Things That Plague Us

Oh great. All we needed was a plague.

We have worldwide economic meltdown, wars and famines and pestilence, crime and corruption. Now, we have an epidemic: swine flu. Look for the panic to occur any moment now.

One thing about it, we are better set up for plagues than we were in the 14th century when the Black Plague ravaged Europe. Back then, that thing silently moved in on ships and was carried from town to town by fleas, riding on humans and animals. These days, we put people on planes, they sneeze into the air, and by nightfall, the flu is being enjoyed by people all over North America. Next day, Europe.

A Washington Post article of a few days ago says, “(This is) the latest example of how diseases, from influenza to tuberculosis to cholera, are spreading ever more quickly in an increasingly globalized world.” The good news, reporters Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan write, is that “so, too, are the tools necessary to combat sudden outbreaks of disease: expertise, medicine, money, and information.”

By an odd coincidence, I’ve just been reading Geraldine Brooks’ novel on the black plague of the 17th century. “Year of Wonders” is the strange title for this fascinating book. Brooks is a veteran correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and the author of “March,” a Pulitzer Prize winner, which several in my family found fascinating.

Geraldine Brooks traveled to England and visited the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. This community more or less proudly refers to itself to this day as “the plague village.” What happened was this: when it was discovered that the small community was the focus of the plague, the residents willingly shut themselves in. They quarantined themselves in order to keep it from spreading. Not content with just writing a fictionalized account of that event, Author Geraldine Brooks went at the story as though she were compiling it for the Wall Street Journal, picked the brain of Eyam’s official historian John G. Clifford (whose book “Eyam Plague 1665-1666” tells the story), and used real people as her characters. (The book is copyrighted 2001, so purchase it used.)

William Manchester’s “A World Lit Only By Fire,” is another on my bookshelf that deals with the plague. Subtitled, “The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance; Portrait of an Age,” Manchester writes that in “October 1347… a Genoese fleet returning from the Orient staggered into Messina harbor, all members of its crews dead or dying from a combination of bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plague strains.” As a result, he writes, “the late 1400s and early 1500s were haunted by dark reigns of pestilence…life became very cheap.”

Two more books. I know, I know. You’re thinking McKeever must be fascinated with this subject to own so many books on the subject. (And this is after I’ve given away hundreds in preparation for closing this office!) And you’d be right. (I’m also the history major, too, so anything in history I find fascinating. It’s a genetic flaw.)

“The Black Death” is Philip Zeigler’s take on Europe’s plague of the 14th century. The book has been around since 1969, but keeps getting reprinted, which leads us to believe no one has written much on the subject since. Look for all that to change since plagues are getting to be such a hot topic. In his introduction, Zeigler says no book had covered the subject since “The Great Pestilence” by Cardinal Gasquet, published in 1893. If you enjoy reading about the misery of those poor dying people, this is your book. I don’t, but have kept the book anyway.

Mostly, I want to quote here from S. I. McMillen’s 1967 book, “None of These Diseases.” This missionary physician takes the approach that so many of today’s health problems could have been prevented if people simply read, understood, and practiced the same teachings God gave the Jews in the Scriptures. The title comes from God’s promise to Israel just after Moses had led them across the Red Sea: “If you will heed the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians.” (Exodus 15:26)

Anyone reading even a little about medieval history is acquainted with the filth that these people lived with. They dumped their excrement into the streets and drank water from the sewers which carried their filth toward the ocean. McMillen writes, “Powerful stenches gripped villages and cities. It was a heyday for flies as they bred in the filth and spread intestinal diseases that killed millions.”

Then he delivers this punch: “Such waste of human lives that could have been saved if people had only taken seriously God’s provision for freeing man of diseases! With one sentence the Book of books pointed the way to deliverance from the deadly epidemics of typhoid, cholera, and dysentery: ‘You shall set off a place outside the camp and, when you go out to use it, you must carry a spade among your gear and dig a hole, have easement, and turn to cover the excrement.'” (Is that in the Bible? You bet. Deuteronomy 23:12-13.)

But here is what McMillen had to say about the Black Plague of the 14th century….

“…this killer took the lives of one out of four persons, an estimated total of 60 million. It was the greatest disaster ever recorded in human history.” And what brought the various plagues of the Dark Ages under control? McMillen quotes from George Rosen ‘s “History of Public Health,” written in 1958.

“Leadership was taken by the church, as the physicians had nothing to offer. The church took as its guiding principle the concept of contagion as embodied in the Old Testament…. This idea and its practical consequences are defined with great clarity in the book of Leviticus…. Once the condition of leprosy had been established, the patient was to be segregated and excluded from the community.”

He continues, “Following the precepts laid down in Leviticus the church undertook the task of combating leprosy… it accomplished the first great feat in methodical eradication of disease.”

That Leviticus passage is chapter 13, verse 46. You’ll want to look it up, and then apologize to the Lord.

Remember all those times when you tried reading through the Bible and you came to Leviticus and bogged down? The various rules and rituals bored you to tears and sapped your interest. It turns out what you were reading was sanitation codes and medical prescriptions from the Lord God to His people.

Revelation accomplished what human ingenuity could not. (The next time you hear someone put down the Bible as “just a book written by people,” you might want to remind them of this. It took man thousands of years to discover concepts of medicine God revealed to Moses.)

Dr. McMillen quotes Arturo Castiglione in “A History of Medicine,” 1941, in this: “The laws against leprosy in Leviticus 13 may be regarded as the first model of a sanitary legislation.”

One final, personal note.

In college, I read Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry,” in which he chronicles the life and times of a renegade preacher made famous in the movies by Burt Lancaster. A minor scene from the book made a huge impression on me. Two preachers are talking. One is leaving the ministry. He’s tired, he confesses, of having to apologize for all the errors and omissions and contradictions of the Bible. He gives a couple of instances, which even as a 19-year-old I found laughable. Any Sunday School kid could see how those two Scriptures were not contradictory but complementary.

Then the departing minister said to the other, “And something else. If Jesus Christ were really who He claimed to be — the Son of God come down from Heaven — instead of all those miracles which were so temporary, why didn’t He do something of lasting benefit for mankind…like give us a sanitation code?”

I read that and thought, “Great question. Wonder why He didn’t.”

You may know from your own experience how egotistical doubt can be. You find what appears to be a flaw in the Gospel message and instead of studying to see what you may have missed or running that by a trusted mentor, you are convinced no one has ever come up with this question before. You have found the fatal flaw, the Achilles’ heel, of the biblical story.

I am not saying this made me an atheist, but it did linger in the back of my mind as a serious question that had no fit answer. I went on and became a preacher and earned a seminary degree or two. All the while, that little issue lurked back there in the dark recesses of my heart.

And then, I came across “None of These Diseases” by S. I. McMillen. (Wonder how? Did someone give that to me? Did I find it in the bookstore? I’m indebted to someone.)

The reason, I quickly learned, that Jesus Christ did not give mankind a sanitation code when He walked on earth is that He already had. In the Bible, man held in his hands the Heavenly revelation in which God had told exactly what he needed to do to guard against germs and disease.

If man chose not to read the Scriptures, well, that was his problem. But it was there all along.

Jesus told a group of disgruntled skeptics in His day, “You make two errors: you do not know the Scriptures nor do you know the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29)

Turns out, that’s a problem that has been plaguing us for many centuries.

Now, if someone would just resurrect Sinclair Lewis and tell him.