The swine flu, and the possibility of a world pandemic, is not only in the news, it is unnerving. One has only to recall history to realize that global killers have plagued human civilization before. Gruesome details abound. But, surprisingly, so do acts of love.
Greek historian Thucydides describes the world’s first recorded pandemic in 430 BC: sudden attack, inflammation of eyes, burning in the stomach and throat, bloody coughing, diarrhea, violent vomiting, livid, ulcerated skin, and then death. Those who survived often suffered the loss of toes, fingers, genitals, sight, and even their entire memory. A third of Athens was killed.
Other plagues mar history. Under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, disease-ridden fleas killed 40% of Constantinople’s population and a quarter of the region’s population. Another outbreak occurred in France in 588 AD, where an estimated 25 million lost their lives. Under a new name, the disease returned in the middle of the 14th century. It was known as the Black Death, because of blackening of the skin due to hemorrhaging. People fled its path and in so doing aided the spread of the disease across the continent. A quarter of Europe’s population was killed. Asia and the Middle East were also hit. By the 18th century, an estimated 140 million people had died from the bubonic plague. In the 20th century too, the Spanish flu came and went like a flash. An estimated 40 million people were killed, more than were lost in the Great War.
Pandemics are real, and we are not exempt. Our natural instinct is to either worry about what might happen, becoming obsessed with protecting ourselves, or to ignore the doomsday prophets all together, burying ourselves deeper in a life of distraction and diversion. Neither response prepares us.
The history books are full of horror. As it is today, death and the horrid get the headlines. But throughout history, there exist stories of hope, not just horror. I can’t help but think of the early church in this regard.
In 165 AD, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. The mortality was so high in many cities that Marcus Aurelius spoke of caravans of carts and wagons hauling the dead from cities. In all, during the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, from a quarter to a third of the empire’s population died. Almost a century later, a second terrible epidemic struck the Roman world. In 251 to 266, at the height of what became known as the Plague of Cyprian (the bishop of Carthage), 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome. Two-thirds of Alexandria’s population most likely perished.
Pagan Rome was completely ill-prepared to help the sick or deal with mass death. By the time of the early church, the people knew that their priests were clueless as to why the gods had sent so much misery to earth, or whether the gods were involved or even cared. Worse yet, the doctors, priests and nobles fled infected areas in droves. Since pagans had no belief in immortality, and Stoicism demeaned any sort of heartfelt compassion, the plagues were meaningless and cruel. The basic response of pagans was thus one of flight.
The best of the Greco-Roman scientists knew of no way to treat epidemics other than to avoid all contact with those who had the disease. And this they did, often evacuating entire towns, being afraid to visit one another. Hence, the famous physician Galen, who lived through the first epidemic during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, got out of Rome as quickly as possible.
In stark contrast to such hopelessness and fear, the Christians showed how their faith made this life, and even death, meaningful. Cyprian, for example, almost welcomed the great epidemic of his time, knowing that it was an opportunity for the church to give witness to the hope that was within them. He was so overwhelmed by a sense of confidence that the members of the Alexandrian church were accused of thinking of the plague as a time of festival.
Instead of fear and despondency, then, the earliest Christians expended themselves in works of mercy that simply dumbfounded the pagans. For them, God loved humanity; in order to love God back, one was to love others. God did not demand ritual sacrifices; he wanted his love expressed on earth in deeds of compassion.
This love took on very practical, concrete forms. In Rome, the Christians buried not just their own, but pagans who had died without funds for a proper burial. They also supplied food for 1,500 poor on a daily basis. In Antioch in Syria, the number of destitute persons being fed by the church had reached 3,000. Church funds were used in special cases to buy the emancipation of Christian slaves.
During the Plague in Alexandria when nearly everyone else fled, the early Christians risked their lives for one another by simple deeds of washing the sick, offering water and food, and consoling the dying. Their care was so extensive that Julian eventually tried to copy the church’s welfare system. It failed, however, because for the Christians it was love, not duty, that motivated them.
The first Christians not only took care of their own, but also reached out far beyond themselves. Their faith led to a pandemic (pan = all; demos = people) of love. Consequently, at the risk of their own lives, they saved an immense number of lives. Their elementary nursing greatly reduced mortality. Simple provisions of food and water allowed the sick that were temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.
Pagans could not help but notice that Christians not only found the strength to risk death, but through their care for one another they were much less likely to die. Christian survivors of the plague became immune, and therefore they were able to pass among the afflicted with seeming invulnerability. In fact, those most active in nursing the sick were the very ones who had already contracted the disease very early on but who were also cared for by their brothers and sisters. In this way, the early Christians became, in the words of one scholar, “a whole force of miracle workers to heal the ‘dying.’” Or as historian Rodney Spark puts it, “It was the soup [the Christians] so patiently spooned to the helpless that healed them.”
In the midst of intermittent persecution and colossal misunderstanding, and in an era when serving others was thought to be demeaning, the “followers of the way,” instead of fleeing disease and death, went about ministering to the sick and helping the poor, the widowed, the crippled, the blind, the orphaned and the aged. The people of the Roman Empire were forced to admire their works and dedication. “Look how they love one another,” was heard on the streets.
Our time is not unlike the twilight years of the Roman empire. The god of materialism provides no hope, the structures and institutions of society that are meant to address social needs are indifferent and cold, and the current adversarial atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion, and violence breed fear and loneliness.
In an age of impersonal medicine, fear of death, social isolation, and mounting catastrophe, today’s church has the opportunity to go beyond the precautions of quarantine and vaccine and trust in the ultimate protection: Love. Instead of retreating from the onslaught of pain and death, the church has the chance to demonstrate that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Instead of fear, which makes it difficult to look beyond the precautionary, followers of Christ can show the world that it is in giving our lives away that we find life. How we live and how we die is our message. If we would but dare more in faith, here and now, then perhaps, like with the early church, an outpouring of new life and real hope, instead of terror and flight, will sweep the earth.