Thoughts on Christian Living During an Epidemic

1. What a Week!
2. The Early Church and Plagues
3. Julian the Apostate’s Implicit Christianity
4. On Belief and Action
5. A Brief Tangent on Money
6. What Does it Even Look Like to Live Like Jesus
7. Conclusions
8. Questions
1. What a Week!

This has been quite an exciting few weeks.  Two weeks ago I fired off a newsletter, sharing the plans and asking for prayer for CSF Berks and Brandywine’s trip to North Carolina for Spring Break.  We got there safely, had a lovely Sunday worshiping at a local church and hiking at a state park, then a few good days of work.  But as we worked, we watched the news and saw everything shutting down.  Despite growing angst and stress, we kept working.  It wasn’t till Friday afternoon that I decided I did not want to wait one more day to go home.  Instead, of leaving Saturday morning, Officer Groff and I drove through the night to make it back to campus by 3:30 AM.   Of course, there are no students on campus anymore.  Everything is closed.  This has forced us to get a bit more creative in ministry.  It has also forced us to get creative in parenting and educating our children too, as they have been home all week.  I hosted online meetings with the students on Wednesday and Thursday.  With Penn State closed for the semester, all our meetings will be online now.

Prior to the trip, I created a daily devotional that focused on the Minor Prophets.  Each day we read a selection from a prophet (Hosea, Amos, Joel, Habakkuk and Micah).  I also included a few quotes I find inspirational or challenging.  As we continued to hear about Corona virus throughout the trip, the scriptures and other readings became more and more relevant.  Specifically, we read a good bit about how to treat people during times of crisis.  This leads me to want to share with you some insights I’ve found inspiring and challenging from how the church in the first five centuries handled both sickness and money.

2. The Early Church and Plagues
Plagues and epidemics were common in the world Christianity grew up in.  During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, beginning in 165 AD, a plague (perhaps smallpox) swept through the Roman Empire.  By the time it was over, 15 years later, estimates are anywhere from 1/4-1/3 of the people in the Empire were dead, including the Emperor.  The famed physician, Galen, fled Rome and hunkered down at his country estates.  Then in 251 AD another plague swept the empire, historians think this one may have been measles. 
Dionysius was the bishop of Alexandria during this second plague.  He wrote about in in his Easter Letter.  First he comments on how the Christians cared for their sick neighbors:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”

Dionysius than notes that the pagans were exactly the opposite.  Like Galen, they looked out for themselves:

“The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.”
Historians identify this unprecedented care for the sick as one of the primary reasons Christianity grew in the early centuries.  You can read books such as Rodney Start’s The Rise of Christianity, Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.  Each of these books, in its own way, presses back against a story that has become common today.  As this story goes, the ancient Greco-Roman world was nearly an idyllic paradise as open-minds pursued science and knowledge.  This all ended, so it goes, when Christianity came along and ruined everything (initiating the wrongly named “Dark Ages”).  Thankfully, with the rise of the modern world western culture threw off superstition and was able to once again get on the path of progress and science. 

Nearly every part of this story is untrue.  For example, life in the Greco-Roman world, life WAS great…if you were a freeborn male.  But if you were poor or a slave or a woman, you did not share in the fun.  There was no concept even close to what we understand as equal rights.  Since they had no concept of equality as we think it, when a disease struck, it was every man for himself.  Furthermore, though there was some concept of giving to the poor, it was not a central part of life and was driven more by a need to keep the poor fed so they do not rebel than any idea that the poor had worth or value. It was only as Christianity began to expand that some of these assumptions were challenged: slaves and women were equal parts of the church community, even achieving leadership positions (at least at first, soon the church stopped allowing women to lead in the way they once did, but that’s a newsletter for another day).  Generosity and charity became a central way of life, as the poor and vulnerable were seen as God’s image-bearers and having worth and value.  
3. Julian the Apostate’s Implicit Christianity

