Hope in a Time of Plague

[A shorter version of this article was published at The Gospel Coalition.]

We are about to live through some unsought social experiments. Among them may be the following:

“What happens when a radically individualistic culture collides head-on with a scenario requiring unprecedented obedience to authority and self-sacrifice for something bigger than our own personal flourishing?”

Times of crisis quickly test our individual and collective foundations. They reveal who or what we trust in, and who we value. They expose the glue holding societies together, or reveal the lack of it. They strip us back to our basic assumptions.

How does a society avoid its citizens descending into self-help and panic when crisis hits? Pictures of people piling hundreds of loo rolls into the backs of cars don’t bode well for the hope that the ‘Blitz spirit’ may re-emerge amongst us. In the 21st Century West, self-actualisation is virtually an article of faith; materialism is a fundamental doctrine; “live and let live” is our unwritten constitution.

But how well do these foundations serve us when the going isn’t so good, when the shelves are half empty, when death and disease snap at our most basic assumptions?

Though the Christian worldview is often seen as a bogeyman to our age of radical individualism, it contains immense resources for times of crisis. It is a faith forged not in decadent late-Modernity but in the blood of the Colosseum. It follows not a healthy, wealthy celebrity but a tortured, broken-bodied saviour. Across millennia, through persecution, plague, famine, and war, Christians have stood on the foundations of the saving sacrifice of Jesus, and the sovereign purposes of an all-powerful God. Far from being a private matter, Christian faith has inspired communities to respond to crisis together in remarkable ways.

During WW2, in Vichy France, while French Jews were being deported to concentration camps, a quiet miracle took place in the sleepy French village of Les Chambons-sur-Lignon. At enormous personal risk, the Huguenot Christians of Les Chambons collectively embarked on a radical and risky campaign to shelter thousands of Jews from the Nazis. 

The philosopher Richard Hallie was an ethics specialist deadened from years researching the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet he wept tears of joy on reading of how the pastor of Les Chambons, André Trocmé, had urged his flock to embody the radical, other-centred love of Jesus:

“It was this strenuous, this extraordinary obligation that… Trocmé expressed to the people in the big grey church. The love they preached was not simply adoration; nor was it simply a love of moral purity, of keeping one’s hands clean of evil. It was not a love of private ecstasy or a private retreat from evil. It was an active, dangerous love that brought help to those who needed it most.”

The quiet and compassionate courage of the villagers despite great fear and uncertainty was not coincidental to their Christian faith. Their collective response to evil was forged by gratitude that the Lord Jesus had left the glory of heaven to die for their sins. Their dangerous love mirrored the dangerous love of their Lord.

In 1665, while the Great Plague of London ravaged the South East of England, the North had escaped relatively unscathed. Yet, one fateful September day, the rural Derbyshire village of Eyam received a bale of cloth full of infected fleas, and the black death swiftly took hold. Realising the devastation which would result if the villagers fled, carrying the plague to the nearby metropolis of Sheffield, the vicar of Eyam, the Rev. William Mompesson, called his parishioners together and urged them to quarantine themselves. For fourteen desperate months, encouraged and led by Rev. Mompesson, the villagers kept their pact to stay put. Even as a third of their number perished, including Mompesson’s wife, barely a soul left the village boundaries,

There was no possible motive of worldly self-interest to the Christians of Eyam. Instead, in their remarkable sacrifice, they were following in the footsteps of their saviour: loving others and entrusting themselves to God. Their eternal confidence embodied Paul’s words in Romans 14, that “if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

The fashionable contemporary judgement of Christian moral certainties often ignores the fact that the Gospel holds within it four realities that are fundamental to the kind of strong, other-centred communities the human heart longs for.

1) Knowledge of God’s sovereignty provides perspective on trials, since we know God is working for eternal goods.

2) We know our neighbours have equal value and dignity to ourselves, because we are all created in God’s image,

3) As recipients of undeserved forgiveness, we must forgive and bless others, even our enemies.

4) Because Jesus was resurrected from the dead, we know sickness and death do not have the final say.

These interlocking realities provide a rock-solid foundation for responding collectively to uncertainty, to crisis, to fear, and to human suffering. It is a foundation which is singularly absent from the spirit of our present, secular age. Secular humanism provides no imperative for why any individual should deny their own flourishing for the sake of another. Relativistic, secular morality cannot explain why self-denial is any more virtuous than selfishness. Self-denial and other-centred love are simply strange aberrations to the cold, brutal logic of Darwinism. Why not take all the toilet rolls? Why not sneeze in your neigbour’s face? Why take any risks to help someone you don’t even know?

Of course, Christians have no monopoly on compassion and self-sacrifice. But for the Christian, unlike the secular humanist, to act selfishly, to act without compassion, is to go against the very fabric of reality. If the creator of all things stooped to die for us, it is our duty, however stumblingly, with however much fear, with however much failure and repentance, to show the same sacrificial love to those around us. 

Of course, knowing the foundational realities of the Gospel is one thing, and living them out quite another. I write this from a comfortable living room, with food in the fridge, a relatively secure job, and a healthy degree of anxiety about the coming months. I do not know what sacrifices Covid-19 might call me to for the sake of others, or how I will respond. The humble heroism of the Christians of Les Chambons and Eyam feels alien to the comfortable self-absorption of 21st Century life.

But weak as I am, I take great encouragement that the same compass which led those saints of the past points just as true today. Christians today can follow in the steps of the same Jesus. They can know forgiveness when they fail. They can treat others with dignity as they stand firm on the sovereignty of God, their salvation from their sins, and the hope of new life to come.

In times of plague and war, when death and uncertainty stalk the earth, when the cold winds of our finitude and weakness blow across every carefully constructed wall of identity, wealth, class and privilege, false foundations are always revealed. The Gospel of Jesus is the unwavering enemy of our self-absorbed projects of self-actualisation, our vacant materialism, and our febrile echo chambers of identity politics. In every age the Gospel is hated because it exposes for the rubbish it is the lie that we can, like little gods, build our own heavens on earth by being smart enough or working hard enough.

Our only hope in life and death is not that we have two-months supply of baked beans and 400 rolls of loo paper. There is only one hope that has within it the resources for confidence and other-centred love in times of trial. Only one foundation which can fully ground our duty to our fellow men and women when self-help is our over-riding temptation.

It is not a new hope, it is not a fashionable hope, it is not a politically correct hope, it is not a hope which coddles our elevated opinions of ourselves. But it is true, it is powerful, and as Christians in crisis from Eyam to Les Chambons-Sur-Lyons have found, it has exactly the resources we need to stand, individually and together, at the present time:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:1-11