In 1527, Martin Luther had a lot to say about the responsibilities of Christians during the plague to themselves, their neighbors, and their communities. He has plenty to tell us about our analogous COVID-19 pandemic, suicidal and murderous Christian behavior, and even people, like Senator Ted Cruz.
It was happening again, to the horror of residents. Another outbreak. Another round of possible mass death like what had happened in past centuries. The devastating plague outbreak that echoed in many people’s minds occurred about 200 years before — the second Plague pandemic, best known as the Black Death, swept through Europe, Africa, and Asia in the 1300s. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 100 million people died and more than 50 million in Europe, alone.
Spread mostly by the bites of fleas from rodents, the dreaded bubonic plague is also contracted via airborne transmission and the bodily fluids of the sick and dead victims. While today, the bubonic plague is treatable with antibiotics, having a 90% success rate, it’s a horrible disease if left untreated. Not only can people have flu-like symptoms, but also other more gruesome ones occur, like seizures; boil-like swellings called buboes that may break open and ooze blood and other fluid; gangrene of extremities, including noses, lips, fingers, and toes; delirium; coma; organ failure; and death. It has a 30% to 60% fatality rate of those infected. However, the bubonic form of the plague can progress into two other forms with up to a near 100% death rate.
In 1527, Martin Luther, best known as a major figure in the Protestant Reformation, was living in Wittenberg, Germany, when the plague arrived. Residents were quite understandably frightened, and many fled. One of Luther’s followers, now Reverend Doctor Johann Hess, pastor in the city of Breslau, sent a letter to Luther, wanting to know whether it was proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague. Luther wrote a multi-page pamphlet — “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague” — in response.
Comparing the Christian Response in Luther’s Plague Pamphlet to Today
While I personally don’t revere Luther, I am a student of history. It’s important to study the past to understand the present, and Luther provides that context about what Christians should do in various situations, regarding the plague. He has a lot to say about Christian behavior that he likens to “suicide” and “murder.” It’s especially important to compare this to today’s twisted form of Christianity, manipulated by oligarchs — the selfish, greedy, corrupt few who control or influence others — for their own purposes.
This manipulation is exactly what Reverend Billy Graham feared. In 1981, Graham was quoted in Parade magazine about his conversations with Jerry Falwell. Graham said (bolding my emphasis),
I told him to preach the Gospel. That’s our calling. I want to preserve the purity of the Gospel and the freedom of religion in America. I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. Liberals organized in the ’60s, and conservatives certainly have a right to organize in the ’80s, but it would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.
Graham’s worry about a “wedding” was well founded, as we have seen today, for example, in the 2021 insurrection and the Texas bounty-hunting abortion law. The leaders of the Christian nationalist movement are oligarchs who joined forces decades ago with the radical right-wing oligarchs to manipulate religion for political power. They are even manipulating Luther’s pamphlet, cherry-picking the parts they want and leaving out the parts where they have to take responsibility.
Oligarch manipulation of Christianity is nothing new. For example, I talked about a modern oligarch-driven movement that started in the late 1800s in my latest article here on DailyKos, “This Dangerous Attraction Has Infected Society, Like a Virulent Virus, & Corrupted Christianity.”
It’s important to note that by “manipulated Christianity,” I’m not referring to mainstream Christianity. This is the oligarch-manipulated, fundamentalist Christianity that Graham was talking about.
What Can Luther Tell Us about How Much Christianity Has Been Exploited?
According to historical accounts, Luther did act the way he was telling others to do in the pamphlet, in accordance with the Gospel of Christ, as so many of us would expect, and that is very admirable.
On Running or Staying…
Luther said that whether a Christian should run away or stay depended on the situation, as I would expect. He wrote,
To begin with, some people are of the firm opinion that one need not and should not run away from a deadly plague. Rather, since death is God’s punishment, which he sends upon us for our sins, we must submit to God and with a true and firm faith patiently await our punishment. They look upon running away as an outright wrong and as lack of belief in God. Others take the position that one may properly flee, particularly if one holds no public office.
When One Has No Obligations…
He doesn’t fault people for wanting to run, except in certain circumstances. First, he talks about the strong and weak of faith, saying there should be no requirement to stay, in general:
Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone.
However, upon further reading, it’s clear that he’s not giving everyone a free pass.
When One Has Obligations…
Luther clearly said there is a requirement to stay in certain circumstances, having a lot to say about people like Senator Ted Cruz, an official in charge of others, who fled a crisis.
The Spiritual Ministry
At first it seems that all involved in a spiritual ministry must stay, but that’s not the case when there are enough in an area to do the spiritual ministering:
However, where enough preachers are available in one locality and they agree to encourage the other clergy to leave in order not to expose themselves needlessly to danger, I do not consider such conduct sinful because spiritual services are provided for and because they would have been ready and willing to stay if it had been necessary.
