermon and flannelgraph, vowing to stop when we see somebody with a flat tire again. For most of us, if we get sick, we may only pay the price of a couple weeks off work. So what would it look like to put the ‘other’ first? What if personally and collectively, we could do something that might save the life of a weaker person—even if it seems irrational, even if it costs us?

Harness Creativity, not Curtailing

“What can we learn?” I wrote a social media post a few days back where I announced my intent to revisit some favorite books, movies, and TV shows that involved imaginary epidemics and infections. I shared some that had come to mind—like “Outbreak,” “The Walking Dead,” and “The Girl Who Owned a City,” and asked others to share their titles. But I also asked responders to reflect on something that the characters learned.

There’s always something. The nature of God is to provide light and new life, sometimes in the form of learning, from even the darkest places. The third-century bishops framed this as their perspective of “schooling and testing” that became critically important in providing meaning and encouragement to Christ-followers. In our context, attempting to evade the virus threat may involve curtailing social gatherings and limiting interactions. The easy thing to do will be to follow our gut reaction, hunker down, and wait it out.

But what if this could be a time of schooling and testing creativity for the church?

Several blogs and advertisements share ways for even the smallest churches to broadcast worship services, and this is good, but the creative potential goes way beyond that. Colleges moving to online classes, remote-working employees, Zoom meetings—this could be a temporary societal shift to being even more physically separate, yet connected. And as studies reveal, with increased dependence on phones and computers comes more isolation, loneliness, and Google searches. But these are also spaces whose power can be harnessed.

Perhaps there has not been a more-needed time to create community and inject good news in new and creative ways.

A Hopeful Moment

Times of illness and plague are not foreign to the Christ we worship. He himself entered into a human body, frailty and all. The people he formed relationships with, his friends and acquaintances, suffered and died of disease. Jesus encountered lepers and people with demons, as well as those whose more advanced disease was sin itself. Yet he did not allow the brokenness of our world and the brokenness of our bodies to write the last chapter of the story.

In this season of Lent, we journey toward the cross. What the world sees is an instrument of death, but we see the love and life behind it.

As we face coronavirus and the unknown days ahead, let us be faithful. And let us share the hope behind our faith, as we act in wisdom, as we serve others, and as we follow what the Spirit may want to create anew.

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