How did Christians in the Middle East Respond to earlier Pandemics?

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Wed, 2020-03-18
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St Thecla praying for plague victims/Tiepolo, 1759 – (source: Wikimedia Commons)


In the past death was all around us humans. Child mortality was high. Humans were afflicted by diseases that took away large segments of population. This has largely disappeared with us becoming aware of the crucial need for hygiene and medical care. The consequence is that modern people have become “by and large, psychologically and culturally underequipped for the current coronavirus pandemic,” Lyman Stone writes in the Financial Times of March 13. “Practical theology says care, sacrifice, and community are as vital as ever.”


His article is now circulating among English speaking Christians in Egypt and serves as an encouragement not to give in to fear.


“The Christian response to plagues begins with some of Jesus’s most famous teachings: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; “Love your neighbor as yourself”; “Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” Put plainly, the Christian ethic in a time of plague considers that our own life must always be regarded as less important than that of our neighbor.”


The Antonine Plague of 165-180 CE may have killed around one quarter of the population of the Roman Empire. Historians, Lyman Stone writes, noted that this plague contributed to the spread of Christianity since “Christians cared for the sick and offered a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.”


The Plague of Cyprian of around 249-262 CE, is named after a bishop who gave a colorful account of this disease in his sermons. It resulted in widespread manpower shortages for food production and the Roman army which in turn severely weakened the empire. “Cyprian’s sermons,” Lyman Stone writes, “told Christians not to grieve for plague victims (who live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”


Christians in this period were additionally hid by the edict of Emperor Decius who ordered everyone in the Roman Empire, with the exception of Jews who were known for the strict monotheism, to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor. Christians, Dr. Eugene Sensenig in Lebanon writes, “were faced with the option of compromising their faith, going into hiding, or facing execution. Significant numbers opted for each of the three responses. This convolution of two unrelated, but simultaneous forces, led to a major shift in the way Christians behaved and were perceived in the empire. Christians who were facing severe persecution and even death at the hands of their pagan neighbors were nevertheless caring for their sick and often nursing those pagans afflicted by the plague back to life at the expense of their own wellbeing.” Historian Rodney Stark argues that it was Christian love of their neighbors, not just love for fellow Christians, which made Christianity grow in numbers, Sensenig wrote.


Lyman Stone is obviously a Lutheran and refers to the bubonic plague that hit Wittenberg in 1527. “Martin Luther refused calls to flee the city and protect himself. Rather, he stayed and ministered to the sick. The refusal to flee cost his daughter Elizabeth her life. But it produced a tract, “Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague,” where Luther provides a clear articulation of the Christian epidemic response: We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.”


Being prepared to die does not mean acting stupidly. “Our bodies, Lyman Stone writes, “are gifts from God and must be protected. Or, as Luther says in his essay on the topic, we must not “tempt God.” The catechism Luther wrote for Christian instruction elaborates on the Fifth Commandment (“Though shalt not murder”) by saying that this actually means we must never even endanger others through our negligence or recklessness. Luther’s essay encourages believers to obey quarantine orders, fumigate their houses, and take precautions to avoid spreading the sickness.


The Christian motive for hygiene and sanitation does not arise in self-preservation but in an ethic of service to our neighbor. We wish to care for the afflicted, which first and foremost means not infecting the healthy. Early Christians created the first hospitals in Europe as hygienic places to provide care during times of plague, on the understanding that negligence that spread disease further was, in fact, murder.”


Until here this sounds fine but then Lyman Stone argues that Christians should not cancel worship services since the “motivation of personal sacrifice to care for others, and other-regarding measures to reduce infection, presupposes the existence of a community in which we’re all stakeholders.” Thus, yes to take action to minimize risks but not stopping to commune.


This argument is controversial. We have today ways of communicating electronically and are aware that the drastic measures governments are taking are temporal.


The above text shows how Christians have been dealing with pandemics in the past. We would love to receive a text showing how Muslims have been dealing with pandemics in the past.



March 18, 2020


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report