With each passing day, we seem to take one step closer to normal life in the wake of COVID-19 quarantines and isolation mandates. Some have returned entirely to our old world with large Memorial Day celebrations and gatherings without masks and social distancing. Others remain sheltering in place and continue to only venture out for the occasional grocery run. The divide between these two groups grows as our country and world debate how best to handle the attack of the current pandemic. I assume that, as usual, the hardening political and ideological lines feel exhausting to the average American. I know this is true for me. They offer only one more tension to worry over rather than reprieve in the current turmoil. And it’s in this moment of public debate over a virus that remains mysterious, chaotic, and deadly, that I continue to find myself returning to the words of Luther in his letter entitled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.”
Much has already been written about this letter and its relevance for the Christian living through the Coronavirus pandemic. Consistent to his understanding of the vocational freedom given to those who believe the gospel, Luther instructs those living through the pestilential disease of his own time to first and foremost consider their neighbor in whatever capacity their vocation requires. He gives several examples of this: the Pastor and church worker are obligated to continue preaching the gospel to those in their care, the public official must continue leading and commanding their communities, and those in service must confer with their employers to find the best solution for all parties involved. The Christian should act reasonably to preserve their health and life as well as the health and lives of those around them while also trusting in Christ’s goodness.
Yet Luther’s advice remains open-ended. It’s more descriptive than it is prescriptive, and it leaves room for the Christian to decide how best to act based on his own situation, his needs, and the needs of his friends and family. What stands out most to me in this letter is the Reformer’s clear condemnation not of those who act this way or that, but who operate out of self-preservation and self-justification or, in other words, with vapid attempts at a COVID-driven righteousness.
Many may only help when the risk of doing so is at its minimum, but this, according to Luther, is action devoid of Christian love. “A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor,” he says. This isn’t some harshly imposed moral challenge, but instead a way in which we should once again turn to Christ as we realize just how self-centered we are in our motivations to avoid sickness, suffering, and death. Our lack of love always reveals our lack of faith, for God has promised to preserve us not just in this life but in the next. There is no need to doubt him. “The service we can render to the needy is indeed such a small thing in comparison with God’s promises and rewards,” says Luther. Just as we attempt to limit our service to protect ourselves, so do we limit God’s promises to the small comforts of this life. And yet Scripture reveals that these promises are so much more: it is on account of Christ we have been given the comforting promise of life-everlasting with our Creator.
What stands out most to me in this letter is the Reformer’s clear condemnation not of those who act this way or that, but who operate out of self-preservation and self-justification or, in other words, with vapid attempts at a COVID-driven righteousness.
Many may serve those around them wholeheartedly putting themselves at risk in some capacity, and yet do so out of a need to point to their good works as the “right” and best way to act in reaction to a pandemic. To such a person, Luther delivers a warning: “A person who attends a patient because of greed, or with the expectation of an inheritance or some personal advantage in such services, should not be surprised if eventually he is infected, disfigured, or even dies before he comes into possession of that estate or inheritance.” While we may not agree with the distinctly medieval consequence assumed by Luther, the Reformer again is working to expose the true nature of our hearts by diagnosing the self-justification found within our pandemic righteousness.
Such righteousness also lacks true love, and therefore true faith in God, because it once again assumes that our human action (think mask-wearing or its opposite) can save us where the promises of God cannot. This is not to say that one should abandon all reason, for “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,” says Luther. It simply means that, especially as Christians, we are meant to serve in love both our neighbor in need as well as the neighbor who doesn’t think they need us. We are called to love both the elderly widow terrified of sickness as well as those we disagree with in policy and practice. Each could certainly use a word of grace and forgiveness just as much as us.
We are meant to serve in love both our neighbor in need as well as the neighbor who doesn’t think they need us.
So as we enter yet another stage of the unknown during these unprecedented events, I encourage you to take Luther’s advice: Act with reason. Love your neighbor according to their needs and your vocation. Recognize the pervasive plague of self-preservation and self-justification within your own heart. And above all, trust that God’s promises are meant for you now - in both sickness and in health, in your contributions to flatten the curve as well as your failings to do so. May the gift of Christ’s forgiveness find each of us quickly during this time.