I heard someone today reference the Church as one of the reasons the Black Death was able to kill off somewhere between 40% to 80% of Europe during the 14th century.
When I started digging more into that claim, I had some trouble verifying it. The claim hinged on the belief that people packed themselves into the pews, hoping and praying to God for help, but ultimately only really exposing themselves more and more to the plague without realizing it.
There’s probably some degree of truth to the notion that church gatherings, whether marches in the streets or Sunday mass, contributed to the outbreak, but it’s much more complicated than just blaming any one institution.
Seven hundred years hasn’t exactly changed much in the ability of humans to do a phenomenal job at trying throw blame around for anything that might be a cause for suffering.
During the black plague, according to author John Kelly, deaths in monasteries were particularly high, priests fled their posts to tend to the wealthy and upper class, and a general lack of faith in the institution of the Church abounded, all probably contributing to a less-than robust gathering place for contracting the disease.
I took interest in this topic because the Church, then as now, should probably be noted for its notorious ability to spread–at the very least–a plague of lies throughout history rather than relying on the science that keeps people safe and alive.
That’s not to say, however, the Church hasn’t played a helpful role in addition to a hurtful one. A recent article in Foreign Policy does a good job of capturing some of the heroic positives of the role the Church played during the Bubonic plague, 200 years after the Black Death, as laid out by Martin Luther:
Luther provides a clear articulation of the Christian epidemic response: We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die. For Christians, it is better that we should die serving our neighbor than surrounded in a pile of masks we never got a chance to use. And if we care for each other, if we share masks and hand soap and canned foods, if we ‘are our brother’s keeper,’ we might actually reduce the death toll, too.
But there’s a difference between a doctor who feels a Christian duty to draw on some sense of ancient ethical standards, like the Hippocratic Oath or even “love your neighbor as yourself,” and a Christian attending Easter Mass, against all medical advice, because the President suggested as much.
In other words, religion can be and has been a tool for horrific violence, stupidity, and unnecessary death. It can be and has been a tool for guaranteeing good in a world where it seemed like good wasn’t anywhere to be found. It usually has less to do with the ideals and ideologies and more to do with the people behind them and how thirsty for power and selfish those individuals were, as well as how savvy they were at turning religion into a tool to their own benefit.
Our president claims to be a Christian, and Christians are not usually fans of questioning one another’s hearts when doing so is inconvenient. But maybe there are some questions we should ask about what “Christian” actions are coming from this president and his followers, if any.
Is it “Christian,” or even ethical–one might ask–to privilege the financial gains on Wall Street over the life of a nurse, of a grandmother, of a young person immunocompromised?
Is it “Christian,” or even ethical, to serve as a public leader during a crisis if your primary concerns are yourself and not the people you claim to represent?
Is it “Christian,” or even ethical–to continue the line of questioning–to use a Christian holiday and Christian language, to score temporary political points from a populus that can’t see beyond the superficial flag-waving as to how they’re being manipulated?
Can it even be said to be Christian to follow such Christians, knowing the likelihood that doing so will result in putting money over human life?
“For I was hungry and you cut my food stamps during a pandemic; I was thirsty and you not only denied me water, you poisoned it; I was a stranger and you separated me from my family and detained us in isolation; I needed clothes and you let me go naked while cutting taxes for the corporate elite; I was sick and you hoarded ventilators, ignored science, and told me to get back to work; I was in prison and you deported me to my death.”
A plague is coming quickly to these shores, and the leaders lie and tell you an “American resurrection” is coming instead, even while Death is knocking at the door.
One thing is for sure for this bunch, whether it was sure seven hundred years ago or not: they will reap what they sow.