The Christian worldview was a whole different way of looking at the world and it motivated the Christians to care for the sick even at great risk to themselves.  Christianity grew through normal people exhibiting this self-sacrificial love and charitable giving to others.  In 312 AD Emperor Constantine saw which way the wind was blowing and converted to Christianity.  He gave Christians all sorts of privileges they had not had before.  All of a sudden, it was publicly beneficial to be a Christian and many joined the growing religion.  When Constantine died, in 337, his three sons each ruled a portion of the empire: Constantine II (West), Constans (Middle), Constantius (East).  By 353 Constantius was the only one left, and the sole ruler of the empire.  Yet he Empire was too large for one man to rule successfully, so Constantius elevated his cousin, Julian, to Augustus.  When Constantius died in 361, Julian was left alone to reign.
Unlike his family, Julian was not a Christian.  He had been raised by the best Christian teachers, but he rejected Christianity at an early age.  One reason Julian hated Christianity was that his cousin, Constantius, had ordered the execution of Julian’s entire family, seeing them as a threat to rule (apparently Julian was too young to be a threat).  Julian grew up witnessing baptism and faith having no great difference in the lives of the Christians in his family.  Moving away from Christianity, he was drawn to paganism.  Specifically, he was drawn to the Neoplatonists (philosophers who had a new take on Plato).  When he became sole emperor, he set about trying to reconvert the emperor back to paganism.
There is question as to how sincere Constantine and his sons were in their Christian faith.  Were they Christians out of expedience or our of commitment?  David Bentley Hart quips that Julian is the only one in Constantine’s extended family who can not be accused of bad faith.  He truly was committed to his faith in the old Greek and Roman gods..  Hart comments that he was a pagan the way an ideal Christian was supposed to be a Christian: “there was also a proselytizing, moralizing, and activist element in his approach to religion that one can describe only as evangelical zeal.”  As he traveled around the empire, visiting pagan temples, he was distraught by the ruin in which he found many of them.  Tom Holland relates the story of Julian writing to the priests of the temples of Cybele in Galatia, calling on them to model charity and generosity to the people in need.  Yet the Cybele religion, like all pagan religions of the day, had little to no tradition of generosity to go back to.  Telling them to return to their charitable roots might as well have been speaking a foreign language: his words made no sense to them.  Julian’s vision of a renewed paganism was, in reality, a paganism imbued with ideas from Christianity.  Hart comments:
“Did he really imagine that the sort of charity he wished to recommend could have any compelling rationale apart from the peculiar moral grammar of Christian faith? Where did he imagine the moral resources for such an ethics were to be found in pagan culture? Hospitality to strangers, food and alms for beggars: these were indeed, as he insisted, ancient traditions of the ‘Hellenes.’ But giving to all and sundry, freely, heedless of their characters, out of love for their humanity; visiting those in prison, provisioning the poor from temple treasuries, ceaselessly feeding the hungry, providing shelter to all who might have need of it; loving God and neighbor as the highest good, priestly poverty, universal civic philanthropy: all of this emanates from another quarter altogether.  Did Julian truly believe that the fervency of his faith would take fire in others if pagan priests would only undertake the sort of superficial imitation of Christian behavior he enjoined? And did he really fail to understand that the Christians had been able to surpass the pagans in benevolence because active charity was organically part of – indeed, central too – their faith in a way that it was not for pagans?” (Atheist Delusions, 191)
More briefly, Holland notes that Julian’s quest was implicitly Christian: “The young emperor, sincere though he was in his hatred of ‘Galilean’ teachings, and in regretting their impact upon all that he held most dear, was blind to the irony of his plan for combating the: that it was itself irredeemably Christian” (Dominion, 139).
Julian reminds me of the many people I meet who exhibit strong morals and ethics, even Christ-like morals and ethics, but who have no Christian faith.  This demonstrates how deeply rooted Christian morals and ethics have become in our culture.  Today when we see nurses and doctors putting themselves at risk to help others, we are seeing people living not in the tradition of the pagan doctor Galen who fled to save himself, but in the tradition of Christians who risked their lives to help others.  It is the full flowering of an idea that began among those tiny groups of Christians.  It is not a given of science or nature that some humans should care for the well-being of others at risk to themselves..  For those who “just believe in science” there is no basis in just science to put others before yourselves in this way.  As John Gray, who is not a Christian, says in his book The Seven Types of Atheism, “Science cannot close the gap between facts and values. No matter how much it may advance, scientific inquiry cannot tell you which ends to pursue or how to resolve conflicts between them” (21).

In other words, science can tell us how diseases spread, how they arise and can even give us vaccines.  But science cannot tell us whether we should flee (like Galen) or help others.  As Julian learned centuries ago and many of us realize today it is not just a given that we should help others.  Such help needs to be rooted in some deeper understanding of who humans are and who God is. 

