“Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them…One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbor troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity.”
These words could have been taken from today’s new headlines, but these are the words of Giovanna Boccaccio in 1348 in his work The Decamaron vol. 1 in which he describes the panic found in Florence during the time of the Bubonic Plague.
In 2020, we are faced with a pandemic in the form of the coronavirus. This is not say that we should be in hysteria as the often tabloid news media may want us to frenzy, but that we as reasonable and responsible persons should be seriously concerned about it.
Just as the Bubonic Plague had its roots in the East in Constantinople in the form of rats stowing away on cargo ships bound for Italy, we find that the coronavirus has found its way to the West, particularly to Italy, which ironically is the most infected.
This time the virus’ infection is not traced in origin to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), but rather to an exotic meat food market in the Hunan province of China in the form of snakes with an appetite for infected bats.
As an historian of Christianity, I am intrigued by the accounts of Boccaccio where quarantine was the methodology of infection social recourse of his day.
I am particularly intrigued of how the churches handled the situation of pandemic over the last two hundred years.
In today’s world, we see churches cancelling services and closing for a month and encouraging people to log onto online worship services on various digital platforms, instructing people not to venerate or even touch the Gospel book or any book or icons, abstain from drinking from the chalice at communion and to avoid close contact with fellow parishioners if indeed one finds oneself in their presence.
In my own faith tradition of Orthodox Christianity, we have not been immune from such discussions since the Eucharist is distributed to the laity for the last thousand years in the most intimate of ways by means of a common spoon.
Responses within the variant Orthodox Churches show a lack of common mindset about the nature of how ecclesiastical life is really viewed.
Some Orthodox leaders have said continue to kiss an icon or Gospel book and others have said don’t kiss an icon or the Gospel book.
All have said that the Eucharist cannot give you germs and yet others have instructed the faithful to bring their own plastic spoon from home to use.
We are called to be people of faith who trust in God and His mysteries. Yet, we are not called to blindly be reckless in the name of fundamentalist irrational notions which are more about ourselves and not about God and our fellow creatures.
After all, up until the early modern period, educated people of their time believed that the world was flat. Two great luminaries of the church such as St. John Chrysostom [in his commentary, “Homilies Concerning the Statues, Homily IX,” paragraphs 7-8] and St. Athanasius the Great [in his work “Against the Heathen,” chapter 27] no less both believed that the earth was flat and that it floated on the water beneath the firmament.
As much as I venerate both of them as great theologians and articulators of the one holy catholic apostolic orthodox christian faith, I do not look to them to provide me with scientific facts, any more than I would expect a biology or physics teacher to use the Old or New Testaments as textbooks in their courses. The metaphysical and supernatural are just that: beyond and above science. They are not science. We can be people of faith, but that does not mean we need to be arrogant enough to confuse it with or present it as science.
On one level, it is frustrating to watch the media not “waste another good crisis” as headline material. On another note, it is very frustrating to see some Christian faith traditions, not all by any means, have their heads in the sands sending conflicting messages that this is yet another of God’s wrath on fallen humanity for lack of faith or to summarily dismiss the concerns by saying that there is no issue at all so keep everything as business as usual. Either response is fraught with theological and social peril.
I predict that the mission of the Gospel is not advanced with either of these extremist positions and long after the immediate threat of Coronavirus has left us, the Church will face yet another credibility crisis in the public opinion of its flock of how well or not it addressed this most recent challenge to the Church in the modern world. If the Lord tarries in His Second Coming (Parousia), I wonder what article a writer will write in seven hundred years from now about the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020?
About the author
John G. Panagiotou is a theologian and scholar who holds professorships at Erskine Theological Seminary and Cummins Memorial Theological Seminary where he is liaison officer to the seminary president.