One of the claims that is doing the round at the moment is that not only is COVID-19 itself novel but that the approaches we have been taking to combat the virus are new. The argument is that suddenly we are using things like masks, social distancing and lockdowns to attempt to control a virus and that we are attempting the impossible.
In this article for example, Graham Shearer argues that:
“Our response to the Coronavirus crisis has been distinctively modern because we have regarded it as a problem to be solved rather than a trial to be endured.“
Is that true? Well, let’s have a little look back in history. First, we have the example of Bubonic Plague. It is worth noting that when that plague hit Europe, doctors took to wearing beak like masks in the belief that these would protect them from the air.
Then, there is the fascinating and moving story of Eyam, a village set in the heart of the Peak District. This is known as the plague village because of the measures taken there to prevent further spread of the disease in the 1665 epidemic. This should be of particular interest to church leaders currently frustrated at the Government’s measures because it was the village clergymen who led the effort. Their response included
- Moving the Sunday service to an outdoor amphitheatre
- Encouraging villagers to separate from one another to slow the spread of the virus
- Instructing families to bury their own dead.
Furthermore, what makes the village particularly famous is that the villages agreed together to quarantine the whole community and remain where they were in order to stop the plague from spreading to other towns and villages.
The 1918 Flu pandemic
A lot of attention has been turned to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is understandable because this is seen as the last pandemic to have such a catastrophic effect on Western society although I’ve noticed a number of people suggesting that the 1957 flu outbreak was as deadly.
In 1918, the Flu spread quickly until municipal authorities took action by requiring citizens to wear masks and by closing schools, churches and theatres.
Whilst most churches have complied with lockdown measures, some have accused those who did of compromise and cowardice arguing that church should have continued as normal to demonstrate faith at this time. Martin Luther would not have agreed. In 1527 he wrote to John Hess to advise that it is okay for Christians to flee plague. He was complementary of those who had the faith to stay but argued that it was not unreasonable to flee providing the church ensured that there were sufficient preachers available to care for the church and the work of the Gospel.
Finally, we have lots of evidence throughout history of people seeking to control and manage disease through cure and vaccine. The obvious example is of Louis Pasteur who created a vaccine for rabies and also developed the concept of sterilisation to stop germs from multiplying.
Today we have vaccines for many diseases as well as anti-biotics to combat serious bacterial infection. Many once deadly diseases are now under control including small-pox and Tuberculosis.
Why the mythology?
So, why has this mythology arisen and why does it seem to be taking such a stronghold amongst church leaders. Well, first of all, the answer is that we are not experts in the particular fields and we are very busy, rightly, on fulfilling our Gospel duties. We haven’t the time to pursue and check up on every report and every theory. Nor should we be expected to.
Secondly, there is a particular fear at the moment of Governments seeking to become more authoritarian and to show little concern for the rule of law. That’s understandable in the UK given the recent history of constitutional vandalism during the last parliament around the question of Brexit. There is a strong libertarian strand of thinking. Although this is a minority position in UK Christianity generally, it has quite an influence amongst those from a more conservative/reformed perspective.
Thirdly, there is an honourable desire to see the Gospel go out. I’ve had people recently accuse me of undermining evangelistic efforts because I’ve disagreed with the narrative that seeking to control an illness is hubristic. We want to challenge the culture with our gospel message and so if we see a culture that thinks it can conquer death and disease then we immediately want to confront that. I’ve argued elsewhere that I simply don’t come across that hubris. People have been isolating out of fear not confidence.
There may be some good intentions behind the arguments and there may be a genuine motive to spread the Gospel. Yet, it is important that we don’t assume that the end justifies the means. Our concern for the Gospel does not permit us to be slack with the facts. Rather it makes it all the more important that we ensure we get things right.
Doing this also shows that our confidence is in the Gospel. All too often our confidence is in our own apologetics. Yet the truth is that the Holy Spirit isn’t dependent on my apologetic debating skills. He is more than capable to use the simple preaching of the Gospel to turn hearts and minds to Christ during the pandemic.