Luther’s Small Catechism, in its explanation of the 5th commandment, reads, “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” My church’s (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) elaboration on this makes clear that we are required to offer help wherever it is needed and avoid actions which might, even inadvertently, harm others through our negligence. Not only must we, like the Good Samaritan, help the man in the ditch; we should pay our taxes to finance highway police to make banditry less common. The duty of care is deep, but also broad.
This sensibility has deep roots in times of disaster. Christians were famous in antiquity for caring for plague victims, with both the Antonine and Cyprian plagues leading to prominent Christian roles. Religious historian Rodney Stark claims that the Christian response to the Cyprian plague reduced mortality in Christian communities by perhaps as much as 2/3, even as it won numerous converts, hastening the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.
Pointing to the gospel in the midst of panic
In 1527, Martin Luther was asked how Christians should respond to plague. The question was not hypothetical: Bubonic Plague had struck the area. Christians were afraid, and given Luther’s importance to that movement, Protestant princes urged Luther to flee, to save himself.
He refused, instead writing the short tract now known as “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.” Luther argued that Christians have a dual duty to care for those whom God has placed in our path through our vocations, alongside a duty to care for the bodies which God has placed in our stewardship. Thus, we can indeed flee a plague for safety: unless we have duties to people who cannot flee.
Luther makes clear that government officials cannot flee a stricken city, pastors cannot abandon their sheep (especially behind the scenes if it’s necessary to not meet for a season), parents cannot eschew their duties to sickened children, and neighbors cannot abrogate the implied duties of neighborly care. Love your neighbor, sick or well. But if your neighbor flees and you have no other duties, you can go too. And, of course, if governments command quarantines, or a cordon sanitaire, or removals, Christians can comply.
But Luther makes very clear that he intends to enjoin care even unto death, saying that Christians should not fear “some small boils,” and that “death is death, however it may come.” Christians do not abandon their crosses because they get heavy. We die on them.
I am aware of the burden of this approach because I am living it. My wife and I, and our newborn daughter, live in Hong Kong, where we serve as missionaries in the Lutheran Church-Hong Kong Synod. We have been on COVID-19’s doorstep for weeks, with a government that failed to take basic precautions until after local transmission had begun. Flights have been cut off, basic supplies have run short, school has been cancelled, and the streets have emptied. People hoard masks, rice, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, getting theirs while the getting is good. The devil of mortal fear, an enemy so rarely encountered in modern society, stalks our streets.
When each day brings new uncertainties and worries about how bad things will get, we must trust that God will give us enough grace for the day.
We have been blessed to serve in a church body in Hong Kong which has not cowered before that devil. God’s ministry does not stop for plague. When each day brings new uncertainties and worries about how bad things will get, we must trust that God will give us enough grace (and enough hand sanitizer) for the day. In a time of fear, what our neighbors need is a God who is their rock, not pastors who shrink before physical danger. When death seems near, the promise of eternal life must draw nearer. When sickness can lurk in every handshake, the healing hands of the King of kings are the most needed. Our community needs the promise of the gospel more now than ever.
How our church in Hong Kong has responded
But of course, modern scientific understanding does complicate this reality. We are not helping our neighbor if we expose him to lethal germs through our negligence. And indeed, religious institutions have been at the epicenter of COVID-19: in Washington, D.C., the first confirmed case was the Rector of an Episcopal church. Thus, Christians face a two-sided duty: to comfort those who are afflicted, but not to infect the vulnerable. Fortunately, I believe this duty can be faithfully performed.
Our church in Hong Kong has, thankfully, had zero confirmed COVID-19 cases, and we have sought to reduce the odds of transmission by taking steps appropriate for our particular context to love our neighbors in a time of plague. Every attendee has their temperature checked and recorded at the door: a practice which has been adopted in every country which has beaten COVID, like Taiwan, Macau, and Singapore. Our church has also spaced out seating, adopted sanitary communion practices and refrained from passing an offering plate. We have done away with a time of congregational greeting that includes shaking hands (introverts, rejoice!), and all surfaces are regularly disinfected. And these are just a few of the measures we’ve taken. These measures can’t completely guarantee safety in a church. Especially in very large churches with more than a few hundred members, there are virtually no sanitary procedures which can protect congregants. All of these practices are along the lines of CDC has recommended as well, and such measures can greatly reduce the risk of infection.
The point is, we should do whatever we can to take suitable, recommended precautions in order to protect our neighbors.
A refuge in the midst of fear
But COVID-19 is a great opportunity for witness. Our communities are full of scared people. Depression, anxiety, and suicide are all likely to spike in the next few weeks. I can guarantee you of this: COVID-19 comes paired with a mental health epidemic. Bereft of community, the outdoors, work, and school, individuals and families will face an unprecedented assault on their minds. The Church must respond. We must make our services physically safe places, adopting a higher standard of hygiene than wider society, so that we can provide a refuge of mind and spirit to scared people.
Since COVID-19 is especially dangerous to elders, churches can seize the opportunity to deliver food and basic supplies to older people in their communities so that they don’t have to go out. This will save lives, minister to the spirits of these dear brothers and sisters, and be a witness to all of their watching neighbors.
Since COVID-19 will lead to school cancellations, Christian families can organize parent-shares for small groups of kids, and use these as opportunities for discipleship in the home, which has proven to have an immensely fruitful effect.
Since COVID-19 will cause many people to be afraid, Christians can, when appropriate, meet friends for dinner or coffee and talk about fear, and the God who casts out all fear. We can explain that we’re just as afraid as everyone else, that we aren’t really very brave people: but Christ died for us. Whom then shall we fear? COVID-19? Hardly.
Since shortages of basic commodities are a guarantee, Christians can set an example of community support. Our churches can pool masks, soap, and other supplies from members, distributing as needed. Our church supplies a week of masks to everyone who shows up on Sunday morning, while many of our church families, including my own family, have more-or-less resolved to share our supplies until there is nothing left. When they have two dollops of hand soap left, Christians give the first one away.
This is the witness of our ancestors in the faith since time immemorial; this is the path they have walked; this is how we love our neighbors. We love our neighbor as ourselves, even laying down our lives for them. And crucially, this is also how we reduce the spread of COVID-19 without enabling an epidemic of mental health: with strict sanitation, but generous witness.