Taking Inspiration and Gratitude From the Early Christians in Pandemic Rome

We’re facing a worldwide pandemic.

In 2001, we faced a catastrophic crisis with the events of 9/11. But unlike the ambiguous crisis we Americans now face with the Coronavirus, that terrorist attack was a finite event that came and went. With the cloud of this pandemic, anxiety now overhangs us. We lack the clarity of when this metaphorical (and highly contagious) storm will end (as well as the consequences it leaves behind when it does).

It’s surreal, alarming, and the situation is quickly escalating.

But as much as we modern humans have been shielded to this type of global pandemic (and the emotional terror that comes with it), human history tells us this viral infection is only one of many that have preceded us. And it has been much, much worse.

It is in these stories of past pandemics that we find hope-filled examples to not only inform and inspire us, but also provide a sense of gratitude for the context we now find ourselves (we’re much better off than we humans were before).

Pandemics in the Roman Empire Were Filled With Indifference

Throughout the early Christian history, the early followers of Jesus were aggressively persecuted. Their endurance led the Romans to remark, “These imbeciles are persuaded that they are absolutely immortal and that they will live forever.” To the Romans, these Christians were known as atheists because they rejected the pantheon of Roman gods in favor of their one true God revealed in the resurrection event of Jesus of Nazareth. This did not go over well in the empire, despite Christians being some of Rome’s best citizens.

The Roman empire should have ended Christianity before it got any traction, but instead this movement transformed the Roman Empire from the inside out (and eventually the rest of the world). In part, this was due to the Christian response. Eternal hope motivated Christians to do the unimaginable in spite of the challenges they faced in mass sickness.

Not only did the Roman government and leaders persecute the Christians, they were also quick to flee the scene when the pandemics hit. In an ironic twist, it was the Christians who stayed back to care not just for each other, but for unbelievers too. Alvin J. Schmidt describes the scene in his book, How Christianity Changed the World.

“When epidemics broke out,” says Howard Haggard, the Romans “often fled in fear and left the sick to die without care.”… the Romans saw helping a sick person as a sign of human weakness whereas Christians, in light of what Jesus taught about helping the sick, believed they were not only serving the sick but also serving God. Thus, Christianity filled the pagan void that largely ignored the sick and dying, especially during pestilences… This Christ-motivated humanitarian behavior, so admirably displayed by early followers, also introduced “the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another.” This, as Rodney Stark puts it, was revolutionary.”

In Simon Sinek’s Leader’s Eat Last, he describes how soldiers will sacrifice themselves for others because the recipient would do the same if their roles were reversed. This sentiment was far from the minds of citizens in Rome, and Christians took their ethic further as they sacrificed themselves for others not because others would reciprocate, but because Jesus ALREADY set the example through his sacrifice on the Roman cross.

In tandem with the Christian’s eternal hope found in the resurrection of Jesus, of which they were mocked, the Christians ran into the metaphorical burning building for their fellow man, and it changed everything.

Christian Action In Crisis Transformed People and Our World

In contrast to the plagues that tore it down, it was Christianity that overtook Rome and thus bringing intrinsic human worth (for women, the poor, slaves, and the sick) to the forefront of the empire and eventually, the western world (with a positive tension on the remain parts to follow).

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For centuries in the Roman empire, Christians modeled the life and love of Jesus, and it gave Roman citizens a shocking example that changed their individual lives and launched systemic cultural changes. In his book, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions, C. Kavin Rowe describes this inspirational example and the cultural shift that was born out of the crisis.

“…a second-century Roman discovers that Christians will care for the sick and dying in the midst of the plague while Galen [a Roman doctor] and his troupe flee from the ravages of death to their villas in the hills. In this case, Christian nursing practice could begin in a crisis. Following this discovery, however rational investigation would disclose the inadequacies of the Roman’s home tradition that could not be remedied with the resources endemic to that tradition. …the Roman would then try to learn the Christian tradition… and would thereby discover new resources for the inadequacies that surfaced during the crisis. The subsequent narrative provided by the Christian tradition would then make sense of both the reasonableness of his former traditions belief about sickness and death and its inadequacy in the face of Christian care for the dying during the plague.”

In witnessing what Christians would do during the crisis, Roman citizens were compelled to question their own way of life and tradition to the point of eventually converting to Christianity themselves (while birthing hospital care at the same time). Chuck Colson says it succinctly:

“As a result, even though [Christians] often died in the process of taking care of the sick, people wanted to become Christians because it was a better life than pagans and they saw something they wanted.” – Chuck Colson

An Inspiration Example to Fuel Our Gratitude and Drive Meaningful Action

As our government and leaders work to contain and control this viral outbreak, we can be grateful to know that they actually care enough to take proactive action to protect and support us. We can also be grateful to the private sector for stepping up in different ways to help fill in the gap for individuals and companies. And while it’s not the case in every country, we can be grateful that most people in our country have a desire to help each other. This includes the front line medical workers and the people who deliver our packages.

It is in the tradition of the early Christians that these people follow, and we can be grateful that we live in a time such as this. While the severity of this pandemic may be less than what has come before, we know the response to this crisis will be dramatically better because of how past responders set the standard for us to follow.

When Charles Spurgeon faced the impending Cholera pandemic of 1854 he echoed the preceding Christians. His inspirational words further compel us to continue the tradition as we individually and collectively face the uncertainty and fear surfaced by the Coronavirus crisis.

“…and now is the time for all of you who love souls. You may see men more alarmed than they are already; and if they should be, mind that you avail yourselves of the opportunity of doing them good. You have the Balm of Gilead; when their wounds smart, pour it in. You know of Him who died to save; tell them of Him. Lift high the cross before their eyes. Tell them that God became man that man might be lifted to God. Tell them of Calvary, and its groans, and cries, and sweat of blood. Tell them of Jesus hanging on the cross to save sinners. Tell them that.” – Charles Spurgeon
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared here. Use with permission.

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