This makes complete sense, and it’s a compassionate view. Those in charge must take care of their flocks at the risk of their own death, but not needlessly.
Here’s where people like Ted Cruz don’t get a free pass. Luther wrote (bolding my emphasis):
Accordingly, all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain. This, too, is God’s word, which institutes secular authority and commands that town and country be ruled, protected, and preserved… To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin. It is the kind of disaster the devil would like to instigate wherever there is no law and order… On the other hand, if in great weakness they flee but provide capable substitutes to make sure that the community is well governed and protected, as we previously indicated, and if they continually and carefully supervise them [i.e., the substitutes], all that would be proper.
Senator Ted Cruz fled to Mexico in February 2021, when millions of Texans were trying to survive the night without power, due to the oligarch-run grid failure caused by oligarch greed and the freezing weather.
Ted Cruz committed a great sin toward the people in Texas, according to Luther. And Luther doesn’t stop there, but we have to keep reading, as we’ll see farther down.
Service Toward One Another
Even those who aren’t in the spiritual ministry or a secular office potentially have an obligation to stay:
What applies to these two offices [church and state] should also apply to persons who stand in a relationship of service or duty toward one another.
He talks about parents and children, as well as masters and their servants, having an obligation to take care of each other, along with others.
Regarding love thy neighbor:
In the case of children who are orphaned, guardians or close friends are under obligation either to stay with them or to arrange diligently for other nursing care for their sick friends. Yes, no one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them.
To sum this part up, if someone wants to flee, they can do so, as long as they have no obligations to their fellow human beings.
On Avoiding Destruction & Disaster…
Here’s where it gets really interesting, in stark contrast to the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers:
It is not forbidden but rather commanded that by the sweat of our brow we should seek our daily food, clothing, and all we need and avoid destruction and disaster whenever we can, as long as we do so without detracting from our love and duty toward our neighbor. How much more appropriate it is therefore to seek to preserve life and avoid death if this can be done without harm to our neighbor.
Dangerous Thinking: It’s God’s Punishment
Luther likened pestilence to any other disaster, providing examples of how people view, for example, a house on fire or a broken leg. People don’t typically say it was God’s punishment and remain in the burning house to die or not help those inside or not treat the broken leg. People should avoid destruction and disaster, he said, because if these really were God’s punishments, nothing would help. As he pointed out, looking at the plague and other bad situations as God’s punishment is dangerous thinking. He asked, “Where would all this end?”
Exactly. One can justify anything by judging the situation as “God’s punishment,” which is what I pointed out in my article, linked above. Many fundamentalists judge and condemn poverty, for example, as God’s punishment. In this way, these Christians absolve themselves of any guilt for doing so.
Forsaking One’s Neighbor Is Murder
Here’s where murder comes in. Luther said of people, like Ted Cruz running away in a crisis, instead of helping people (bolding my emphasis):
Anyone who does not do that for his neighbor, but forsakes him and leaves him to his misfortune, becomes a murderer in the sight of God.
Ted Cruz, Trump, and plenty of other oligarchs should be civilly charged with some type of homicide or murder — whatever the law allows in each case.
[W]hoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbor as well.
Luther even says that God may be testing people for their love of neighbor.
On Disregarding Everything Which Might Counteract the Plague & Death
Christian anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers should take heed here (bolding my emphasis):
They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so with-out medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.
Anti-masker and anti-vaxxer Christians are not trusting God, according to Luther.
On Suicidal Behavior
If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God’s eyes.
More on Murder
This is such an important point about how one’s suicidal behavior leads to murder of one’s neighbor:
It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over. Indeed, such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody were trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed, saying that if God so willed, he could save the city without water to quench the fire.
What Should People Be Doing?
Luther wrote, “You ought to think this way: ‘Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal.’ Then, he gave Christians plenty of common-sense instructions:
Therefore 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 infect 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 and does not tempt God.
He added that people who knowingly infect other people are murderers and should be punished immediately.
What Would Luther Think of Today’s Twisted Christianity?
It’s clear after reading Luther’s pamphlet that he had seen similar plague behavior from some Christians. However, I imagine, he’d be horrified today that so many Christians are committing suicide in God’s eyes. Even worse, they are committing murder many times over.
However, the Christianity of the far-right in America, that Graham warned about, is basically neo-Confederate Christianity on steroids. I talked about this in my article “Christian Nationalism & America’s Struggle with Identity.” Christian nationalism is not about Christianity; it’s a political ideology about identity, power at all costs, and Social Darwinism – “survival of the fittest” thinking that has no compassion.
Luther would not approve.