Today the world is suffering in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jurisdictions around the globe are attempting to stop or limit the spread of the virus with a range of public health meaures. Masking, physical distancing, hand sanitization, and quarantines have become familiar practices in the past months. In many ways it feels like the world has been turned upside down.
But plagues and pandemics are not new, only new to this generation.
In the summer of 1527 Martin Luther's town of Wittenberg was struck by an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Luther and others struggled to care for the sick and take precautionary public health measures. It was an overwhelming time. Luther was open about the depression and anxiety he experienced, writing: "There are battles without and terrors within, and really grim ones; Christ is punishing us. It is a comfort that we can confront Satan’s fury with the word of God, which we have and which saves souls even if that one should devour our bodies."
As the plague spread to other towns in Germany an ethical question arose: is it permissable to flee from the danger of the plague, saving one's own life but perhaps letting others down? Should one stay to help the neighbor no matter the personal cost?
In an open letter Luther grappled with these questions in light of Christ's command to love your neighbour as yourself. On the one hand he says a Christian has a duty to care for the neighbour, even at the potential cost of death, because that is the way of Christ's self-sacrificial love. But on the other hand he warns Christians not to be reckless and "tempt God" by taking needless risks or ignoring basic health precautions on the grounds that God would protect them.
Click here for the full text of Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, which has kindly been posted in its entirety by the Davenant Institute, along with an introduction from the American edition of Luther's Works, Volume 43.