S. Joseph Scott
Special for News Talk Florida
We are not the first generation of humans to face plague. In reality, we are exceptional in not having to face things like COVID-19 on a repeat cycle, thanks to modern medicine. However, because many have suffered similarly, we have wisdom from past generations to guide us through. One such example comes in a letter, likely written in 1527, by the German Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. My attention was drawn to it while listening to a podcast last week. As with much of his work, Luther responds to a question from a fellow pastor, that being “Whether one may flee from a deadly plague?” Luther’s response provides a wide sweeping philosophy of civic responsibility including five principles.
First, The greatest commandment. Luther takes his foundational position from Jesus, who when asked what is the greatest commandment answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). In fact, the two commands are Siamese twins. The means to loving God is love of neighbor. “Godliness,” Luther explains, “is nothing else but service to God. Service to God is indeed service to our neighbor.” When trials come, like a deadly plague, it tests our faith in God, and our love to neighbor. “If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him,” Luther reasons, “very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand.” The first question every individual should ask in a crisis is, what does love demand in this moment?
Second, there is the left and right hand of folly. People naturally tend to fall off the horse on one side or the other in responding to public crises. The “left hand of sin” is a response of panic, refusing to trust God in the face of adversity. Luther describes this as, “a disgraceful flight to which the devil would tempt us so that we would disregard God’s command in our dealings with our neighbor.” On the other hand, there are those who disregard common sense and call it faith. “They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague.” This, Luther says, “is not trusting God but tempting him.” True faith for the Christian is “neither brash nor foolhardy.” Faith does not panic, but trusts that God is in control. And, faith exercises common sense, respecting the created order.
Third, Don’t judge. Luther had clear biblical insight into human nature. He understood that we are always tempted to think that our response in a crisis is the best response, and then we look with haughty contempt on others who choose another path. But, he observes, “Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone.” It is not wrong to flee death, but natural. It is also right and good to risk one’s life in the service of others. But, not all share the same constitution, nor the same obligation. “I judge that they have an equal choice,” Luther explains, “either to flee or to remain. If someone is sufficiently bold and strong in his faith, let him stay in God’s name; that is certainly no sin.” On the other hand, “If someone is weak and fearful, let him flee in God’s name as long as he does not neglect his duty toward his neighbor.” We must respect freedom of conscience where God’s law does not prescribe a clear course of action. And, we must extend grace to one another in the exercise of that freedom.
Fourth, there are various callings. Luther understood well the biblical idea that God has ordained various stations or callings for the public good. And, public office comes with public responsibility. “Accordingly,” he explains, “all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain.” It would be a tragic abdication of responsibility for public officials to abandon their post in the face of a crisis. This applies to parents caring for children, or children caring for aging parents. We each bear various responsibilities based upon God given positions, both in our families, and in our communities.
Fifth, trust God and wash your hands. One of the striking features of Luther’s teaching is his balance. Yes, he says, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us.” But, he immediately adds, “Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.” Luther was a true Christian example. Faith does not mean put on blinders and hope for the best. Faith respects the created order of things and trusts God for the outcomes.
In the end, Christian faith is fiercely confident that even death has been defeated in the resurrection of Christ, which emboldens acts of compassion. So, Luther triumphantly concludes, “If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you [speaking to Satan] 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.” God in Christ always has the last word in a Christian philosophy of civic responsibility. So, in the face of our present plague, let us pray with confidence, then wash our hands.
S. Joseph Scott has a Ph.D. in theology and has served in leadership positions in both higher education and religious institutions. He has published in both academic and popular journals and has a special interest in the intersection of faith and culture.