Mark Russell: Plague village’s reminder of power of self-sacrifice at Easter

The cross on Otley Chevin.
The cross on Otley Chevin.
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IN 2011, I led the relocation of our national offices from London to Sheffield. It was a bold move and one that has been good news for Church Army.

We have found Sheffield to be the most welcoming and friendly city. I am originally from Northern Ireland and I love it when people come to visit as I can show them around this amazing and beautiful place.

Last week my family came over and we had a few lovely days exploring South Yorkshire, but on one day we popped into Derbyshire and visited the remarkable village of Eyam, sometimes called “the plague village”.

In 1665 a tailor in Eyam ordered some cloth from a tailor in London, and the cloth was infested with fleas carrying the bubonic plague bacterium. The exhibition in the Parish Church tells the story of how the residents of Eyam under the leadership of their vicar, William Mompesson, decided to seal their village off to the outside world, effectively quarantining the disease in the streets of Eyam.

All kinds of measures were put in place to limit the spread of the virus and church services were moved to the open air so families could sit apart from one another. A vinegar-soaked “boundary stone” was placed at a safe distance outside the village to warn people from coming into the village, and it was where money was left in exchange for food and other provisions.

Over the next year, 260 of the 350 residents of Eyam died from plague and undoubtedly the brave decision to sacrifice themselves saved the north of England from a epidemic that would have killed thousands.

As I walked around the village, there were plaques in the gardens of homes detailing who had died there. I left the village of Eyam deeply moved and profoundly challenged by how the people of that little village had reacted and put the interests of the rest of the country before their own. I was left with the uncomfortable question: what would I have done had I lived in Eyam in 1665?

Self-sacrifice is a deeply moving and powerful narrative. Whether it Is Harry Potter risking his life for his friends, or Mufasa dying to protect Simba in The Lion King, or Jack dying to save Rose in the Titanic movie, we are always moved and touched when someone puts the survival of others before themselves.

It is profoundly counter cultural and this narrative of self-sacrifice is the heart of the Easter story.

Jesus of Nazareth was a young man who had spent his short life helping others. He changed people’s lives, he healed the sick, and he encouraged people to love one another.

Yesterday, on Good Friday, Christians remembered that when he was just 33 he was unjustly charged, illegally tried by a kangaroo court and then brutally executed by the Romans. Christians believe in this act of self-sacrifice Jesus put the needs of everyone else before himself.

The story of Eyam and the story of Easter show us the sheer power of putting the needs of others before ourselves. Today our understanding of self-sacrifice is skewed through the lens of suicide bombers who have twisted this noble and inspirational example of self-sacrifice, bringing misery and pain, not hope and life.

Yet I wonder whether our culture needs to re-discover a positive narrative of self-sacrifice. We live in a very “me” focused world, a world where it seems people want to consistently put their own needs and their agenda before the needs of others.

Millions of people have been displaced across Europe by the horrors of murder and war in Syria. People have risked their very lives to flee to our shores, and yet much of our political discourse seems to be about putting our needs before the needs of our fellow human beings who live in fear and destitution. Earlier this month, we saw the Chancellor publish a Budget that appears to make the richest in Britain better off whilst squeezing the income of the disabled and the poor. Even Iain Duncan Smith felt a Budget that put the rich before the poor was a step too far.

Looking around us we see the murder and horror of what is happening in Syria and Iraq, the terror in Turkey, the endless rise of extremism in whatever form it takes and now the bomb attacks in Brussels.

At the same time our world has never been a more unequal place. According to Unicef, 1.25 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, and over 22,000 children die each day from poverty. At the same time, Oxfam reports that the richest 62 people in the world own the same amount as half of the rest of the world’s population. I believe our world be a better place if more of us put the needs of others before ourselves once in a while.

Last week I saw a homeless man sat on the street in the pouring rain in Sheffield. I was in a hurry, but I caught his eyes and I saw something that deeply touched me. His eyes were dull, it was as if he had given up.

I stopped to talk to him and he told me marriage had broken up, he had lost his job, and benefit sanctions meant he couldn’t pay his rent. He had been evicted and had been living on the streets for a month. I bought him a coffee and a sandwich, it cost me £4 and 15 minutes of my time.

He told me I was an angel. God knows that isn’t true, ask my mother! However it is the power of self-sacrifice, the power of reaching out to help someone else.

Self-sacrifice can be picking up the phone to pledge a donation to charity, it can be standing up on a bus or train to give an elderly person a seat, or knocking the door of an elderly neighbour to bring them some flowers, or saying hello to a homeless person sat in the street.

Whenever we show these acts of self-sacrifice, we sow a narrative of inspiration and hope in an increasingly selfish world. As my friend and former Church Army President, Desmond Tutu, puts it: “Do your little bit of good where you are, and those little bits of good put together will overwhelm the world!”

I wish you and those you love a very happy Easter.

Mark Russell is CEO of Church Army and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @markrusselluk