Between 250 and 270 A.D. a terrible plague, believed to be measles or smallpox, devastated the Roman Empire. At the height of what came to be known as the Plague of Cyprian, after the bishop St. Cyprian who chronicled what was happening, 5,000 people died every day in Rome alone.
The plague coincided with the first empire-wide persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius. Not surprisingly, Decius and other enemies of the Church blamed Christians for the plague. That claim was, however, undermined by two inconvenient facts: Christians died from the plague like everybody else and, unlike everybody else, they cared for the victims of the plague, including their pagan neighbors.
This wasn't new—Christians had done the same thing during the Antonine Plague a century earlier. As Rodney Stark wrote in "The Rise of Christianity," Christians stayed in the afflicted cities when pagan leaders, including physicians, fled.
Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, notes that an "epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity." By their actions in the face of possible death, Christians showed their neighbors that "Christianity is worth dying for."
This witness came to mind after listening to a recent story on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Host Robert Siegel interviewed Stephen Rowden, who volunteered for Doctors Without Borders in Monrovia, Liberia.
Rowden's grim task was to manage the teams that collected the bodies of Ebola victims. Rowden and his team retrieved 10-to-25 bodies a day. Since close contact with the victims is the chief means by which the usually-deadly virus is spread, Rowden and his team members lived with the risk of becoming victims themselves.
What's more, living in the midst of this death and suffering took its toll. Rowden recalled entering a house and finding the body of a four-year-old victim who had been abandoned by her family. With the typical English understatement, he told Siegel, "I found that a very sad case."
Rowden's experience prompted Siegel to ask him if he was a religious man, to which Rowden replied, "I am. Yes, I'm a practicing Christian." When Siegel then asked whether what he saw tested his faith, Rowden said that "No, I got great strength from my faith and the support of my family."
Nearly eighteen centuries after the Plague of Cyprian, Christianity still prompts people to run towards the plague when virtually everyone else is running away.
Now as then, this power confounds and confuses Christianity's critics. A recent article in Slate acknowledged that many of the people fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa were missionaries. The writer, Brian Palmer, admitted that he "[didn't] feel good about missionary medicine, even though [he couldn't] fully articulate why." He knew that he shouldn't feel this way but he did.
Ross Douthat of the New York Times suspects that Palmer's misgivings have something to do with the fact that the selflessness of the missionaries "unsettles" his "secular and scientistic worldview." In that worldview, "helping people is what governments and secular groups are supposed to do."
But that's not how it works. Palmer, like the emperor Julian the Apostate in the late fourth century, is seeing that "the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well."
It's enough to unsettle anyone's worldview.