Hope, healing: Christianity gave us hospitals

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Hospitals are one of the blessings that adorn our society and make us wealthy. Not wealthy in money, because they take a lot of money just to keep the doors open. I mean wealthy in opportunity to be helped and rescued.

Not everyone in the world can receive medical care. Have you ever been very far from a hospital? Once I traveled in a large country in Asia. Although there were tens of thousands of people, it was a five-hour drive by Jeep to get to the nearest hospital. There was no ambulance service for the sick. In other words, sick people either got well on their own, or died.

Ask yourself, “Where do hospitals come from?” Why did some countries start to build hospitals and not others? The historic answer is that hospitals were the gift of Christianity to the world.

Jesus of Nazareth conducted a healing ministry throughout Israel. With compassion for the sick, he healed both body and soul, using God’s power to make people new. His ministry included both teaching and healing, and he sent out his disciples to do the same. But what about after his death and bodily resurrection? Until the day he returns, he continues his ministry by his Spirit through his followers.

The first followers spread the news about Jesus, telling of his death and resurrection to indestructible life. They also continued the healing work of Jesus by praying for the sick in his name (James 5). Because they were confident that his resurrection from the dead brought true hope, they lived in the light of that hope. They believed — and Christians still believe — that we must help the weak. We minister to the sick because they are destined to be given a resurrection body, and live forever with God. Thus they are of eternal value, regardless of appearances to the contrary on earth.

Sadly, the early church was persecuted during the years of the Roman Empire, and could not do much in public. They could only care for the sick people they could bring into their own homes. But they did this, at great cost in money, resources, time and energy. They showed practical love, and it got the attention of their neighbors.

Those who were not Jews or Christians did not like to help the sick. Greek and Roman writers say so. They might help their own families, but not many others. They were afraid of fevers and disease that could kill them. They avoided the sick. In great contrast were Christians who ministered to the sick during times of plague, even at risk to their own lives.

After the Emperor Constantine changed the status of Christianity from illegal to legal, the Christians could do more publicly. Their churches raised money to establish and support houses where the sick or infirm could be brought. These were the first hospitals. At the same time, the early Christians also created places where orphans could be cared for. In these ways the compassion and healing work of Jesus was extended into new places.

Previously the Romans had places called (in Latin) valetudinaria, but only gladiators and soldiers were served. The ordinary laborer and his family were not helped or given a place to rest and recover. The Greeks had places where a physician would diagnose illness, but not provide nursing care. They also had temples where the sick would ask the god Aesculapius to reveal a course of treatment, but then they had to go home and try it. Christians provided bed care.

The first full hospital was built by St. Basil in Caesarea in Cappadocia, around the year 369. About 390, a wealthy Christian woman, Fabiola, built a hospital in Rome, later one in Ostia. These hospitals had rooms for physicians and nurses to live, and included training workshops so the recovering poor could learn a trade. These were radically comprehensive attempts to help the sick and poor.

In the 8th century, certain Arab Islamists became impressed after examining hospitals built by Christians. They started erecting some hospitals in countries dominated by the Arab conquests. Hence we see that historically Christianity’s influence extended across religious boundaries.

In our own community, we have three hospitals. The VA hospital is run by the government. The other two were both started by Christian churches: one by Roman Catholics and the other by Seventh Day Adventists.

Space does not permit giving more details to fill out the story. The bottom line is that Christianity gave a bequest to the world, a gift worth inheriting and passing on. The sick and needy require care, and our motivation to help them still comes from the Healer from Nazareth.

My information is documented by many historians, but mostly culled from sociologist Alvin J. Schmidt’s book, “How Christianity Changed the World.”

The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Walla Walla. You may email him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by email at catherinehicks@wwub.com.

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