I think it’s fair to say that natural disasters have a way of rallying humanity. In the wake of hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, stories of compassion and civility abound. Resources—material and manpower—flow as people selflessly volunteer to help those in need. The same can be said about less-than-natural disasters. Inspiring stories were recounted of New Yorkers showing great kindness to their fellow human beings at Ground Zero on 9/11. Similar stories abound during times of war.
Sadly, history suggests that the same cannot be said during times of pandemic. David Brooks recently contributed an opinion piece to the New York Times tracing this pattern throughout history. He notes, for example, that those who emerged from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic seemed reluctant to talk about it. “Roughly 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the flu, compared with 53,000 in battle in World War I, and yet it left almost no conscious cultural mark.” Why is that? Brooks surmises, “Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed.”
In The Great Influenza, John M. Barry notes that, as conditions worsened, calls from health officials for volunteers to care for the sick went largely unanswered. A frustrated Philadelphian health official scornfully observed, “Hundreds of women had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy. Nothing seems to rouse them now. There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back.”
Unlike natural disasters and war, when volunteers step out from the vantage point of relative safety, pandemics place would-be volunteers at risk, which seems to give them pause. Daniel Defoe writes of the 1665 London epidemic, “This was a time when everyone’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others. The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.”
The gospel should give Christians a very different perspective. In life, Jesus was willing to reach out to touch the afflicted. When everybody else steered clear, he reached out to touch the bleeding woman (Luke 8:43–48) and healed lepers (Matthew 8:1–4; Luke 17:11–19), even when he received no thanks for doing so. Even though it was human sin that would send him to the cross, he showed great compassion to the needy and disenfranchised sinners he met.
God’s call to his people is the same: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another” (Zechariah 7:9). While there is great wisdom in social distancing, we must not allow our efforts to avoid the virus to kill our compassion. More than ever, this is a time for Christians to “show kindness and mercy” to others. That may take the form of willingness to do essential tasks for those at greater risk. It may mean intentionally praying for, rather than criticising, those less fortunate than us. It may mean sharing the hope of the gospel with the fearful. Whatever it looks like in your specific context, this is not a time in which Christians can allow themselves to kill the very compassion to which the gospel calls us. Let us be moved by gospel compassion to show kindness and mercy to those who need it most.