On Southern Baptists and AIDS/HIV ministry…

Today, I reviewed the remarkable epistle of Martin Luther entitled “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” In this open letter to the Johann Hess, pastor of Breslau, Germany, and his congregation, Luther captures the heart of ministry to those afflicted with incurable, terminable diseases. I encourage you to procure a copy of Luther’s Basic Theological Writings and to read it carefully.  The following exerpts may be found on pages 736-755.

This we would humbly submit to your judgment and to that of all devout Christians for them, as is proper, to come to their own decision and conclusion.  Since the rumor of death is to be heard in these and many other parts also, we have permitted these instructions of ours to be printed because others might also want to make use of them.

To begin with, some people are of the firm opinion that one need not and should not run away from a deadly plague.  Rather, since death is God’s punishment, which he sends upon us for our sins, we must submit to God and with a true and firm faith patiently await our punishment.  They look upon running away as an outright wrong and as lack of belief in God.  Others take the position that one may properly flee, particularly if one holds no public office.

I cannot censure the former for their excellent decision.  They uphold a good cause, namely, a strong faith in God, and deserve commendation because they desire every Christian to hold to a strong, firm faith.  It takes more than a milk faith to await a death before which most of the saints themselves have been and still are in dread.  Who would not acclaim these earnest people to whom death is a little thing.?  They willingly accept God’s chastisment, doing so without tempting God, as we shall hear later on….

Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death.  We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees.”  For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.  However, where enough preachers are available in one locality and they agree to encourage the other clergy to leave in order not to expose themselves needlessly to danger, I do not consider such to be sinful because spiritual services are provided for and because they would have been ready and willing to stay if it had been necessary….

Examples in Holy Scripture abudantly prove that to flee from death is not wrong in itself.  Abraham was a great saint but he feared death and escaped it by pretending that his wife, Sarah, was his sister.  Because he did so without neglecting or adversely affecting his neighbor, it was not counted as sin against him.  His son, Isaac, did likewise.  Jacob also fled from his brother Esau to avoid death at his hands.  Likewise, David fled from Saul, and from Absalom.  The prophet Uriah escaped from King Jehoiakim and fled into Egypt.  The valiant prophet, Elijah, had destroyed all the prophets of Baal by his great faith, but afterward, when Queen Jezebel threatened him, he became afraid and fled into the desert.  Before that, Moses fled into the land of Midian when the king searched for him in Egypt….

Yes, you may reply, but these examples do not refer to dying by pestilence but to death under persecution.  Answer:  Death is death, no matter how it occurs.  According to Holy Scripture God sent his four scourges: pestilence, famine, sword, and wild beasts.  If it is permissible to flee from one or the other in clear conscience, why not from all four?

By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also punishment from God.  Anyone who falls into deep water dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to the water as to divine punishment from God….Ultimately, such talk will lead to the point where we abbreviate the Lord’s Prayer and no longer pray, “deliver us from evil, Amen,” since we would have to stop praying to be saved from hell and stop seeking to escape it.  It, too, is God’s punishment as is every kind of evil.  Where would all this end?

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.  First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love — our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor.  I am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh.  Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our own lives in this manner as St. John teacher, “If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought also to lay down our lives for the brethren.”

When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart.  He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life…Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him.  And we should arm ourselves with this answer to the devil:

‘Get away, you devil, with your terrors!  Just because you hate it, I’ll spite you by going the more quickly to help my sick neighbor.  I’ll pay not attention to you:  I’ve got two heavy blows to use against you: the first one is that I know that helping my neighbor is a deed well-pleasing to God and all the angels; by this deed I do God’s will and render true service and obedience to him.  All the more so because if you hate it so an dare so strongly opposed to it, it must be particularly acceptable to God.  I’d do this readily and gladly if I could please only one angel who might look with delight on it.  But now it pleases my Lord Jesus Christ and the whole heavenly host because it is the will and command of God, my Father, then how could any fear of you cause me to spoil such joy in heaven or delight for my Lord?  Or how could I, by flattering you, give you and your devils in hell reason to mock and laugh at me?  No, you’ll not have the last word!  If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague?  If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me.  If you can kill, Christ can give life.  If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.  Should not my dear Christ, with his precepts, his kindness, and all his encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil.  Here is Christ and here am I, his servant in this work.  Let Christ prevail.  Amen!'”

…This I know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper.  Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running.  And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says, ‘As you did to one of the least, you did it to me….’  If you wish to seve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand.  Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word.  If you do not wish or care to serve your neighbor you can be sure that if Christ lay there instead you would not do so either and would let him lie there.  Those are nothing but illusions on your part which puff you up with vain pride, namely, that you would really serve Christ if he were there in person.  Those are nothing but lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbor as well….

This is what we think and conclude on this subject of fleeing from death by the plague.  If you are of a different opinion, may God enlighten you. Amen.

First, one must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die….

Second, everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight.  He should become reconciled with his neighbor and make his will so that if the Lord knocks and he departs before a pastor or chaplain can arrive, he has provided for his soul, has left nothing undone, and has committed himself to God….

Third,  if someone wants the chaplain or pastor to come, let the sick person send word in time to call him and let him do so early enough while he is still in his right mind before the illness overwhelms the patient….”