ContagionLincoln E. Steed May/June 2020
Back in early March I was still traveling far afield promoting religious liberty. One of my last trips before “social distancing” had me largely confined to home and walks in my neighborhood was to San Francisco, California. Already there was a sense of rising social panic. The airport was a little quieter than usual; many wore masks to hide their tight expressions; others, like plovers nesting in the grass, tried to hide in quieter corners of the concourse waiting areas. All paid good attention to the television monitors and the escalating tales of contagion.
At the motel the screen in my room had the same cast. To escape it and the sense of siege, I took off on foot, crossing the moat of the hospitality district and, after underpassing the freeway, arriving in the almost medieval back streets of the city. All seemed normal enough, although with the new awareness of threat, I could see the hazard of jostling in the street or waiting in line in crowded stores for food likely topped with descending vapors. So I decided to seek a quieter venue, and a used bookstore seemed to fit that criteria.
It was quieter, confirming my view that panic for most does not necessarily lead to introspection. I scanned the shelves, looking for interest andbargains, and quickly found both. It was a fat paperback of 750 pages and a price less than a dollar, indicating a lack of reader interest. The title jumped out at me: The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. I have been reading it ever since. The 1984 tome, the basis for a TBS documentary, is incredibly close to a secular book of Revelation in its specificity in predicting what we are living through. It documents the efforts of epidemiologists and an array of scientists to combat the veritable assembly line ofpossible pandemics unleashed by changing world demographics and the effects of climate change.
That was some weeks ago. Now the United States has more COVID-19 cases than China, where the virus first appeared, and New York is caught up in a frightening exponential spiral of infection and death. For much of the population, normal life has ceased. Empty grocery shelves reflect panic buying. Empty streets are the Dow Jones proxy for an economy in rewind. Information on the crisis is everywhere, yet often contradictory and incomplete. One online doctor, strain on his face as he incongruously touches his face repeatedly, says the most successful outcome will be a mere 100,000 dead; the worst-case scenario: many, many times that.
No wonder some news commentators, reaching into the purple verbiage of the Hindenburg tragedy of a century ago, keep using the word “apocalyptic.” That term, of course, means “resembling the end of the world; momentous or catastrophic”; but at root it means an evocation of the biblical Apocalypse, or book of Revelation, which does prophesy in some detail the final events for this world.
People are beginning to wonder at it all. I was in my backyard a few days ago, trimming a dead tree, and the neighbor’s wife called across the fence to comment on the contagion. “It almost seems like one of the plagues of Revelation at the end of the world,” she said, perhaps testing what my reaction might be. “Certainly the type of thing we might expect of the end of time,” I said carefully. “But it does not directly answer to the specific plagues described in that Bible book.”
The ancient Etruscans had an interesting view of their history. They divided it into 90-year blocks, roughly equaling four generations, and about as long as any human could live. The Romans picked up on the idea, but lengthened it to 100 years and then 110 years, calling it a saeculum: the period when living memory failed and human reactions tended to reset. I think it interesting that it is approximately 100 years since a flu pandemic killed 675,000 Americans and tens of millions worldwide. We have been here before. Of course, coming on the heels of the generational killing in World War I, the flu epidemic blurred into the general horror of the times and the soon-to-come Great Depression. Lest we forget!
Benjamin Franklin, he of the Poor Richard’s Almanack and many pithy statements, wrote in words variously reported and generally repeated as “They who are willing to give up liberty for security, deserve neither liberty nor security.” It is a lesson that we started to forget after September 11 and that should be kept in mind as we adopt draconian and uniformly accepted measures to protect ourselves from the “pestilence . . . in darkness” and the “destruction . . . at nonday” (Psalm 91:6).
We have long since escaped the pestilences that wiped out native peoples in the New World and the Antipodes. And the depredations of the plague now reside quiescently in history book footnotes and weapons lab vial storage. But we would do well to ponder what accompanied the Black Death as it scythed down as much as a quarter of Europe’s population.Economic activity all but ceased and farms ceased to function, leading to starvation on a level approaching the plague itself. Cannibalism, a repressed memory now only hinted at in fairy tales, was an ugly fact of a desperate time, which had been preceded by decades of crop failure and weather change, suggesting that God had forgotten them. Lawlessness and war followed in the train of social meltdown.
(I could not help noting that in the midst of the COVID-19 troubles in the U.S., there was news of another North Korean missile launch! So much of our post-World War II peace comes from the world’s interconnectedness binding nations to a realization that they will lose more by war than they could ever gain—the collapse of the world economic order might remove that inhibition.)
The Christian misreading of Scripture regarding the Jews had long since become a justification for civil suppression in medieval Europe. Now, with the panic of the plague, it spilled over into gross acts of violence: In Strasbourg, France, on Valentine’s Day 1349, 1,000 Jews were burned alive. Flagellants and religious hysterics abounded. For many it seemed the end of the world.
Even today, religious freedom is a generally supported but often illusive thing. It is not easily judged by a society at large. And it is worth remembering that efforts to restrict it nearly always have broad support and pass as a compelling need.
We had best pray that human nature does not react against itself as it did back then. And yes, the scientifically led efforts to limit ourpresent pandemic are well thought out. And yes, the government is acting with admirable respect for human life. Whether our extreme measures will work well and whether they will bring other troubles in their train remains to be seen. The medieval contagion brought by the Black Death extended far beyond the dying time. It likely will be the same today.
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."