A Biblical case for pandemic preparedness

Pandemic Flu: Letter from Church Leaders (Historical and Theological Preface)

In 165 and 251, two terrible epidemics struck the Roman Empire. During both, a third of the population was killed.

In his commentary on Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, William Barclay writes that many people in one city, Carthage, “threw out the bodies of their dead and fled in terror. “ But Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, “gathered his congregation together and set them to burying the dead and nursing the sick in the plague-stricken city, and by doing so, at the risk of their lives, they saved the city from destruction and desolation."

The way Christians in Carthage, and throughout the Empire, selflessly cared for the sick and the dying left a powerful impression on their non-Christian neighbours. For sociologist Rodney Stark, the way they showed care and compassion helps explain how the new Christian faith went from a rag-tag group of people after Christ’s death and resurrection to being the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

In his groundbreaking book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force, Stark asked: “How was it done? How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?”

He concluded that one important factor was the way the early Christians responded to the two terrible epidemics. While some would “discard” the infected “onto trash heaps,” he wrote, Christians “would go and rescue them and give them some dignity in dying, often in the process contracting the disease themselves.”

For Stark, the way they cared for the sick and the dying, and the way they looked after each other putting into practice the Christian principle of mutual aid, enhanced the young faith’s reputation and helped to cement the rise of Christianity.

Says Stark: “To cities filled with homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”

Like those Christians who lived so long ago, Christians today may also be called to respond to an epidemic—in this case, pandemic influenza. Many health care experts, such as the World Health Organization, say that such a pandemic is inevitable. The last time it hit Canada and the US, in 1918, 50,000 Canadians and 500,000 Americans died (up to 50,000,000 world-wide). The novel A-H1N1 influenza, declared a level 6 pandemic by WHO on June 11, 2009, could, according to their estimates, eventually infect 2 billion people worldwide, or a third of the world’s population.  In August, 2009, the US gave the estimate that half the population will become sick, 1.8 million will be hospitalized and from 30,000 to 90,000 will die (compared to 36,000 from annual seasonal flu) , while Canadian estimates in June, 2009 also include half the population becoming sick, 138,000 hospitalized and 11,000 to 58,000 deaths (compared to 2000 - 8000 seasonal flu deaths annually).

If that happens, how should the church respond?

We should respond on the basis of the testimony and witness of those who have gone before us, and on the basis of our faith.

We should respond because we believe that God created human beings in God’s own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26).

God endowed us with intrinsic worth and dignity, and the capacities of choice and responsibility to  care for creation but also to care for one another. Thus, because we are all created in the image of God, we are to treat each other and our neighbours, whether they are healthy or sick, with dignity and compassion.

We should respond because we are the people of God.

We are called by God to live out God’s creation intention as a people, to become a visible sign of God’s reign, to seek God’s wellness and peace and demonstrate it here and now as a sign for all of the kingdom that is coming. During a pandemic, congregations—and all of humanity—will face enormous challenges. And with the challenges there will be an even greater opportunity for the church to model kingdom care and leadership as a community, for the broader communities in which we are located.

We should respond because we are Christ’s disciples.

Jesus called his disciples to experience the rule of the Kingdom of God, and then led them into encounters with extreme human need in order to offer compassion, healing and restoration. The story of the Samaritan who interrupted his journey to provide care for the man left beaten and injured by the roadside is a paradigm for a Christian response to those who have been stricken by a pandemic disease. The love of God compels in us the love of neighbour, especially the one in greatest need. (Luke 10: 25-37)

We should respond because our “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” presents a basis for a pandemic response.

Our "Confession of Faith" describes the calling of the church to express the compassionate reign of God: “The church is the assembly of those who voluntarily commit themselves to follow Jesus Christ in life . . . daring hospitality to all . . . called to live and minister as Christ lived and ministered in the world. The church is called to witness to the reign of God by embodying in Jesus’ way in its own life . . . to be channel of God’s healing.” (p. 42)  Therefore, the love and compassion of God should flow “through the church” (Ephesians 3:10), giving healing and hope to those who are stricken by pandemics.

And finally, we should respond because our Mennonite Church Canada Vision Statement calls us to do so. In it, we are called to be followers of Jesus Christ so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.

We commend to you this resource packet, a collaborative effort of various parts of the body of Christ. We pray that it will be useful to your congregation as you consider how, as a body, you will most faithfully live out your calling to be God’s people before, and during, a time of a pandemic.

Prepared by Janet Plenert, Sven Eriksson and John Longhurst (2009-10)