Honestly, from a purely scientific perspective, there is not really even a reason to favor human survival over that of animals (or viruses).  If you don’t believe me, just google “Antinatalism.”  Thankfully, such ideas are still in the minority.  Christianity so permeated the culture for centuries, that the default ethic for most people remains distinctly Christian.  It may remain so in an unreflective and unknown way so that most do not realize it.  It may remain so even in those who, often rightly, are critical of the Christian faith.  But its there.  Julian was the first such person.  Hart ends his discussion on Julian:
“The real proof of what the gospel wrought in its first three centuries lay in Julian himself, as he was in the full splendor of his pagan prime. From Constantine to Theodosius, the emperor mos genuinely Christian in sensibility – in moral feeling, spiritual yearning, and personal temper – was Julian the Apostate. At least, none merits greater admiration from a Christian of good will.  It is simply one of the great ironies of history that everything Julian wanted from his chosen faith – personal liberation and purification, a united spiritual culture, a revived civilization, moral regeneration for himself and his people – was possible only through the agency in time of the religion he so frantically despised.  And nothing, I think, gives better evidence of how great and how total a victory the true Christian revolution had by his time achieved” (198).
4. On Belief and Action
This discussion of Julian, plagues, Galen, caring for the sick and giving to the poor all makes me think on the relationship of belief and action.  Julian, after all, is infamous as “the Apostate”.  In the story of the first great Christian emperors, he is cast as the bad guy.  But, as Hart argues, this bad guy was no worse and may have been even a little better than most of those good guys.  Let’s not make a mistake here: Julian was certainly no saint.  But if we are looking honestly, Constantine was no saint either! (With all due respect and apologies to our Eastern Orthodox friends who do consider him a saint!)  Closer to home, we all encounter this tension on a daily basis.  Some who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior may not appear to live Christlike lives and others with no faith are deeply moral.  
It makes me wonder, do we favor belief over action?
Last month I wrote at length about the theory of evolution, confessing I (mostly) believe in it and find it no big deal.  How we got here, the truth of the evolution of our species, is secondary or even irrelevant to matters of faith.  I was surprised by the positive response I got, and also appreciated a few welcome questions.  What I find interesting in the whole debate though is the focus on belief, as if the ideas in our head are what most defines us.  It seems that the Christianity I have been a part of is much more concerned with belief.  So if I read and admire John Calvin (who had a guy burned at the stake) or John Edwards and George Whitfield (who were okay with slavery), very few bat an eye.  These men are considered paragons of orthodoxy and thus their poor, un-Christlike actions are forgiven.  But if I read Leo Tolstoy (calling us to live like Jesus in The Kingdom of God is Within You) or medieval Catholic mystics like Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross (or Rob Bell or Richard Rohr or, well, the list goes on!), I might be warned to watch out for their shady beliefs.  My point is not that these people are perfect; by all accounts Tolstoy was not a pleasant dude.  But do we ignore the unpleasantness, and the evil actions, of those we consider to have the right beliefs?  Do we give them a pass?  (I wrote about Calvin and Tolstoy on my blog way back in 2011 as I was reading both of them; you can see it here.)
In my experience, belief is made specially important.  For some Christians, the primary thing that matters, the sole defining trait of being a Christian, is our beliefs (doctrines).  This can be seen in a Reddit discussion I noticed where the person asks, “Can a Christian be too liberal?”  I’ve heard this same question before and find it funny it is rarely, “Can a Christian be too conservative.”  It is seen in discussions I overhear my students having, where it sounds like what they see as setting them apart from others on campus is their beliefs about Jesus.  What about their goals for life, study habits, how they treat roommates or professors, or their social lives?  To be sure, many of them would say that their faith should make a difference in all those areas.  Yet my point is, when it comes to the central things that Christians see as defining us, it is often the beliefs in our head.
When I read the stories of Jesus and the New Testament church and the early church, it does not appear they are defined by their different beliefs. 
Now don’t get me wrong.  They certainly possessed different beliefs.  Jesus’ followers believed he was the Messiah while the Jewish religious leaders did not.  Paul believed the one God of Israel had to be redefined to include Jesus while his Jewish interlocutors saw this as blasphemy.  The early Christians believed God had taken on flesh in Jesus while the Greeks thought it was beneath God to take on flesh (Check out Docetism, an early heresy in the church).  All of these were different beliefs.  The difference between them and us is that for us, we think it is these different beliefs that identify us.  For them, it was an entire way of life that flowed out of those beliefs that gave them their identity.
In other words, I suspect if we questioned them about their different beliefs, they’d find it an odd place to begin.  It was their actions that set them apart.  Jesus called his followers to take up their cross and follow him, not just to possess a different set of ideas. In the book of Acts the early Christians are simply called “The Way,” implying a whole way of life and not just a different doctrine.   John wrote in his letter, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18).  The point is not merely to have different beliefs, but to live the Christ-like life that flows from those beliefs.

