By Andrew Latham, professor of International Relations at Macalester College, St. Paul Minnesota; portions of an article posted October 1, 2020, at: http://www.intellectualtakeout.org
Before March of this year, few probably thought disease could be a significant driver of human history.
Not so anymore. People are beginning to understand that the little changes COVID-19 has already ushered in or accelerated – telemedicine, remote work, social distancing, the death of the handshake, online shopping, the virtual disappearance of cash and so on – have begun to change their way of life. They may not be sure whether these changes will outlive the pandemic. And they may be uncertain whether these changes are for good or ill.
Three previous plagues could yield some clues about the way COVID-19 might bend the arc of history. As I teach in my course “Plagues, Pandemics and Politics,” pandemics tend to shape human affairs in three ways. (Only the first one is included here…)
First, they can profoundly alter a society’s fundamental worldview…
The Antonine plague, and its twin, the Cyprian plague – both now widely thought to have been caused by a smallpox strain – ravaged the Roman Empire from A.D. 165 to 262. It’s been estimated that the combined pandemics’ mortality rate was anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the empire’s population!
While staggering, the number of deaths tells only part of the story. This also triggered a profound transformation in the religious culture of the Roman Empire.
On the eve of the Antonine plague, the empire was pagan. The vast majority of the population worshipped multiple gods and spirits and believed that rivers, trees, fields and buildings each had their own spirit. Christianity, a monotheistic religion that had little in common with paganism, had only 40,000 adherents, no more than 0.07% of the empire’s population.
Yet within a generation of the end of the Cyprian plague, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the empire.
How did these twin pandemics effect this profound religious transformation?
Rodney Stark, in his seminal work “The Rise of Christianity,” argues that these two pandemics made Christianity a much more attractive belief system.
While the disease usually meant death, rudimentary palliative care – the provision of food and water, for example – could mean recovery for some (though the ill were always too weak to care for themselves). Motivated by Christian charity and an ethic of care for the sick – and enabled by the thick social and charitable networks around which the early church was organized – the empire’s Christian communities were willing and able to provide this sort of care.
Pagan Romans, on the other hand, opted instead either to flee outbreaks of the plague or to self-isolate in the hope of being spared infection. This had two effects.
First, Christians developed higher levels of immunity more quickly, and survived the ravages of these plagues at higher rates than their pagan neighbors. Seeing that many more of their Christian compatriots were surviving the plague – and attributing this either to divine favor or the benefits of the care being provided by Christians – many pagans were drawn to the Christian community and the belief system that underpinned it. At the same time, tending to sick pagans afforded Christians unprecedented opportunities to evangelize.
Second, Stark argues that, because these two plagues disproportionately affected young and pregnant women, the lower mortality rate among Christians translated into a higher birth rate.
The net effect of all this was that, in roughly the span of a century, an essentially pagan empire found itself well on its way to becoming a majority Christian one.
Matthew 5:16 — (Jesus said), “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Luke 6:31 — (Jesus said), “Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
I Peter 2:12 — Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
O God, grant unto me such a knowledge of your will and trust in your grace that I may truly exemplify in my life the faith that I profess, so that others may see the light of Christ shining in what I say and do; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.
–adapted from Service Book and Hymnal, Augsburg Publishing House, 1958, pafe 227.