Martin Luther’s Words from 1527 Resonate in 2021
By R.L. Witter
As 2021 comes to an end, many of us have spent a second year modifying our lives due to COVID-19. Others have wearied of mask wearing and social distancing; perhaps they’ve forgotten the fact that plagues and pandemics have occurred throughout history for hundreds of years? The recent resurgence of a letter penned by Martin Luther (as in “Lutherans”) during an outbreak of the bubonic plague nearly 500 years ago makes clear how Christians should respond and comport ourselves during a pandemic.
Many have cited their religious beliefs as reason not to comply with mask and vaccine mandates, in addition to their “God-given rights” to freedom and governance over their own bodies. But in doing so, they put others’ health at risk by possibly spreading the virus. Martin Luther wrote in 1527, “They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if He wants to protect them He can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting Him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.”
The aforementioned passage reminds me of James 2:26, “…faith without works is dead.” God gives us free will and the ability to choose. It is our choice whether or not to take the medicines God has made available to us. Luther seemingly weighed in on the vaccine debate, writing, “Use medicine; take potions which can help you…shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body?”
Each time I see another video of someone becoming loud and belligerent upon being told a mask is required I go further into the priest and theology professor’s words. “It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over.” This one is huge. I understand vaccines and therapeutics are not one hundred percent effective and there are breakthrough cases that sicken vaccinated people. However, when I hear of people infected by those who don’t take precautions and even worse, falsify documents to make themselves appear to have been vaccinated or received a negative test result, I am hurt and angered.
While Luther’s words were written at the end of the High Renaissance, their relevance today makes them seem prescient. “‘Whoever loves danger,’ says the wise man, ‘will perish by it’ (Ecclus. 3:26). If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate.” We’ll simply never know how many lives might have been saved if we all had heeded the advice of staying home when possible and taking recommended precautions when out in public.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem as king, he told the people the two most important commandments were to Love God, and to “love your neighbor…” (Mark 12:28-34). Martin Luther reiterated this in his letter writing, “No neighbor can live alongside another without risk to his safety, property, wife, or child. He must run the risk that fire or some other accident will start in the neighbor’s house and destroy him bodily or deprive him of his goods, wife, children, and all he has.” I am sadly reminded of the myriad stories of families devasted by the spread of the virus. They just wanted to share a holiday dinner or celebrate a birthday, but they decided against following recommendations and guidelines designed to slow the spread of the deadly virus.
While there is much we can take from Luther’s letter and apply to where we find ourselves today, perhaps his closing sentences best sum up his position on pandemics, medicine, and our duty to others: “As we have learned, all of us have the responsibility of warding off this poison to the best of our ability because God has commanded us to care for the body, to protect and nurse it so that we are not exposed needlessly… For ‘none of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself,’ as St. Paul says, Romans 14:7.”