A nation that wraps itself in a mantel of faith values in terms of being ‘pro-life’ is responding in hysterical fear to the outbreak of the deadly disease of Ebola.
Following the parable of The Good Samaritan in the New Testament Gospel, we are not only passing by on the other side to avoid the victim of Ebola lying bleeding by the side of the road. We are running off the road and into the ditch to avoid any remote chance of contact with the disease we have come to dread.
We have become a people very afraid. But, fear is the opposite of faith. And the message do not be afraid is integral to the deep teachings of every major spiritual tradition.
There are, of course, significant exceptions to our cultural response of fear. Ebola came recently to our awareness and to our shores because of people of faith journeying to Africa, at great personal risk, to serve those with this disease. They demonstrate the great qualities of mercy and compassion.
I follow the exegesis of Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox in suggesting that mercy and compassion are very different from each other. To show mercy is to stand between a person being judged and a judgment. It presumes both wrong-doing and the superior position of the person choosing to show mercy. In the nuances of our cultural response to Ebola, there is plenty of both judgment and superiority.
We have co-constructed Ebola as a disease of the other. It is a disease of “The Dark Continent” of Africa. Our media perpetuates this view. An ABC News report describes Ebola as “a disease that emerged out of the jungle.” An implied message that might well be taken from it is: “Be afraid of the jungle and the dark-skinned people who inhabit it. They carry strange diseases. Be very afraid.” Surely, the racialization of Ebola is not a faith response.
In the mercy we show to those with Ebola, is there also judgment? Do we assume that African countries where Ebola is rampant are responsible for the conditions that contribute to its spread?
The response of compassion is different from the response of mercy. The 13th century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, suggests that “compassion means justice.” Matthew Fox echoes this in his seminal work A Spirituality Named Compassion. A compassionate faith response to Ebola will require us to examine our own participation in co-constructing the conditions that have allowed Ebola to flourish.
We, in the West, have co-created the Africa we are prompted to fear by our media. Our government has supported military dictators and corrupt leaders when and where it serves our hegemonic geo-political interests. Centuries of devaluing the culture, the people, the freedom, the life, and the indigenous wisdom of countries to which we have sought to export our values (way of life) in exchange for natural resources and human labor have come back to haunt us. The icon of this deathly exchange is Dr. Livingstone who set the tone for much of the exploitative mingling of a western version of Christianity with western commercial interests that would set the tone for much of western involvement in Africa over the next century.
The quid-pro-quo of missionary zeal to convert Africans in exchange for commerce development was completely transparent in the writings of Dr. Livingstone, who said: “The main object (of our Expedition) …was to improve our acquaintance with the inhabitants (of Africa) and to endeavor to engage them to apply themselves in industrial pursuits…with a view to the production of raw material to be exported to England.”
In the 1800’s Dr. Livingstone witnessed the slaughter of more than four hundred Africans by slave traders, yet unabashedly continued to bring forward his campaign of “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization” in some of the regions of Africa where such a campaign is still waged in the countries now known best for their Ebola outbreaks.
The narrative of Ebola is complex and many-chaptered. Let us be clear that the stage on which Ebola plays out is not limited to Africa but involves the global community. The Oxford Journal of Infectious Diseases describes a number of strands of Ebola that spawn several continents. The Marburg virus, is named after a location in Germany where monkeys were imported from Africa for use in research and vaccine. Another strain was identified when monkeys were imported into a primate facility in Virginia in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) still another strain traces back to the Philippines. Ebola did not reach epidemic levels in African countries until after the disruption of traditional village life and ways and the emergence of large urban centers with inadequate health care and other facilities to support large populations. The history of diseases brought to Africa from the West is well documented for those who care to study it.
Compassion–as justice–does not allow us to stigmatize Africa or characterize Ebola as a disease of the other. In our relationships with our African neighbors, we have the choice to fear Africa, to exploit Africa, or to protectively distance ourselves as far as possible from Africa. The emergence of Ebola has fueled the anti-immigration drive in the United States and those who are bent on keeping other cultures and peoples from intruding on ‘our way of life.’
But, it can be our choice to join Africa instead. I suggest that this is the faith response. In many African countries there is a tradition of eating from a common dish. We can choose to join Africa in this feast. It is a feast where we choose equitable sharing.
To return to the writing of the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and a faith perspective on Ebola, the feast to which we are invited is one that preempts the “necessity for any hierarchy.” Celebrants at the banquet table arrive from the East and from the West, from the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere and yes — from Africa and from America. This banquet imagery is deeply woven into the Gospels and is shared across faith traditions.
Might our faith response to Ebola be more about the banquet and less about base fear? A faith response to Ebola might start with equitable sharing of global resources including access to basic health care, adequate nutrition, education and health data sharing that is without borders. Ebola truly knows no borders and our response to it should not be defined by borders.
The faith response to Ebola must surely come from the place of spiritual intelligence. This will call us to be attentive to the science of Ebola and scientifically appropriate precautions. This is because faith traditions recognize that science is also revelation. Such spiritual intelligence calls us to also look beyond the individual cases and exposures to Ebola to the core causes and circumstances that spread the disease and the ways in which we can bring compassion and justice to this arena whether it is in Africa or the United States.
Who is our neighbor in the 21st Century? Our neighbor includes those who are marginalized and whose voices are silenced. Our neighbor includes both those who are sick and those who are well, those with disease and those living in ease. The call of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is to respond from faith instead of from fear. Yes, this may involve some personal cost and even some personal risk.
A faith response to Ebola asks this spiritually haunting question: “Will we walk by on the other side? Will we choose to remove and isolate ourselves or draw closer? Faith is more powerful than fear. It is in drawing closer that we touch the richness of life and the sacredness of what it means to be on this amazing life journey together.