One day a couple weeks ago, the top three headlines on the daily news emails from both the NY Times and LA Times were all concerning Ebola, and ominously, the focus of each was on Ebola-related topics here in the USA…who’s actually sick, protection measures, CDC guidelines. It seemed to me then that America’s focus was shifting inward once again, that the thousands of Ebola victims in West Africa were taking a backseat to the two or three possible cases here.
Since then, the mix of Ebola stories hasn’t changed much, despite a few very moving profiles of West African medical personnel who risk their lives daily to staunch the growing epidemic at its source. If we can take our eyes off ourselves, through print and video stories like this one we can witness in our lifetimes the drama of those risking their own lives in a modern-dayplague: http://www.nytimes.com/video/world/africa/100000003187061/the-ebola-ward.html?smid=fb-share
But these stories are increasingly the exception. And the shift by the media to insular coverage both reflects and stokes the fires of more fear, less compassion. It came to a head for me yesterday…
During our team devotions, a colleague gave thanks for her successful trip last week to Zambia, in southern Africa. But she also asked for prayer for two of the travelers.
The first was a teacher at a parochial school in the Midwest. As the team changed planes in Johannesburg on their return trip, she began receiving unexpected emails and texts about her upcoming “voluntary” 21-day quarantine before returning to the classroom. Then she saw the email from her principal about how parents were applying pressure to keep the teacher away from their children. So she was being asked (read: told) to take a paid, 21-day leave.
Now, I must stop here and point out that Zambia is further from the Ebola zone in West Africa than Omaha is from…wait for it…Caracas, Venezuela. Can you imagine someone traveling from London to Omaha and being quarantined when they returned because they were deemed too close to Caracas? Or take the analogy north instead…they were deemed too close to Fairbanks, Alaska! It’s absurd. On top of the sheer absurdity of it, it’d be offensive to the people of Omaha that Londoners wouldn’t have any better sense of geography than that.
The returning teacher prayed about it and decided that to comply with this commanded absence would only perpetuate fears and stigma. So instead, she resigned, telling the administrators of the school that the parents’ fears were unwarranted and that as a Christian she could not in good conscience contribute to this uninformed stigma against any person who touches an entire continent.
My colleague’s second prayer request wasn’t much better: another woman who was on the same Zambia trip got a call from her housekeeper when she got home. The cleaner explained that she wouldn’t be able to come clean the lady’s house for at least 21 days, because her other clients told her they would not allow her to clean their homes again if she entered the traveler’s home. Of course, the charwoman had little choice—she is a pawn in this little drama; she needs the money the most and would lose multiple clients by not giving in to this demand. Again, we’re talking about a traveler who was about 3000 miles from any Ebola-impacted areas.
Call this what you will: fear, hyper-diligence, snobbery in its own way, etc. Here’s the tricky part: I’ll bet many/most of the housekeeper’s clients are parents. They are thinking, as are the parents at the Christian school, “I’m responsible to protect my children from harm.” Who can argue with that?
But we’ve taken this principle to be supreme, as though it has no boundaries. There is nothing in our faith that calls this a first principle. If it were such, there would never have been a missionary who took their family with them to serve others. No, we must admit it: this is completely a cultural overlay that we decorate in a Christian wrapper to justify as honorable and diligent. We throw up two or three weak Bible references about children being a gift from God, and act as though those gifts are to be hoarded.
Whatever happened to civility, to treating others as we would be treated? Whatever happened to bearing in our bodies the sufferings of Christ, to bearing one another’s burdens?
Our nation’s current response to Ebola, in the Christian as well as secular community, breaks my heart as we elevate our personal safety, and that of our children, above practically every other consideration… compassion, mercy, justice, selflessness… meaning, of course, that we stand in direct contradiction to everything Jesus ever stood for.
PS: I’ve since heard several other equally shocking Ebola-phobia stories, and also read this useful piece on discerning reasonable fears from unrealistic worry… http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2014/october/what-ebola-panic-reminds-us-about-worry.html