Do Christians see a grand opportunity before us? The Great Divide indicates few do.
Covid-19 has riveted our attention. Rightly so. But it’s not without precedent. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 infected 500 million people (about a third of the world’s population), killing 50,000,000. But cross the Great Divide and notice what Christians did in earlier plagues.
By earlier I mean before the Great Divide of 1816. It separated the old western world from the new. In the old world, plagues routinely decimated cities. Like the Antonine Plague (AD165-180). To discover what happened, read Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity.
This plague swept Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. It killed five million people (about a third of the population). The exact cause has never been determined, but symptoms recorded by the physician Galen suggest it was smallpox and measles.
But Galen learned this secondhand. Stark writes that when the plague hit, Galen got out of Rome quickly, retiring to a country estate in Asia Minor until the danger receded. This is likely why medical historians say his description of symptoms is “uncharacteristically incomplete.”
Firsthand accounts come from Christians. They remained in the cities, risking their lives to care for those in need. They could have fled to the ‘burbs, as Galen did. He was wealthy and so were many Christians. But they didn’t flee. The early Christians stayed and served. Some died.
Why did they stay? Three reasons: Stark says they were serious about love thy neighbor. Second, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Early Christians took the extraordinary step of risking their lives because people were dying in droves. Finally, Christians feared death without fearing it.
In City of God, Augustine described death as evil, “the very violence with which body and soul are wrenched asunder.” We ought to fear death. Aquinas wrote that it’s the greatest of evils. But St. Francis de Sales adds that “We ought to fear death without fearing it.”
Or fleeing it. Which brings us to Covid-19. Nearly a third of Americans are considering moving to ‘burbs because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. They’re fleeing US cities. This includes Christians, many of whom seem unwilling to risk their lives to care for those in need.
The risk seems to be relatively low. Take the pop-up pantry my wife Kathy and others started many weeks ago. Every week, volunteers get their temperature checked, wear protective gear, and practice physical distancing. To date, I’m not aware of anyone testing positive.
But I am aware of a looming problem: volunteer fatigue. The remedy is scaling, more volunteers sharing the workload. That ought to be relatively simple. There are around 250,000 Christians in our county. My guess is no more than 20,000 are risking their lives to care for those impacted by the pandemic. That leaves 230,000 potential volunteers. But where are they?
I don’t know. Some are quarantining on doctor’s orders, like my 78-year-old friend. When his doctor learned he was working at the pantry, he ordered my friend to self-quarantine. His wife is a stage-4 breast cancer survivor. But my friend is still working on scaling issues via zoom.
We could use more like him. It’ll be a challenge. After the Great Divide of 1816, the American version of evangelical Christianity became privatized. Home became a haven in a heartless world. Children had to be protected from all manner of evil. Christians sought safety.
It naturally followed in the 20th century that church began to be referred to as a “safe” place. Christians began to act like the children In The Chronicles of Narnia. They asked Mr. Beaver if Aslan is safe. “Safe!? Who said anything about safe? “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
Of course, it isn’t 100 percent safe to serve a population disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. It isn’t 100 percent safe to do anything in life. It’s risky loving your neighbor but low-risk opportunities abound. You can bag produce in your home. Or transport it. Or donate money.
Americans are fleeing because we don’t know what causes Covid-19 nor do we have a vaccine. But neither did early Christians when pandemics swept cities. By risking their lives to serve those in need, the church grew to 50 percent of the Roman Empire in less than 300 years.
But you have to cross the Great Divide to see this. When you do, you see Covid-19 is a grand opportunity to emulate the early church’s legacy – and impact.
 Stephen Hart, “Privatization in American Religion and Society,” Sociological Analysis, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Oxford University Press, Winter, 1987), 319-334.