Fred Faber was my best friend throughout high school. He was the quarterback of our football team. I was what today we would call a wide receiver. We played a lot of catch over four seasons. He was also a forward on our basketball team, and played first base on our baseball team. That he was a three-sport letterman was not so unusual in those days. What made Fred so remarkable was that as a child he was afflicted with polio, a disease that most Americans today would struggle to recall.
As Professor David Oshinsky reminds us, however, polio was, “An insidious childhood disease that came like clockwork each summer during the middle years of the 20th century, killing thousands and crippling many more . . .” It’s the disease that put Franklin Roosevelt into a wheel chair for much of his life. It is the disease that until Jonas Salk created his famous vaccine put fear into the hearts of millions of American parents and sorrow into uncounted thousands of those same hearts.
I can remember standing in line for hours to receive the painful (at least painful to a six year old) shot containing the vaccine. In fact, the protocol of the day was three shots over several weeks; each trip resulting in tears and a tasty lollipop.
As terrifying and deadly as was polio the human race has lived through viral and bacterial diseases far more frightening and far more lethal. As Professor Oshinsky reminds us, “Take yellow fever . . . A virus transmitted by the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito with a mortality rate approaching 50%.” In 1793 yellow fever struck Philadelphia “where it killed at least 10% of the population and caused the federal government to temporarily disband.”
Interestingly, as Oshinsky points out, it was seen as a good thing by some, including then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “The yellow fever will discourage the growth of cities in our nation and I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.” Wow. Imagine the response to that statement from today’s 24/7 pundits.
And what about the bubonic plague that decimated Europe, and the frequent outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria that killed more soldiers on the Western front during WWI than did the actual fighting between the armies of the Allies and Axis.
In his insightful and sobering article in the March 14-15 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Professor Oshinsky makes an observation to which we all should pay attention. He writes that after the Salk vaccine “Science and technology were riding high. Nothing now seemed beyond the reach of the laboratory to heal or to prevent. Some spoke openly of a future without infectious disease. ‘Will such a world exist?’ asked one prominent scientist. “We believe so.”
“It hasn’t turned out that way. AIDS, SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, swine flu, superbugs – all bear witness to the arrogance of that remark. And yet it’s equally true that until a month or two ago, Americans went about their business without the slightest concern that an epidemic on the scale of small pox or cholera or yellow fever might randomly strike them down.”
I, unlike the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president, am certainly not celebrating the terror that the corona virus has unleashed in our country and around the world. But I do think at times like these it would do us all good to step back from the unrelenting flow of bad news, to consider our current situation within the context of history and the Word of God.
“History” Oshinsky writes, “assures us that Covid-19 will be conquered by science and that another virus, originating in a bat cave, a pig farm or an open-air poultry market somewhere in the world, will rise up to take its place. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Scripture reminds us of something very different.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
For the creation awaits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present.
We live in a broken world, a world that will remain broken until Christ returns. And until then disease will wreck havoc as will periodic natural disasters such as famine, fire, flood, and storms of all kind. Given that reality we can give in to despair or we can live in eager anticipation of the glory that is to come. Part of doing that is to refuse to be cowed into a life of constant fear.
On this point I think that John Stonestreet has some wise insight regarding our response to the corona virus.
Naturally, people are alarmed, even frightened. Despite our recent bouts with Swine Flu and even Ebola, this one just feels different, partly because it’s obvious that scientists, reporters, and national leaders are learning on the fly with this one, partly because, at least in America, media pundits and presidential candidates are seizing the opportunity to point fingers and gain political advantage, and partly because social media is very, very good at spreading panic.
He then goes on to say,
Panic, however, is almost always the wrong response. . . Is COVID-19 serious? Absolutely. Unprecedented? Maybe. Apocalyptic? No. . . Whereas previous generations were constantly reminded of their many vulnerabilities to the various forces of nature, we control so much of the natural world that we forget, as Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal noted, that ‘Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature . . . There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapor . . . is enough to kill him.
As Stonestreet continues, “We exist by the grace of God. Were He to withhold His breath of life and His creation sustaining Word – well, that’d be it, folks.”
So, how then should we respond? In a practical sense we should be wise to take every precaution to avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus. There are untold resources about how best to do that. There is something of equal importance, however we must consider. We cannot afford to ignore our basic humanity. That means we can’t simply ignore one another by hiding in our homes hoping to avoid infection.
I must confess I’m not quite sure how to reconcile those two points of view. I do find one piece of ancient history informative at this point, however. Christianity spread in the ancient world for a number of reasons. One of the most powerful, however, was the willingness of Christians to rush into danger when periodic and deadly outbreaks of disease occurred. Rather than running for the hills they stayed behind to nurse the sick, something the elite of the day, including the “religious leaders” failed to do.
Those early Christians did so not because they didn’t appreciate the danger. They were fully aware that their actions put them at risk. They did what they did as a way of expressing God’s love to people who were without help and without hope. They did so because they believed what Paul wrote in Romans 8 which I quoted above.
I wonder in the midst of this new threat if I would have the courage and grace to do the same? I wonder?
In His grace,