“You can download an app here and see how close the Ebola virus is to you. The creators of the ‘Ebola near me’ app intended it to calm your Ebola fears.”
The confusing Ebola crisis has shone a light on the reality that many of Africa’s poorest and neediest are receiving medical treatment from (gasp!) missionaries. See, for example, Brian Palmer’s article in Slate, “Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?” Not all of those serving the medical needs of Africa are Christian missionaries, but the number who are is impressive. They are everywhere.
Missionary doctors have been treating Ebola victims in Africa for decades in sub-Sahara Africa. Why? Because they are the primary ones treating the people for every disease. They have always been there. The reason the West is even talking about Ebola is that the virus has the potential to spread quickly and infect people outside of Africa – us. Otherwise, would we care?
These doctors and nurses in Africa are not just your run of the mill missionaries (if there is such a thing) but well-qualified, highly-trained medical practitioners who leave behind high paying practices to serve long hours in difficult conditions for those who cannot afford to pay them. Most of them are providing the only medical care available for hundreds of miles in any direction.
“Idiotic!” Ann Coulter calls them.
But they are motivated by Christ, who did the same thing. Jesus “healed every disease” (Matthew 9:35). He told us that loving him meant loving those who have needs, even if they are strangers (Luke 10:30-37). The one called “the disciple Jesus loved” wrote, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17).
Jesus said, “Follow me,” and these health professionals really believe he meant it.
For most of their lives, they serve in obscurity. Now, they are on the front lines and the front page.
Christians: Under the Radar
Christians seem to show up sacrificially serving without much PR support.
For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross issued an appeal for 40,000 more volunteers to come to Louisiana and Mississippi to aid those suffering from the devastation. The appeal was ignored . . . except that thousands of Christian groups were already there or on their way.
British journalist (and atheist), Roy Hattersley surveyed the destruction post-Katrina and was surprised to see so many Christians groups working to help. In his article for The Guardian, he wrote, “Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers’ clubs and atheists’ associations – the sort of people who not only scoff at religion’s intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.”
Christians, he acknowledged, “. . . are the most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others.”
But this is nothing new. Followers of Christ aren’t out to win points with the media – or with God. They just show up when tragedy strikes.
And the most terrorizing tragedies come from pandemics that kill indiscriminately and mercilessly. Albert Camus’ classic novel, The Plague, describes a closed city ravaged by plague and the hopelessness of the people fighting against it. Most see his work as an allegory on the irrationality of life in the face of suffering and certain death. He draws on the long history of humanity’s impotent battle against disease.
Terror goes Viral
“The doctors are quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods.”
This is not current criticism of medical treatment in the Ebola crisis but an observation made by Thucydides in 431 BC. The plague that ravaged Athens at that time was catastrophic. Thucydides writes that those afflicted “. . . died with no one to look after them; indeed there are many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention…. the bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.”
What sounds like an episode of The Living Dead was a reality for the Athenians who saw tens of thousands die, religious faith diminished, and public morality ignored. During the time of the plague, Pericles, the father of modern democracy, died (ca. 429 BC). The war with Sparta was compromised and the Golden Age of Athens faded.
Plagues continued to devastate Europe for centuries and medical practice struggled to even care for those afflicted. Science eventually caught up with the causes but only after millions had died from typhus, smallpox, measles, syphilis, bubonic plague, or a number of infectious diseases.
Health practitioners of the time could offer no solutions to the plagues. The most well-known figures in the history of medicine, Hippocrates (ca. 460-370 BC) and Galen (AD 129-216), gave the same advice when it came to plagues: “Leave quickly, go far away and come back slowly.”
Dionysius (AD 260) writes that people were so terrified of diseases that they abandoned even their own loved ones:
“At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead . . .”
But in these early centuries after Christ, followers of Christ across the Roman Empire took a different approach. Dionysius goes on to describe how the followers of Christ “behaved in the very opposite way:”
“Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected with the disease . . .”
A century later, the Roman Emperor Julian (AD 362) complained that those Christians (he called them Galileans) were still at it:
“The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well; everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
Go and Do Likewise
Today, Christians have such little impact on society that journalists are surprised when they find them doing something worthwhile. We have been busy putting “sinners” in their place and arranging the furniture of our lives. All the while thinking we are serving Christ. But political agendas, social outrage and finger-wagging lectures only create a fog that obscures the Gospel.
We have a great legacy from those who heard Jesus say, “Go and do likewise:”
From the Good Samaritan who gave up time and money for one who was helpless and in need to Dr. Kent Brantley who almost gave up his life for the same. And many are asking “What do you believe that makes you live like this?”
And we get to tell them.
A friend was traveling through India with his son and arrived in Calcutta. They started in the city center and began walking through the streets with a local acquaintance. Almost immediately, the human tragedy that is synonymous with Calcutta assaulted their senses. The further they walked the more the squalor and stench pressed upon them. They were overwhelmed.
My friend turned to their companion and said, “This is heartbreaking. Don’t the Hindus take care of these people?”
He replied, “No. The Hindu people consider them unclean. They say they are receiving what they deserve for their past.”
Knowing there was a significant Muslim population in India my friend asked, “How about the Muslims?”
Their companion shook his head. “No. The Muslims also considered them unclean and cursed by Allah.”
Frustrated, my friend said, “Does anybody care for these people.”
The man stopped and looked at him for a moment then said quietly, “The Christians. Only the Christians.”