Christian Virtue in Epidemics

The current crisis has sent me back to a book I read over 20 years ago, “The Rise of Christianity” by Rodney Stark.  I remembered that he had a chapter on epidemics and how the Church’s response to them was a tremendous witness to the pagan community around them.  In the chapter he highlights two portions of Dionysius of Alexandria’s Easter letter of 260AD.

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were inflected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead….The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.” (82)

“The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, the found it difficult to escape.” (83)

The Christian witness was so great that even the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate complained that the pagans needed to emulate the virtues of the Christians, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests (pagan), the impious Galileans (Christians) observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” And again, “The impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” (84).

In fact, the great pagan doctor Galen fled Rome at the first onset of epidemic, and did not have the courage of the Christians. Stark writes, “The Christians were certain that this life was but prelude. For Galen to have remained in Rome to treat the afflicted would have required bravery far beyond that needed by Christians to do likewise.”

Let us pray for the World at this time of crisis, and let us behave as Christians to those around us.