Skip to content

Bunkering Down (a Brief Commentary on Luther’s “Whether One May Flee form a Deadly Plague”) in light of Hurricane Sandy


Hurricane Sandy – from the International Space Station 10/29/2012
Image source:

I wrote this Monday before Sandy came through the East Coast. If it comes to as is – that means I lost power and could not update it!


Hurricane Sandy’s wrath is on its way and should reach Connecticut today 10/29/2012. Wisely many have prepared for what may become a long week, perhaps even longer. At our house we have water – in pitchers, and in bottles. We are going to eat out of the fridge until everything is used up before we move to what is stocked in the cupboards. I put a mattress over the glass sliding door in the basement, where we will soon all relocate once the wind really starts to pick up and the rain begins to fall.

As I was getting ready this morning and thinking about the days ahead I remembered a little piece that Martin Luther wrote in 1527 titled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” (Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. ed. Timothy F. Lull, [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989], 731-755). Back in his day the threat of plague was a grim reality, and people did what they could to protect themselves. Instinctively, when an outburst came into a village or town those who were able did what they could to stay away from those with the deadly disease, and in many cases, those of means or in political office escaped from town altogether. Luther’s pastoral heart urged those in leadership in the community to bunker down and remain at their posts for the sake of the weak and to prevent chaos. (This included pastors, those in government, those caring for the sick or orphaned, etc.). Luther’s main concern is that as Christian people we care for our neighbors – that is – all other people, regardless of the crisis at hand. As we face the coming hurricane this week and the potential for power outages and other damage, it is important for order and care for those in need that our officials, aid workers, and communities of support (like churches) be diligent in the roles people play to protect, support and care for our citizens.

But Luther also commended neighbors to look after neighbors as well – speaking against protecting yourself as the first of all virtues in a free society like ours:*

“In the same way we must and owe it to our neighbor to accord him the same treatment in other troubles and perils also. If his house is on fire, love compels me to run and help him extinguish the flames. If there are enough other people around to put the fire out, I may either go home or remain to help. If he falls into the water or into a pit I dare not turn away but must hurry to help him as best I can. If there are others to do it, I am released. If I see that he is hungry or thirsty, I cannot ignore him but must offer food and drink, not considering whether I would risk impoverishing myself for doing so. He who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor. He will always reckon with the possibility that doing so will bring some disadvantage and damage, danger and loss. No neighbor can live alongside another without risk to his safety, property, wife, or child. He must run the risk that fire or some accident will start in the neighbor’s house and destroy him bodily or deprive him of his bodily goods, wife, children and all he has.” (Ibid., 742-743.)

What was at stake for Luther are two issues: The first is the care of those in need as if they were Christ himself. To live in the world as people of God in the world is to care for others and the world. Christian faith asks something of us. We don’t just have a personal faith that can be lived in isolation of others. We are called to see Christ in everyone and care for them as if we cared for him. That is our witness to the faith centered in God’s word.

“There you hear that the command to love your neighbor is equal to the greatest commandment to love God, and what you fail to do for your neighbor you fail to do to God. If you wish to serve Christ and wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word.” (Ibid., 747.)

There is an equally important second part of that calling. It is to care for others, at times putting ourselves at risk, but that does not mean being reckless. We can help others in ways that are smart, that utilize our best practices, technology and know-how, and we should indeed be wise. One of Luther’s recommendations for how to tend to his town of Wittenberg and remove the risk of future epidemic was to move the cemetery out-of-town, thus moving possible contagions and decay (Ibid., 753-754). We are to care for others as those created in the likeness and image of God – without forgetting that we too are precious in God’s sight. Caring for ourselves and making wise and sound decisions enables us to care for others both now and in the future.

image source: environment/photos/wildfires-gallery/#/environment-wildfires-oregon_55367_600x450.jpg

“It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and fail to protect it against the plague as best as he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over. Indeed, such people behave as though a house was burning in the city and nobody was trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed, saying that if God so willed, he could save the city without water to quench the fire. No my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard and street; shun persons and placed wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.” (Ibid., 748-749.)

As the storm surely comes this week and we all bunker down to ride it out – I extol you to check on your neighbors and remain diligent with those under your care in your home. I also ask that you pay attention to official notices and warning as those making decisions for all of us are doing their duty to protect us and keep us safe as best we can. And I pray that all of us make sound decisions that care for ourselves, our neighbors, and best prepare us for this and future storms.

I leave you with the closing of Luther’s, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.”

“I hope that I’ve written enough in this pamphlet for those who can be saved so that – God be praised – many may thereby be snatched from their jaws and many more will be strengthened and confirmed in the truth. May Christ our Lord and Savior preserve us all in pure faith and fervent love, unspotted and pure until his day. Amen. Pray for me, a poor sinner.” (Ibid., 754-755.)

May this be a prayer for us all,



“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 John 4:19-21)

*(The words: he, his, man, wife and other language are intended to be inclusive of all people.)

(Originally posted on 10/29/2012 at )


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: