But enormously important as this is, though, Luther should also be remembered for his actions and thoughtful response to the dreadful Black Plague – and what his wisdom suggests for us today in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 1300s, the Black Death, also called the Bubonic Plague, swept across two continents, eventually killing half the population of Europe in a short span of four years. Between 75 and 200 million people died and it took nearly two hundred years for the population to return to former levels.
During the 15th and 16th Centuries, various epidemics took more lives in the known populated world. And worse, the Black Death proved episodic, meaning it would die off only to resurge later.
In 1527, the plague came again, visiting Martin Luther's hometown, Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was instructed to leave by his university elector, but he stayed to minister to the sick. Days later, several around Luther had died, while his pregnant wife and others in his household became ill. Thankfully, they survived, as did Luther, but he was asked, even challenged, about the decision he made not to leave ahead of the epidemic.
Later that year, Luther wrote a fourteen-page pamphlet, an open letter entitled "Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague." He began his address to Rev. Dr. John Hess, pastor of Breslau, saying, "You wish to know whether it is proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague." Luther's answer bears repeating at length.
Luther noted that the Lord, "When he speaks of the greatest commandment he says, 'The other commandment is like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself' (Matt. 22:39). There you hear that the command to love your neighbor is equal to the greatest commandment to love God, and that what you do or fail to do for your neighbor means doing the same to God." Luther made it clear that Christians have a communal responsibility.
"This is said as an admonition and encouragement against fear and a disgraceful flight to which the devil would tempt us so that we would disregard God's command in our dealings with our neighbor and so we would fall into sin on the left hand." Luther did not take lightly the idea of fear or flight, and in fact indicated Christians should not succumb to either.
At the same, time, while Luther rejected fear and flight, he thought people foolish for not using the brains God gave them to avail themselves of reasonable and current ways to protect their health. "Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God's punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health."
"If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God's eyes. By the same reasoning a person might forego eating and drinking, clothing and shelter, and boldly proclaim his faith that if God wanted to preserve him from starvation and cold, he could do so without food and clothing. Actually, that would be suicide. It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have."
In case his reasoning was somehow misunderstood, Luther went right to the point (bullet points added):
• "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?"
Luther further recommended, "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 inflict 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 no foolhardy and does not tempt God."
Finally, Luther realized some, including him, might in the providence of God, actually die in the plague, so he said, "I regard it useful to add some brief instructions on how one should care and provide for the soul in time of death."
When the Black Death arrived at his doorstep, Martin Luther did not run screaming into the woods. He did not close his eyes and whistle past the graveyard. He did not stick his head in the sand. He was neither fearful nor foolish but a man of faith who applied his biblically Christian worldview to a real, sin-cursed-world problem. He learned and he served, and he trusted the Sovereign God to work his will with grace and love with respect to both Luther's family and his community.
COVID-19, the coronavirus, is a real-world pestilence, or in modern terms, a pandemic. It is our challenge in year 2020. Borrowing from Luther, we should love God by loving our neighbor, both caring for them and for ourselves. We should act with reason and judgment, taking preventative precautions. If we fear, we should ask for God's strong right arm, as the Psalmist did. We should live as unto the Lord, proclaiming the Lordship of Christ in and through all he gives us to experience, and "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
Dr. Rex M. Rogers, President, SAT-7 USA
*Contact me or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com, or connect with me at www.linkedin.com/in/rexmrogers.
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