To be a Christian in the early church was to pledge allegiance to a different Lord and to live as this Lord’s subject..  For early Christians, baptism was a ritual that was akin to enlisting in the Roman military (Tertullian emphasized this in the late 100s).  To be baptized was to sign up as a disciple of Jesus, with the whole different life this entails. 

We miss this in our culture which is why, I think, so many Christians live in obedience to so many other Lords: consumerism, capitalism, individualism, militarism.  We confess our belief in Jesus and his resurrection.  We affirm our right beliefs on any number of other things.  But then we go through our daily lives just as worried as anyone else, putting our trust in our bank account or our strength for survival or whatever.  We are, as Dallas Willard called it, vampire Christians: we want the blood of Jesus to cleanse us of our sins, but fail to live the way Jesus calls us to.
5. A Brief Tangent on Money: How Worried Are You About the Stock Market?
Many examples of how the early Christians lived differently come to mind.  I have already mentioned how they dealt with epidemics, and I alluded to the different way they treated women and slaves.  Another relevant one seems to be the economy and the stock market.  Last week on my trip, a few students kept checking the stock market and giving me updates (as if campus ministers have extra income to buy stock!). A whole lot of people were very worried last week, and still are, as our economy took (continues to take) a plunge.  I am not going to pontificate on the stock market or the economy apart from one observation: how different should Christian approach to money be from the way money is seen in our capitalist economy?  It strikes me that we learn one way of looking at money from growing up in capitalism and this way is not the same as the one Jesus and his earliest followers had.  Money is at the center of our world.  Here is a sampling of quotes from church leaders in the early centuries on money (source):
“You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his” – Ambrose of Milan, 340-397.

“The property of the wealthy holds them in chains . . . which shackle their courage and choke their faith and hamper their judgment and throttle their souls. They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they rather who are owned: enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not the masters of their money but its slaves” – Cyprian, 300 A.D.

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help” – Basil of Caesarea, 330-370 A.D.

“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs” – John Chrysostom, 347-407 AD

“Instead of the tithes which the law commanded, the Lord said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions” – Irenaeus, 130-200 AD

“The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally” – John Chrysostom, 347-407

“Share everything with your brother. Do not say, “It is private property.” If you share what is everlasting, you should be that much more willing to share things which do not last” – The Didache

“Let the strong take care of the weak; let the weak respect the strong. Let the rich man minister to the poor man; let the poor man give thanks to God that he gave him one through whom his need might be satisfied” – Clement of Rome, 1st Century

“Christians love one another. They do not overlook the widow, and they save the orphan. The one who has ministers ungrudgingly to the one who does not have. When they see a stranger, they take him under their own roof and rejoice over him as a true brother, for they do not call themselves brothers according to the flesh but according to the soul” – Aristides, early 2nd century

“How can I make you realize the misery of the poor? How can I make you understand that your wealth comes from their weeping?” Basil of Caesarea, 330-370 A.D.

“When you are weary of praying and do not receive, consider how often you have heard a poor man calling, and have not listened to him” – John Chrysostom, 347-407

I always hesitate to post quotes like this from an article online, for what if they are mistaken.  But these quotes are relatively easy to find in the primary sources, if you want.  Also, I have read both John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Poverty and Basil the Great’s On Social Justice.  If those guys lived and wrote these things today, a lot of Christians in America would probably write them off as socialist or liberals (or worse).  This just shows that the way the early Christians viewed money is a far cry from how we do today.  But again, people noticed the early Christians.  They carried themselves differently.  They marched to a different drummer and  walked in obedience to a different Lord.  When it came to how they encountered and approached plagues and epidemics, they stood out as different.  When it came to how they approached and handled money, they stood out as different.  These different actions flowed from different beliefs.  But I’d argue, it was the entire lifestyle of different actions flowing from different beliefs that made them stand out.

6. What Does it Even Look Like to Live Like Jesus?
The question is, what would it look like for us to be different?
One of the unique challenges is that, in our culture everybody is influenced by Christianity at some level.  Whether conservative or liberal, Christian or secular, all of us have drunk from the well of Christianity.  This is one of the best things Holland illustrates in his book.  For example, both the traditional impulse (of conservatives) and the revolutionary impulse (of liberals) can be traced to Christianity (and honestly, back even farther to the Old Testament as we see traditional priests and revolutionary prophets).  This means we will find some Christian attributes in all people.  We may see Christian ethics in our secular friends and our Christian friends.  We will find that when we seek to live as Christians, we do not fit comfortably into any side of our culture (and if we find ourselves thinking one group has the market cornered on truth, that just might show we are blind to that side’s unique errors).  
Again, Christianity has so permeated our culture that we do not notice how Christian we are.  I think this may be partly why, when well-meaning Christians strive to live differently, they end up sounding like intolerant jerks.  If our non-Christian neighbors appear generous and kind, and we want to be different, we need to identify other ways to be different.  So we get back to our different beliefs and place the emphasis there.  Or we find a few areas where our neighbors are living wrongly and focus on that.  Of course, there is not necessarily anything wrong with pointing out that no one is perfect and everyone falls short in some way.  The problem is, we come across as arrogant in pointing out only how they fall short.  We also come across as hypocrites, ignoring how we ourselves also fall short. 

