Last week, I wrote about Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson’s ruling against three churches who insisted that their rights to gather for worship were being violated by Dr. Bonnie Henry’s orders.
A few days later, I read a reflection by Diana Butler Bass about the same kind of issue. She takes it a step further by suggesting a way in which people of faith can lead us into a new future and ends her reflection with a wish for a vaccine against selfishness.
Butler Bass is one of the most trusted commentators on religion and contemporary spirituality, having appeared on all the major US networks, from FOX to PBS. Trained as a church historian, she notes that her “passion is sharing great ideas to change lives and the world—a passion that ranges from informing the public about spiritual trends, challenging conventional narratives about religious practice … with spiritual wisdom and smart theology to help readers see themselves, their place in history, and God differently.”
People are beginning to ask what she thinks the impact of this past year will have on the future of religious practice. After a year of online worship, will people return to physical church? How will this pandemic change our practice?
Since she was trained as an historian, she says, “When people ask about the future, I turn to the past.” How have Christians responded to previous epidemics and pandemics?
She considers the Antonine Plague, a great epidemic that began in the year 166 ce and lasted for 23 years. The Roman physician Galen kept a detailed record of that plague in which an estimated 10% of the population died; in densely populated cities, the mortality rate reached 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 against the Empire.”
Rich Romans fled to their estates in the countryside to quarantine in relative safety. It seems a common thing that the wealthy always escape the worst consequences, while the poor bear the brunt of the worst of it. Even so, there would have been a pervasive fear, a real sense of being out of control. Like us, they would have suffered the dis–ease and helplessness in the face of this ruthless disease.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius invested in building and restoring the temples of the Roman gods, covering all his bases as he tried to assuage the anger of the people. Butler Bass notes that he fostered a bit of a religious revival.
How did Christians react during the plague? Since it was illegal to be a Christian (Christian faith wasn’t officially sanctioned until 312 ce), they certainly didn’t go to court to insist on their rights. Neither did they flee to safety, or hide, or ignore the needs of their neighbours. Indeed, most Christians of the time were poor, unlike most Christians in North America today.
Bishop Dionysius described their actions in a letter, “Heedless of danger, [Christians] took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.” They demonstrated rare courage as they cared for the sick and risked their lives for the sake of their neighbours. They had a reputation for loving and serving their neighbours.
Ancient historian Eusebius also wrote in an earlier context, “All day long [Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial … 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.”
Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark notes that “death rates in cities with Christian communities may have been half that of other cities”. The ancient world prized valour, and Christians modeled it in spades during epidemics such as this. These poor and simple folks simply tried to follow Jesus and became heroes in their communities as they showed their love for God by caring for their Roman neighbours.
Indeed, some historians suggest that it was the actions of Christians in times of disaster which provided the context for the rapid spread of the Christian faith in the centuries following Jesus’ death.
“This is what happens,” says Butler Bass, “when Christians take their faith seriously and as we act in love towards all our neighbours.”
Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. Butler Bass writes, “Most North American Christians are flunking the pandemic test. Instead of facing the pandemic squarely and doing the hard work of neighbourly care (even the simple act of wearing masks), a considerable portion of North 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.”
The result of this failure is that Christianity may emerge from this pandemic in even greater decline. Too many so–called Christians are participating in super–spreader large religious gatherings, claiming the nonsense that “God will protect them”. Others notice and rightly shake their heads at the sheer selfishness and stupidity. She rightly calls it “moral malpractice”.
I know that this is not true of all Christians. Thousands have struggled to meet through technology rather than in–person gatherings. People of good will have helped neighbours, lobbied politicians, prayed for the sick, raised money to help the poor, reached out to those who are feeling isolated, and honoured those who have died with online memorials and socially distanced funerals.
But that quiet ethical behaviour has largely gone unnoticed.
If communities of faith are to come through this with any credibility, these quiet, faithful people will need to tell their stories. Those who have quietly and “humbly followed the guidelines need to counter the ethical malpractice committed by other Christians”. When that happens, there may be reason to be optimistic about the future of faith.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican Priest living in Cranbrook