As vaccines roll out and people are aching for some semblance of their lives before the pandemic, I’m getting requests from groups wanting to talk about the impact of the last year on the future of religious practice — especially if people will return to physical church after all these months on Zoom.
Since my training is in history, when people ask me about the future, I turn to the past. For months, I’ve been thinking about how Christians responded to previous epidemics and pandemics. There’s one historical episode that I can’t seem to get out of mind — the Antonine Plague (also called the “Plague of Galen”), a great epidemic that began in 166 C.E. and lasted for 23 years.
Roman physician Galen (c. 129–199 C.E.), a skilled medical researcher, kept a record of the plague. His notes describe a disease with symptoms that resemble smallpox — and a possible mutant strain. Historians estimate that the plague killed 7–10% of the population; among armies and the densely populated cities, the mortality rate probably reached 13–15%. The robust Roman economy crashed, building projects across the empire ceased, and Rome’s enemies found it a good time to launch military attacks at the imperial frontiers.
Rich Romans fled to their countryside estates, quarantining themselves in relative safety away from crowded, stricken cities. Like our own time, the wealthy escaped the worst consequences of the disease, as millions of lower classes and the empire’s poor huddled in urban centers — fearful of illness, disfiguring disease, and painful death.
Sarah K. Yeomans, historian of religion and science, writes:
Aside from the practical consequences of the outbreak, such as the destabilization of the Roman military and economy, the psychological impact on the populations must have been substantial. It is easy to imagine the sense of fear and helplessness ancient Romans must have felt in the face of such a ruthless, painful, disfiguring and frequently fatal disease.
Despite the overall slowing of public works projects, Emperor Marcus Aurelius invested in building and restoring temples to Roman gods, displaying attentiveness toward deities who might heal the people and whose anger at the empire appeared to need assuaging. The plague sparked a bit of a religious revival.
Indeed, historians of Christianity have suggested that this plague — and the subsequent Plague of Cyprian in the next century — was the context for the rapid spread of the Christian faith in these centuries following Jesus’ death. Christians didn’t flee the plague. Of course, many of them were poor and couldn’t. But they demonstrated rare courage caring for the sick and risking their own lives for the sake of their neighbors.
At the time, Bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger…took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.” This exceeds ecclesiastical exaggeration — contemporary sociologist Rodney Stark claims that death rates in cities with Christian communities may have been half that of other cities. Valor was prized in the ancient world and Christians modeled it in spades during these epidemics. It wasn’t the blood of the martyrs that grew the church — it was the heroic care practiced by regular Christians toward their pagan neighbors which convinced myriads of Romans to embrace the way of Jesus.
This history points in an optimistic direction if one is trying to discern the future of faith post-pandemic. Perhaps a religious revival of some sort lies just ahead. But the Romans had an advantage over us — those ancient Christians didn’t have to worry about their brethren on Facebook or Twitter spreading falsehoods regarding the disease. Instead of facing the pandemic squarely and doing the hard work of neighborly care (even in the simple act of wearing masks), a considerable portion of America’s Christian population has been in denial of the extent and danger of COVID, revealing a self-centered moral cowardice that is exactly the opposite reaction of their ancient ancestors when they faced the first pandemic following the birth of the church.
Indeed, because of their failure to attend to COVID realistically and ethically, Christianity may emerge from this pandemic in ever-greater decline. After all, who caused super-spreader events? Mega-churches. Sean Feucht in his national worship tour. An evangelical mass rally in Washington, D.C. The purveyors of conspiracy theories, anti-masking, and anti-vaxxers. Some of the worst actors in the pandemic — some of the people who demonstrated the most profound disregard for their neighbors — have been Christians. Functionally, these Christians “fled” the pandemic for their imagined country estates, leaving millions of their neighbors to suffer.