This is the other half of the equation: I would argue, we also do not notice how Christian we are not.  Rather than examining ourselves, taking the plank out of our own eye before critiquing others…we just critique others.  We pat ourselves on the back, comfortable in our right beliefs and loose Christian morality, not even realizing how far we are from how the first followers of Jesus lived.  When we get inside the early church and see just how radical they were, we find how much we have sanitized their message.  David Bentley Hart writes in his introduction to his New Testament translation:

“In truth, I suspect that very few of us, even in our wildest imaginings, cold ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ…I mean that most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent…We are quite accustomed, after all, to thinking of Christianity as a fairly commonsensical creed as regards the practicalities of life. On the matter of wealth, for instance, we take it as given that, while the New Testament enjoins generosity to the poor, it otherwise allows the wealthy to enjoy the fruit of their industry or fair fortune with a clean conscience.  Common sense instructs us that it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it – the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained; riches in and of themselves, we assume, are neither good nor bad  But, in fact, one thing in startlingly short supply in the New Testament is common sense, and the commonsensical view  of the early church ins invariably the wrong one. For instance, the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil” (xxv-xxvi).
I take Hart’s point to be that we’ve all sanitized the New Testament to fit our whims and desires.  We like money and our ultimate hope is having enough of it to retire comfortably, so we filter our faith through that idea we deem just common sense.  Likewise, we believe in Jesus and honestly try to live as his disciple, but we also are constantly getting messages from our culture that teach us consumerism, materialism, individualism and more.  These other messages contribute to us missing the challenge of the gospel.

This may sound overly negative, so its worth saying: I believe God has grace for us in all our failings.  We are not loved or saved or made right by how perfect we live.  Yet, and here is the tension: we ought to strive to be perfect.  We ought to hold ourselves to a high standard.  We ought to beware looking down at others, whether Christians or not.  We ought to be humble, because we may just find some on the journey ahead of us who, though they do no confess Christ find themselves, mysteriously, living better as his disciples than we do.

Perhaps to put it another way: to those with right beliefs we can challenge them to action in accordance with those  beliefs.  To those with right actions, we can challenge them to examine whether their beliefs (or lack thereof) sustain such action.
We read the New Testament and pray that we can learn what it looks like for us to live in the middle of a plague, to live as our retirement accounts dwindle.  Where is our trust? Where is our hope?  How are we different than those who live in fear of the future?  How does our belief that Jesus rose from the dead, that death is not the last word, and that one day God will redeem this entire creation, flooding it with his presence, make a difference in our daily life?

To answer my question, what if one of the primary ways to live like Jesus, or as a follower of Jesus, is to be humble and realize we still have a lot to learn?

7. Conclusions

I believe I rambled a bit, so if you’re still reading, thanks!  It is worth noting that while some Christians focus solely on belief, there are certainly some who discount belief altogether and focus solely on action.  If I am more harsh on the former, it is because that is the world I have lived in much of my adult life.  The point is not to discount belief or action, but to hold the two together.

As I think about all this, I am struck by two points.

1. Christianity has so permeated our culture that we see practically everyone influenced, and living by, Christian morality at some level.  Whether caring for the sick, giving to the poor, or some other thing, we are all still influenced by the Christian revolution.

2. Familiarity breeds contempt.  As Christianity is so familiar, and we all have a low-level commitment to it, we at the same time have managed to sanitize it so it is more simple and easy than we realize.  We have reduced a radical whole way of life to a few beliefs in our head.

Perhaps our non-Christian friends are most clearly in the first group and we who claim to be Christians are in the second.

8. Questions

How ought a Christian act differently during a plague or epidemic?

How ought a Christian approach money differently?

Should a Christian appear different than others?  In what way? 

How do we respond to those who appear to live by very high ethics and morals? 

How do we respond to the idea that being generous and caring for those in need is just being a decent human and not uniquely Christian?

One thought on “Thoughts on Christian Living During an Epidemic

  1. long and elaborate post which needs concentrated reading. I will be getting back to this as soon as I find time…it’s lock down time and i’m rushing to get home….all the best to you…..

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