In our home for years we laid out a table runner with three simple words, “cleanliness is health.” The words were in German, and the runner was a family heirloom. It came to Canada with my wife’s grandparents in 1923, when they arrived with the first waves of Mennonite immigrants fleeing the Soviet Union after the revolution.
In the half decade just before their arrival in Canada, they had endured the collapse of the old tsarist government, the Communist revolution, civil war with as many as five different forces fighting over the territory in which they lived, including the emergence of bandit groups who devastated their way of life.
The coup de grace for the old way of life, however, was introduction of an epidemic within the colonies in which they lived, often brought by dying bandits or soldiers of one or the other of the contending armies, many of them simply landing on their doorsteps. More people died of disease than from the war and bandits. Sick bandits came with the accumulated filth of weeks of fighting, carrying lice and typhus disease. One of my grandfathers died in the epidemic, and my mother barely survived.
Hard on the heels of the epidemic came hunger. Some of this was the inevitable outcome of the civil war. Draft horses for seeding and field work were in short supply. But some of it was also the outcome of the policies of the young Communist government, which almost immediately began requisitioning portions of crops grown by farmers. Then followed drought. It put many on a razor’s edge.
In such a context, “cleanliness is health” had a great deal of meaning. It was a recognition that simple rules have worth and purpose. Even if this faith community was relatively unschooled, their educational system supported practices that contributed to good health. Order and cleanliness meant a healthier community. One of the heroic stories of that period was the action of one of the less affected colonies to send teams of able-bodied men and women to help clean up in the wake of the marauding bandits in other colonies.
We need each other
I have thought of this while reading stories emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic. What does my Christian faith say or do in this setting?
We are learning that somehow all of us around the world are connected. A virus that began with a single person in Wuhan, China, probably in November, has now touched virtually every country in the world, and will have infected millions before it has run its course.
When John Donne, the great English poet, lay ill on his bed and heard church bells tolling, he knew they were announcing someone’s death. He began to meditate on his illness and the possibility of his own death and wrote a series of 23 Christian meditations.
In one of them he wrote these famous lines: “No man is an island, entire to itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod is washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. . . . Any man’s death diminishes me, because I’m involved in mankind, and therefore never send for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
We’re all connected and no person or country can act as if what happens elsewhere does not affect us. If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it is that we are all connected.
We’re learning we need one another. What would we do without health-care professionals or the scientists who do research on how epidemics spread, vaccines are produced or medicines found that can hinder a disease such as COVID-19?
Caring for the sick
We are also learning we can engage. Christians were at the forefront of responses to two of the greatest plagues of the first centuries after Christ, one likely smallpox and the other perhaps measles, around A.D. 165 and 250. Sociologist Rodney Stark has written that the Christian community, though still relatively small, survived and thrived in the midst of human calamity. They did so because they laid themselves down for the dying, serving and comforting them, bringing needed help. Their faith allowed them to endure the hardships better than many others, and more actually survived. It drew people to them.
Our chief heroes today are medical practitioners, and though there are many Christians among them, there are many others who daily go into settings rife with deadly risks.
A test for each of us
I think there is another learning for us. Olga Rubel, coordinator for a Mennonite center in Zaporizhya, Ukraine, wrote: “People are looking for tests to identify coronavirus, but coronavirus is [a] test by itself. It tests systems and governments. It tests organizations and individuals. This is a powerful reminder to all of us that we can survive only by helping each other. What will win — egoism, or reason and love?”
She is right. The entire world is facing a test. We have witnessed the huge gaps that emerged between populations in recent decades. Powerful groups dictating the terms for countless others. Shareholders benefiting at the expense of the working poor. Rich countries benefiting at the expense of the less powerful. We need a moral rebirth in each of our hearts and consciences.
Eventually, this pandemic too will pass. But will it teach us lessons that will make this world a better one? A genuine rebirth can do that for us.
Harold Jantz is the retired editor of Mennonite Brethren Herald and ChristianWeek, both of which served Canadian Mennonites and wider church communities. This originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.
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