It was August of 1527 and the bubonic plague had come to Wittenberg, Germany. Everyone who could get out of the village was getting out. The Elector of Saxony, John the Steadfast, ordered the famous professor and reformer, Martin Luther, to leave. He refused. Along with his pregnant wife Katharina, Luther stayed in Wittenberg, opening his house as a ward for the sick.
A particularly virulent and awful disease, the bubonic plague killed its victims quickly and painfully, causing high fevers and large, weeping boils. It was highly contagious and had an astronomic mortality rate. In the Black Death of 1347, for instance, the disease struck Europe killing an estimated 60 percent of its population.
A product of the bacteria Yercina Pestis, the bubonic plague was spread by infected fleas and could also be transmitted through the air. But neither the cause of the disease nor its mode of transmission was known in 1527. What people did know was that being in the presence of someone who was ill was dangerous. One medieval doctor, for example, theorized that “instantaneous death occurs when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick.” The conventional wisdom was clear: “stay away from the sick.”
As a result, historians tell us that healthy people did all they could to avoid the plague. They fled the cities leaving behind their sick and dying. The shops were closed. Doctors refused to see patients and priests refused to administer the last rites.
Martin Luther’s refusal to leave Wittenberg stands in stark contrast. He chose to stay to minister to the sick, literally living his life in the shadow of death. As others fled, another pastor asked Luther whether it was okay for a Christian to leave.
With the coronavirus changing how daily life looks in America, we have much to learn from Martin Luther. In a letter entitled, “Whether one may flee from a deadly plague,” he explained the importance of caring for our neighbor. He wrote about the community and taking the necessary steps to protect others. And he emphasized the giftedness of serving.
Martin Luther explained his view that it was not necessarily wrong to flee from death (as indeed King David had fled from both Saul and Absalom), but that one’s community and family responsibilities first must be considered. In order to leave, one was required to make sure her neighbors were cared for:
[N]o one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them…. we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.
Martin Luther was surely correct, regardless of one’s faith, that we “are bound to each other.” As the term “community-spread” makes clear, the actions and choices we make have an impact on others. In this vein, Luther emphasized the importance of prevention. In advice remarkably similar to the CDC’s guidelines today, he urged people to take medicine, to disinfect their homes, and to avoid people and places so as not to spread the disease (the admonition to avoid people and places applied only if assistance was not needed).
Luther also wrote about the special responsibilities of public officials in times of crisis. These officials had a duty to remain in areas affected by the plague. Their authority was meant to be exercised in an effort to protect and preserve their communities. For Luther, public service was just that — service.
In a prescient passage, Luther described the benefits of hospitals. “It would be well,” he wrote, “to maintain hospitals staffed with people to take care of the sick so that patients from private homes can be sent there.” In Luther’s time, however, hospitals were few and far between. Today, doctors and nurses are the heroes of our time. While we practice social distancing and work remotely, they head into work to care for our sick, knowing there is a high probability they will treat someone with the coronavirus.
The plentiful health care currently available in the U.S. wouldn’t have gotten Luther’s parishioners off the hook. Luther makes clear that, while doctors and nurses may be on the front lines, we all have a part to play. We can practice social distancing and protect ourselves and our neighbors. Further, hospitals can only care for medical needs, they are unable to bring a sack of groceries to a senior citizen or to watch a mom’s kids for the afternoon.
An offering of help and kindness during a time that can be isolating for American families can help bind us together. Martin Luther defined godliness simply, as serving God. For Luther, the way to serve God was to serve our neighbor. As he reminds us, “Blessed is he who considers the poor. The Lord will deliver him in the day of trouble.” (Psalm 41:1). Regardless of one’s faith background, we’ve all experienced the paradox of gifting: that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
As COVID-19 cases increase, we would do well to return to Luther’s words. To take reasonable preventative steps and to love our neighbors. To remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Erin Hawley is a legal fellow at Independent Women's Forum and a former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.