One of the best gifts I received this past year was a face mask (because those were the kinds of presents that people gave in 2020). Printed on the front are the *updated* words of Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther: “Here I Stand…You Stand Over There.” As a Reformation scholar educating students at Wheaton College in the midst of a modern pandemic, it was the perfect gift, levity included.
We have all been finding different ways to cope with the shock and grief that came last year and continues with the global spread of COVID-19 as the doors to our churches, schools, and businesses were closed, and our gatherings moved online. The losses piled up and compounded. Delayed weddings. Cancelled graduations. Unattended funerals. Disrupted education. Lost jobs. Lives cut short, most importantly. Pictures of the deserted streets of Chicago began circulating looking like something out of a dystopian movie. Only the microscopic could halt the bustle of the Magnificent Mile, as it turned out. The words of Renaissance Humanist Francis Petrarch, who lived through the Bubonic Plague, began to ring in my ears, “houses were emptied, cities, abandoned…”
As crisis set in, those in church leadership struggled with the urgency of finding ways to sustain the ministry of the church safely and in the midst of so much upheaval to everyday life. The onset of a new virus pushed the church to embrace new strategies for ministry.
Caring for the Sick as Christian Witness
And yet, while COVID-19 may be a novel virus, the history of Christianity reminds us that the church’s calling to the sick and suffering is not novel.
Since the earliest days, the church has made it a priority to actively work for the alleviation of suffering for all, particularly the poor, and toward the hope of healing. Examples abound from informal care among early Christians of the Roman Empire to the establishment of the first public hospital in Rome by Fabiola in AD 394. Fabiola was a Roman noblewoman whose conversion to Christianity led her to sell her property in order to give to the poor and finance the founding of a hospital. She is regarded as the first female physician in Italy and was celebrated by Church Father Jerome for her service:
“How often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice and filth? How often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others could not bear to look at? She gave food with her own hand, and even when a man was a breathing corpse, she would moisten his lips with drops of water.”updated translation from Jerome, "Letter 77," The Loeb Classical Library, ed. T. E. Page, E. Capps, W. H. D. Rouse, Select Letters of St. Jerome, trans. F. A. Wright (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1933), 323-325.
Care for the sick continued through the work of medieval monastic orders and eventually led to the establishment of modern hospitals as society grew increasingly urbanized. You may not see a single episode of the long-running hospital show, Grey’s Anatomy, feature a pastor visiting the sick or a hospital chaplain providing care, but nonetheless, the church is still actively involved in hospital care today. Meanwhile, more and more of America’s churches are providing for the sick through the act of paying off medical bills for their congregants or even for their communities. Caring for the sick and vulnerable is, and has always been, an outworking of the Christian witness.
Christ’s Care for the Sick
Living out our faith by caring for the welfare of the human body represents some of the most vital teachings of Scripture all the way from Genesis to Revelation. Christianity unequivocally affirms the value and goodness of the human body as made in the image of God, as a good creation, and as destined for bodily resurrection and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.
Every step Jesus took in this world from his incarnation to his own bodily suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension affirmed the human body and its journey to restoration. To model ministry after Christ is to follow in the footsteps of one who cared for those sick in soul and body. Over and over again, Christ’s miracles did not neglect resolution for the needs of the body whether providing healing from injury and disability or addressing the realities of hunger. The Christ we follow not only gave freedom to the leper through healing touch according to his faith but also restored him to bodily inclusion within the community (Mark 1). The Christ we follow not only forgave the paraplegic of his sins but also made it possible for him to pick up his mat and start walking (Mark 2). There’s no leaving the body behind when it comes to Christian ministry.
How does that translate to today? What is the role of the church at this stage in the pandemic?
The Church’s Role in COVID-19 Vaccination
While cloth masks and loving your neighbor from six feet away have proven effective in temporarily keeping the virus at bay, these measures are no longer the best preventative solutions we have available. A long-term solution has emerged.
The development of safe and effective vaccines to curb the spread of COVID-19 means that we have entered into a new phase of the current health crisis (full disclosure: I am fully vaccinated as I write this). According to the experts, the end of the pandemic is close-at-hand due to vaccines that are capable of withstanding the rapidly mutating virus. In our context, the latest challenge is not so much the lack of a long-term solution and accessibility but the unwillingness to participate, and the church needs to rally.
This is not the first time that the church has been needed to play a part in combatting a widespread, contagious virus. The consequences of smallpox – death, disfigurement, and/or blindness – plagued the populace without discretion while debate over the risks versus the benefits of the procedure was aggressively discussed through Enlightenment-era Europe and North America. Unbeknownst to many is the fact that the rise of disease prevention in modern science benefited from the support of clergy such as John Wesley, Puritan Increase Mather, the Reformed clergy of Geneva, and Jonathan Edwards, who advocated for the sick and vulnerable in various ways and particularly to help combat the smallpox epidemic through the inoculation method. In some cases, their advocacy came at great costs to their own safety and wellbeing. Certainly, it played an important role in shaping public opinion and helping to turn the tide against the virus for their communities.
The support of clergy and the church aided the slow progress of immunization until improved methods emerged due to innovations by Robert Sutton in 1757 followed by the introduction of Edward Jenner’s cow-pox vaccine in 1796, which enabled administration of the procedure in mass. These developments were part of the process of eliminating the threat of smallpox by 1980 according to the World Health Organization.
The history of smallpox vaccination is a reminder to us that the actions we take today – whether as pastors or as members of a church – can be a gift not only to our own time but to the generations that come after us. Our actions today regarding the vaccine can be a gift not only to our own communities but to the global community, and that is part of what it means to be part of the Body of Christ that reaches across both time and space.
This is not the first time that the church has struggled over these questions. Martin Luther’s “best practices” treatise for ministering during the plague entitled, Whether One May Flee the Plague, has been making the rounds regularly these days and in direct application to current events. There he sympathizes with the understandable desire to flee death and the necessity of caring for the sick and dying by the church and her clergy. Though the circumstances vary, the principle stands: the church cannot abandon its calling to care for the sick and vulnerable.
The virus may be novel, but the church’s calling to care for the welfare of the human body is not.
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Powell McNutt, Ph.D. (History) is the Franklin S. Dyrness Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College and a Fellow in the Royal Historical Society. She is the author of the award-winning book, Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment (Routledge, 2019), and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church along with her husband, The Rev. Dr. David McNutt, Ph.D.