The Walking Dead or, How Not to Respond to Ebola

POPE FRANCIS' GENERAL AUDIENCEEbola is all the rage these days when it comes to apocalyptic news. While it is a tragedy and deserves our attention, for the time being it’s more media hype than anything else. That being said, what has been notably absent is the Christian view regarding such plagues; some Christians have stated views that are explicitly anti-Christian.

Take, for instance, Todd Kincannon, the former GOP executive director for South Carolina stating that once someone is diagnosed with Ebola, that person ought to be “humanely killed.” Such a view is so antithetical to the Christian message that it’s hardly worthy of a response. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh thinks that President Obama is allowing Ebola into to the United States as a punishment for white people.  The Dallas District Attorney is considering pressing charges against the first Ebola patient in the US, even though he went to the hospital, told them where he had been, and they turned him away. In other words, the DA wants to prosecute a guy for being sick; need I go on with how stupid some of the replies to Ebola have been?

Ebola is dangerous and a tragedy. Sierra Leone just recorded 121 deaths in one day. It’s spread to the United States and to Spain. It is a killer, an R1 or R2, meaning that its spread has taken quite a leap. Still, it’s not an R3 like HIV, meaning you’re more likely to contract HIV than Ebola. Of course, being the type of disease it is, it’s likely to evolve, making it more contagious. Does this fear of death mean, however, that Christians ought to turn tail and run? Does it mean that Christians are to abandon their principles at the first sight of sickness? Are we to become like the people in The Walking Dead, cutting ourselves off from the outside world and doing all we can to survive?

Thankfully, we have a past to turn to, and not just a past but a present. People forget that Dr. Kent Brantly was performing missionary work over in Africa when he contracted Ebola. Yet, rather than supporting him, many Christians were quick to condemn him. It’s quite ironic considering that an atheist doctor recently wrote in the liberal edition of the Blaze Slate how he was uncomfortable having Christian doctors over in Africa, sharing their faith. His ultimate problem is that these Christian doctors are helping the poor and sharing their faith while “humanist” (read: Atheist) doctors do little to nothing to help the poor. Thus, because no one else is willing to help these Africans, he’ll tolerate the existence of these Christians. How odd that his complaint is similar to Julian the Apostate’s complaint, albeit a poorly written version of Julian’s complaint. Julian wrote,

Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their [Christians] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism. For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.

A word of note; the Romans considered Christians “atheists” because we believe in one God, not many. It is quite ironic considering the embrace of Stoicism among many Roman elite (including Marcus Aurelius) since Stoicism is atheistic in the true sense of the word. Regardless, the complaint both then and now is that Christians, while abhorrent, still helped the poor and sick better than anyone else.

Yet, where is the Christian voice in all of the brouhaha surrounding Ebola? Of course, one can easily point to the Christian actions against Ebola, but what about the complaints?  If Ebola is truly a pandemic, a plague, then its outbreak in the United States is inevitable. Now, I do not believe we’ll see an outbreak of Ebola in the United States. The chances of it occurring are near zero. Regardless, at some point a plague will occur simply because that’s the cycle of history. In that period, how should Christians respond?

121 deaths in one day from Ebola certainly is bad, but imagine 5,000 deaths in one day. During the Plague of Cyprian in the third century, nearly 5,000 people a day died in Rome. Pontius of Carthage records what happened during Cyprian’s days during the plague, noting:

Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house.  All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcases of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience. In these circumstances, it would be a wrong to pass over what the pontiff of Christ did, who excelled the pontiffs of the world as much in kindly affection as he did in truth of religion. On the people assembled together in one place he first of all urged the benefits of mercy, teaching by examples from divine lessons, how greatly the duties of benevolence avail to deserve well of God. Then afterwards he subjoined, that there was nothing wonderful in our cherishing our own people only with the needed attentions of love, but that he might become perfect who would do something more than the publican or the heathen, who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a clemency which was like the divine clemency, loved even his enemies, who would pray for the salvation of those that persecute him, as the Lord admonishes and exhorts.

The lack of mercy shown to the dying was considered cruel and impious by the Christians. From its earliest foundations, Christianity has focused on being light to a dark world, and sometimes in spreading light, one must travel into the darkness. From many other records, during Roman plagues and plagues in the Medieval period, Christians (specifically clergy) were often the victims due to giving mercy to the dying and (in the case of priests) last rites.

For whatever reason, Christianity has both held onto and abandoned this rich heritage. It’s held onto it in the form of Mother Theresa and other nuns and priests who go into desperate worlds and offer whatever help they can. It’s alive in the form of Christians of all confessional backgrounds getting medical degrees and then using their knowledge on patients who can never repay them. At the same time, we have many Christian leaders (take the term as loosely as you wish) such as Mike Huckabee who argued back in 1992 that AIDS victims ought to be quarantined from society. A quick perusal of random posts through Christian websites offer either complete silence on the issue, or the idea that we ought to prevent travel from African countries impacted by Ebola, to more insane ideas. Some Christians have seemingly forgotten their faith.

The Christian view of the plague is intrinsically linked to the Christian view of death, which is to say that love is stronger than death. Love is stronger than any plague. During the Cyprian outbreak in Rome, many Romans accused Christians of enjoying the plague as they continued to hold festivals. Why were Christians so nonchalant about the prospect of death? Because to the Christian death is not the end of all life, just the end of this current life. While it’s natural to fear death, when we lose our compassion and love in the face of the plague, we implicitly deny an afterlife. Yet, if Christ’s resurrection from the dead doesn’t promise a resurrection in the life to come, one in a world free from corruption, then why are we Christians? I’m not saying go embrace someone with the plague today, but I am saying we need to be reasonable in our approach to any communicable and deadly disease.

The wonderful thing about being a Christian in the modern era is that through medical advancements, one can be compassionate and fulfill the Christian mission without taking on a death sentence. Through basic sanitation and protective clothing, Christians can show compassion and aid to the sick without contracting the disease. This was something ancient Christians had to contend with, they had to take plague victims – with their ravaged bodies and putrid smells – and embrace them, give them food and water, and care for them, all the while exposing themselves to the disease. If immanent death wasn’t enough to prevent the ancient Christians from embracing the sick and dying, what excuse do we have in the modern era when through basic preventative measures we can reduce the chances of catching a disease? If the love of Christ is the most powerful element in all of creation, if it is the cause of creation, then sickness and death shouldn’t strike fear so easily into the heart of a believer.

Ultimately, Christians are called to bring life into a dying world. Those who suffer from any plague are often alone (to prevent the spread of the disease). As they suffer and die no one is there for them. The call is for Christians to be there for them, to give them hope in the final minutes of their lives. We cannot do this if we, like the world, fear death more than is normal. Yes, death is feared for the normal reasons of missing loved ones, pain, suffering, and the like. But death is temporary. Just as a fetus might fear the pain of birth, of going into the unknown, so too do we fear death; but like birth, death is merely a launching point into the next stage of life. We do not seek out death before its due time, but we ought not fear it to the point that it prevents us from displaying our love. For should we allow death to dictate who receives our mercy and love, we allow death to triumph over life.