But suppose the flu was as bad as originally feared. How would we react?
In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark writes that Christians in the early church lost their fear of death. They were willing to lay down their lives even for their enemies. When plagues hit, they stayed in town rather than fleeing in order to help not only Christians but pagans to survive. Ironically, their survival rate increased, as did their percentage of the total population.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, wrote in 251 that Christians had nothing to fear from the plague. This is amazing considering that up to 5,000 people a day were dying in Rome! People were fleeing from infected friends and loved ones. Cyprian wrote:
How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether the relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether the masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether the physicians do not desert the afflicted…Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death. These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give to the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.
Mike Wittmer shows that this same attitude persisted over a thousand years later in Luther’s time.
Based on what Cyprian said, even the threat of a flu outbreak can help us examine our minds, to help us see what we value most. It can help us learn not to fear death, to take the longer view, and to work for the common good. It’s pretty revealing
We don’t need a pandemic or plague, but I know I can use a little of Cyprian’s perspective.