Love without foolhardiness
Applying Martin Luther’s teaching to coronavirus concern
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Just as a Texas two-step helps us fight poverty—1. Be generous 2. Be discerning—so a Texas two-step helps us fight a pestilence like the coronavirus: 1. Love your neighbor 2. Don’t be foolhardy.
Such an understanding is nothing new. Ten years after Martin Luther jumpstarted the Protestant Reformation with his 95 theses, a plague ravaged Germany. Breslau pastor Johann Hess asked Luther for advice, and Luther responded with a tract titled, Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.
Luther’s step one was to follow Christ’s statement, “‘As much as you did to one of the least, you did to me’ (Matthew 25:40). If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor well at hand. … 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 of the left hand.”
Luther went on to say: “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 do not avoid persons and places infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are.”
Luther concluded, “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. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over. My dear friends, that is no good. … Shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence.”
We still don’t know how far and fast the coronavirus will spread and how lethal it will be, but “Thou shalt not kill” suggests we take precautions. If the spread continues, we should carry on with necessary personal and public conduct but avoid the unessential. We should postpone pleasure trips. We should postpone or cancel big public gatherings where people will crowd together and provide petri dishes for plagues.
What about the churches abroad that have canceled in-person services and used telecommunications instead? Luther said pastors “must admonish people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.” What if people can listen to the sermon via Skype or Zoom or podcast? American Christians may prayerfully have to think that through. For one particular question concerning whether to cancel, please see my article last month on what the 1975 film Jaws suggests about the 2020 South by Southwest, Austin’s biggest festival of the year.
Let’s conclude with one of Luther’s talk-backs to Satan: “If Christ shed his blood and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. … Get away, devil. Here is Christ and here am I, his servant in this work. Let Christ prevail! Amen.”
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