Martin Luther on Social Distancing

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Monument of Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany

The current health crisis is testing our faith in more ways than one. It’s helpful to see how God’s people have responded to such situations in the past. For instance, some frame the “Stay Home Orders” of local and state governments in terms of a conflict between church and state. Centuries ago, Martin Luther thought in terms of common sense and pastoral care.

A pastor friend of mine sent me some timely advice from Luther, the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. He shared Luther’s counsel to a pastor who asked about how to minister in a time of plague.

This way not just any plague; this was the Black Plague, also known as the Great Bubonic Plague. The Black Plague was the most devastating pandemic recorded in human history. According to a variety of online sources, the Plague resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75 million to 200 million people in Europe and Asia in the 1300’s (30-60% of the population). It peaked in Europe from 1347 to 1351, but occasional outbreaks continued into the 1700’s.

One such outbreak occurred during Luther’s lifetime (1483–1546). The Rev. Dr. Johann Hess had asked Luther, “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague.” Luther’s lengthy response included much practical advice, such as:

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us.”

“Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it.”

“I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”

“If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me, and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.”

“If my neighbor needs me however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above.”

“See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy…”

(Martin Luther, “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. Johann Hess, cited in Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999).

Luther practiced social distancing! Why? “… in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”

It makes me think of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippian believers:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:2-5 NIV).

Physical distancing can be a wise and appropriate act of love and care for both our neighbors and ourselves. Our priority is to cultivate spiritual and emotional closeness. We can be very present, even when we are physically apart.

 

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