Over the past few weeks it has been interesting to see a letter written in 1527 make its rounds in religious news cycles and blogs, a letter I first read in an ethics course during divinity school. Protestant Reformer and Theologian Martin Luther’s letter “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague” addresses the moral dilemma that arose when Christians were confronted with the question of whether or not one should escape the chaos of a deadly plague or remain behind to aid those who are held captive by the bedlam of sickness. Luther examines the ethical question in its relation to the love commandment set forth by Christ. If Christians are to love their neighbor, should they leave them in a time of distress, even if it means putting themselves at risk?
The letter came 200 years after the Black Plague had killed nearly half of the European population and had begun to re-emerge in Luther’s hometown. In his letter Luther states that it is the duty of clergy, public officials and professionals, and family with dependents to continue their vocational responsibilities.
Furthermore, Luther says, “Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ, ‘A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees’ [John 10:11]. For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.” What Luther faced was far more dire and deadly than the virus(es) we face today. Yet, there is an atmosphere of fear and anxiety amongst many, especially as more cases of the Coronavirus are confirmed in the DC area.
Luther holds in juxtaposition the sanctity of self-care [Eph. 5:29; 1 Cor. 12:21–26] with the sanctity of caring for others [Matt. 22:39, 25:31-46]. In addition to imploring those with duties and responsibilities to stay, Luther also offers examples of actively seeking refuge and safety so long as it does not harm our neighbor. To put it simply or to reinterpret what Luther was saying in my own words: 1) we should not freak out, we are a community called to live not by a spirit of fear, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” [2 Tim 1:7] and 2) we must remember the command to love our neighbors as ourselves [Mark 12:31] and in doing so, that includes caring for those in need as well as making sure we do not put others in harm’s way (please stay home if you’re sick).
As your pastor I am here to guide and lead you on this collective journey of faith in times of joy and in times of uncertainty. I am here to serve the community at Riverside and assuage any apprehension our community may have. The deacons and I have been active in our response and have already begun implementing appropriate decisions regarding communion and the passing of peace. Please do not hesitate to call upon us should you have any questions or concerns. As always, I am available for office hours or visitation.