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Easter and Epidemics

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Author: 

Michael Bayley

Michael Bayley is a retired Anglican priest and long time member of St Mark's Broomhill. He was formerly a Lecturer in social work and social policy at Sheffield University. He co-founded Hope for the Future and is still a trustee.

Something has happened. At the moment we are all very much aware that something has happened, that our entire society and the world in which we live has changed dramatically over the past four weeks or so. Also that first Easter ‘something happened’. There was a dramatic change even though it was in a distant and insignificant part of the Roman Empire. And the change was dramatic. Look at the way in which the disciples changed over the course of a few days. It took Thomas a little while to get there but with remarkable speed the good news spread.

How did this happen? We get a sense of the energy and excitement of it in the book of Acts. The Jews in Thessalonica said “These men have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). The long list of martyrs reminds us of the cost of this but nothing would stop those early Christians and the faith spread rapidly throughout the Empire. But recent scholarship has suggested a further reason which seems to have encouraged the spread of the church.

In 165 CE during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept the Roman Empire, possibly smallpox. During the 15 year duration of the epidemic between a quarter and a third of the population died including Marcus Aurelius himself. In 251 CE another new devastating epidemic struck, possibly measles. Mortality was massive.

Rodney Stark a sociologist, shows how neither paganism or Greek philosophy proved able to provide either explanation or support and comfort in the face of these crises. He writes 1. “ In contrast, Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of the future. (Also) Christian values of love and charity had from the beginning been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disaster struck, the Christians were better able to cope and this resulted in a substantially higher rate of survival." "When all normal services break down, quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality. Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will enable people who are temporarily to weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of dying prematurely." (Stark quoting from McNeil 1976:108 2.)

In short those early Christians did not do what many other people did, namely to run away and ignore those who were sick. By contrast they took seriously the gospel injunction to care for one another and other people noticed this. Furthermore they also cared for people who were not Christians and people noticed that as well and the church grew.

The parable of the sheep and goats is possibly the most powerful of all Jesus's parables. The King says to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me , I was in prison and you came to me." (Matthew 25:34–36)

Stark comments on this: “I suggest reading Matthew 25 as if for the first time, in order to gain insight into the power of this new morality when it was new, not centuries later in a more cynical and worldly time."

If we want an example of how the resurrection makes a difference surely that is a good one for us now. Fortunately these Christian principles have become absorbed in varying degrees into our society of which the NHS and other aspects of the welfare state are a good secular institutional expression albeit imperfect.

But what does Christ risen mean to us now as we face the devastating effects of Covid-19 and its aftermath. On Easter Day Justin Welby said that there was a “huge, huge danger" of the pandemic making inequality worse but “that is our choice as a nation and as a world." He added: “The next wave coming is the economic one… We have a choice there as a nation and as a society and as a world. Do we take hold of our destiny and make sure the differences are mitigated, abolished where possible, or do we just let things happen, do we let the market rule, in which case there will be enormous suffering."

How will future generations judge us? Will we simply return to business as usual, to the ‘normal’ way of doing things which has failed so emphatically and led to so much misery for people and devastation for the planet, or will we grasp the opportunity to change the assumptions and structures which dominate our lives so that we can genuinely care for one another and the planet on which we live?

In 1941 during the Second World War, when most of the country was preoccupied with just surviving, the government had the foresight and imagination set up the Interdepartmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services. Its chair was Sir William Beveridge. He produced his report in 1942 which was probably the darkest time of the war for this country. His report was the basis for the creation of the welfare state after the war. The report of nearly 300 pages was an immediate bestseller and did a great deal to improve morale at a difficult time. What sort of Beveridge Report do we need now in this dark time? What part should Christians, churches, people of faith play in producing it? Archbishop William Temple made major contributions to the thinking behind the Beveridge Report of 1942. What should our contribution be in 2020? What sort of resurrection does our country need?

Christ is risen. May we accept from him the strength and courage we need to face the challenge.

1. Stark, Rodney, The Rise of Christianity: A sociologist reconsiders history, Princeton University Press, 1996

2. McNeil, W M, Plagues and People, Anchor, New York, 1976

 

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