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Pastor's Corner: Bound together


I never imagined that less than a month after being ordained and installed as pastor at First Lutheran Church in Havre we would be facing a global pandemic. I didn’t exactly take a class on how to respond to a once-in-a-century public health crisis during my seminary training.

However, in a class on the theology of Martin Luther, the 16th-century German theologian whose teachings shaped my denomination, we did read a letter Luther wrote to colleagues curious about the right Christian response to the spread of bubonic plague.

The letter, commonly titled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” was written over the course of several months in 1527 as a recurrence of the plague spread through Wittenberg and the surrounding region. You may have seen essays about this letter or references to it popping up on social media or in various publications in the past month. When facing a crisis that can seem so strange and new and scary, it is a common reflex for pastors and writers to look for examples of how people of faith have made sense of things before.

Although some of what Luther writes is limited by the thinking of his time, rereading this 16th-century letter with an eye toward our 21st-century pandemic is encouraging. It helped remind me that the dual commandment to love God and neighbor leads to practical wisdom in all times and places, whether that is Reformation-era Saxony or contemporary Havre.

Luther is sympathetic to those who fear the disease and want to do all they can to avoid it. Citing passages from Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12, Luther writes, “To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor.”

This natural desire to preserve oneself must be balanced by care for the common good, by fulfilling our obligations to our neighbors. Putting love of neighbor into practice will look different for people based on their vocation and proximity to the needs of others, but all are called to do what conscience demands to care for the whole. For some, this will mean direct care for the sick and the vulnerable. Luther praises health care workers, government officials, and others who put themselves on the front lines to care for the sick and preserve public wellbeing — we might imagine he would add grocery store, shipping and delivery and other essential workers if writing today. He argues that public hospitals should be generously funded and those who are working in risky positions should be rewarded for their labor. He rebukes those who do not take the threat seriously, thereby putting their neighbors at risk through carelessness.

For those whose situations don’t demand they put themselves directly in contact with the disease, he encourages all to use common sense, follow the advice of medical professionals, and put into practice habits known to prevent the spread of illness, including physical distancing and vigilant sanitizing. This is never just about self-preservation, though. It is always an extension of love of God and neighbor. For Luther, love, not fear, should animate our response to disease.

He summarizes his position, “Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together … so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another.”

Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, may we all take courage that we are mutually bound together. Whether we are one of the frontline heroes laboring to keep our communities healthy, or one of those trying to be good neighbors through physical distancing at home, may a concern for the common good, a desire for the well-being of all, and the love of God and neighbor direct our actions.


The Rev. Megan Hoewisch is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Havre.


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