Of course, many will say: “Not all Christians.” And that’s equally true. Throughout the pandemic, thousands of clergy struggled to keep their congregations going via technology (and it has exhausted both pastors and congregants). People of good faith have fed hungry neighbors, provided masks for the poor, lobbied politicians and business leaders to maintain safe practices in their cities and towns, prayed for the sick, the dying, and the mourning, created alternatives for pastoral care, raised money to cover hospital bills, reached out to those suffering isolation, and honored the dead with online memorials and socially-distanced funerals.
But much of this good work has gone unnoticed — the hard, brave choices made by the quiet Christians who took Jesus’ mandate to love one’s neighbor more seriously and with more urgency than ever before.
If Christianity is to come through this with any credibility, the quiet Christians need to speak up and tell their stories of the pandemic. If effect, those who humbly followed the guidelines, who cared for others by doing things never imagined, need to counter the ethical malpractice committed by other Christians. As we reach toward an ending of this phase of the pandemic, we’ve a much tougher job than our ancient forebears — unlike them, we’ve got to fight both a pandemic and the moral malformation of large swaths of those Christians who failed the test of courage and compassion.
If only there was a vaccine against self-centeredness.
Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another.
All day long [Christians] tended to the dying and to the burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gather together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all… [their] deeds were on everyone's lips, and they glorified the god of the Christians.
A week ago yesterday I commended to the protection of Almighty God two of the Sisters of St. Mary, just as they were setting out on their return to Memphis, from whence so many that could were fleeing. Two weeks before they had come on to New York for needed rest and refreshment. News came of the breaking out of the yellow fever. Without delay or hesitation they went back to the post of duty and of danger, and, it may be, of death. I have had a varied experience, and have witnessed much, but I have seen no braver sight than that which I saw in Varick Street, in front of the Trinity Infirmary, when, just at evening, I blessed those Sisters sitting alone in the carriage which was to take them to the train for the journey to Memphis. Is it much for us who are to come, please God, into no such peril of death, to fill their hands with such things as they need for the sick and the dying and the destitute?
—The Rev. George H. Houghton, writing about Sisters Constance and Thecla upon their return to the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, TN. The sisters cared for thousands of those stricken, and tended hundreds of orphans before they, too, died of yellow fever in September that year.
'O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
'O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.'
— W.H. Auden
Our neighbor, tall and blonde and vigorous, the mother
of many children, is sick. We did not know she was sick,
but she has come to the fence, walking like a woman
who is balancing a sword inside of her body, and besides
that her long hair is gone, it is short and, suddenly, gray.
I don’t recognize her. It even occurs to me that it might
be her mother. But it’s her own laughter-edged voice,
we have heard it for years over the hedges.
After I wrote this, news broke of a mass shooting in Atlanta whose victims appear to be primarily Asian-Americans. We all know that it is possible that it may be a hate crime. Please pray for and reach out toward those who are fearful about the rise in hate directed toward Asian-Americans, and speak up against what is happening.
NEWS AND EVENTS
Freeing Jesus comes out on MARCH 30! It combines spiritual memoir, history, the Bible, and cultural observations into a genre I call “memoir theology” to unpack who Jesus is — and can be — in our lives.
When we free Jesus, we free ourselves.
Please join us on April 26!
BREATHE: Making sense of the past year, finding hope for the future
This one-day virtual gathering is for women in spiritual leadership (trans women and non-binary persons who are comfortable in women-focussed events are - of course - welcome) – clergy, spiritual directors, lay leaders, authors and poets, and teachers – to catch our breath after this difficult and challenging year.
Breathe is an opportunity for you to be encouraged, affirmed, and to connect with others from across the country. Together, we'll find new grounding for the final stretch of the pandemic. The gathering will allow time to reflect on what's happened to us in the last year, and open our hearts toward a new phase in our lives and ministries.
For booking events, including events based on Freeing Jesus, please contact Chaffee Management. We’re booking virtual events through spring 2021, and blended and in-real-life events for later 2021 and into 2022.
For podcast, media, review, and interview inquires and availability regarding the book launch, please email Dan Rovzar at HarperCollins publicity: Dan.Rovzar@harpercollins.com.