Love in the Time of Ebola
Some Americans responded to the ebola epidemic in West Africa by offering to care for the victims. Unfortunately, most of us were swept up in fear of the disease’s dreadful symptoms and mortality rate. Proposals circulated to block all flights to and from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Emblematic of the hysteria, a Catholic school teacher and registered nurse from Louisville, Kentucky was forced to resign after returning from a medical mission to Kenya, even though she was never closer than 3,000 miles from the ebola outbreaks.
Fundamental changes in how we treat African visitors and returning medical volunteers were proposed for a disease that ultimately killed only two people on US soil. One can only imagine the draconian measures that would be adopted in a real pandemic.
Those who doubt that Americans would jettison cherished civil liberties and human rights in a crisis need only read the highly redacted report on the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11. In response to the murder of 2,977 people, we killed more than a half million Afghans and Iraqis in undeclared wars; we violated the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo and elsewhere; we sanctioned drone assassinations of terror suspects, including American citizens; we allowed the government to engage in widespread warrantless surveillance; and we militarized our police forces. Who knows what kind of a fascist state we might now be living in had 9/11 been more than an isolated attack.
Christian ideals tend to get set aside in tough situations. When soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew and used his sword. When the Roman Empire was threatened with invasion, the Church adopted the Just War Theory. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, most Catholic Workers parted company with Dorothy Day on pacifism and enlisted in the military. During the Cold War, Catholic ethicists waived the duty to be hospitable when one’s family was hunkered down in a bomb shelter after a nuclear strike.
Like vegetarians between meals or pacifists between wars, we make the sign of the Cross at Mass and pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who tresspass against us,” but outside church we flinch when faced with the challenge to love real enemies or to be hospitable to the destitute, the prisoner, or the sick. And yet, from lepers to the very people who crucified Him, Jesus never varied His loving approach.
For most of us though, tough situations inspire more fear and anger than love. Fear causes us to exaggerate risks. Ebola becomes the most virulent plague in history. Anger lets us demonize others. Osama bin Laden becomes another Hitler. As rhetoric escalates, it becomes harder to espouse hospitality or nonviolence. Anger was so high after 9/11, that television commentator Bill Maher was fired for asking what bin Laden’s motivations were. To even hint that US policy might be partially at fault was unacceptable. The mantra that bin Laden was simply “evil” made war inevitable.
And now we are faced with the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Brown was one of an increasing number of black males killed by police. After a grand jury failed to indict Wilson, some people went into a riotous rage. Anger at police escalated. A month later, two New York City police officers were killed by an unstable individual in retaliation for Brown’s death. And now police, who really do need to acknowledge a problem with racism, have become extremely defensive. NYC police officers at the funerals of their murdered colleagues, turned their backs on Mayor Belasio for his rhetoric against police brutality. Angry responses to Brown’s death have hardened battle lines and made conflict resolution less likely.
Thankfully, some have clung tightly to their ideals. On the cover of the Winter 2014 issue of the Saint Louis Catholic Worker community’s newsletter, The Round Table, there is a photo of black protesters in Ferguson holding a banner which reads: “WE LOVE YOU, NO MORE ‘US’ AND ‘THEM,’ WE ARE ONE.” With Brown’s body lying on the street for four and a half hours, it’s hard not to give in to rage, to forget that the police are our brothers and sisters, but it’s not for nothing that the Scripture warns, “The sun must not go down on your wrath. Do not give the devil a chance to work on you.”
By rejecting demonization, we open the space to consider police brutality in the context of a society awash in guns, plagued by war and increasing economic and racial inequality. Without justifying his murder, we even have to consider Brown’s belligerence when confronted by Wilson. When we make the effort to see through the eyes of our opponents, the bond between us can be restored. This does not mean that there aren’t systemic injustices to address or that one party is not at fault, but only that reconciliation requires understanding of all sides. And people are more likely to accept criticism when they aren’t being demonized.
As Catholic Workers, keenly aware of the plight of victims from racism, classism, colonialism, militarism, sexism, etc., we have to stretch ourselves to recall the fact that the perpetrators are spiritual siblings to whom we are irrevocably bound. We are hardly immune from moral compromise born of us-them thinking. Thankfully, fear has not overcome all Americans. The town of Amherst, Massachusetts has offered to accept prisoners from Guantanamo. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick cited scripture last year when he offered to host unaccompanied immigrant children. Dr. Richard Sacra, doctor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who recently recovered from ebola he contracted in Africa, is returning to Liberia. A Worcester mortician named Peter Stefan ignored the vindictive mob that refused a decent burial for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Against expectations, Stefan’s example of human decency helped calm fear and restore sanity. As Saint Luke says, “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust.”
When the Israelites had their backs to the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them, they complained bitterly to Moses, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you must lead us out to die in the wilderness?” But Moses replied, “Have no fear! Stand firm, an you will see what Yahweh will do to save you today.” His faith leaves room for God to intervene. Maybe we can better emulate Moses’ faith if, when faced with a crisis, we force ourselves to take a breath and to beg the Holy Spirit to strengthen and guide us. And then, no matter how unreasonable or frightening it seems, we can find the grace to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, care for the sick, bury the dead, free the prisoner, and love the enemy.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Radical. [PDF]
- Wednesday, February 11: “Challenges of Being a Black Man in the Inner City.” Please join us for a presentation by Jordan Berg Powers, an active member of Mass Alliance, a coalition of political and advocacy organizations working together to build a progressive community. 7pm. 52 Mason Street, Worcester, MA. Refreshments to follow.
- Wednesday, February 18: “Challenges of Inner City Policing.” Please join us for a presentation by a representative of the Worcester Police Department. Call 508-753-3588 to confirm. 7pm. 52 Mason Street, Worcester, MA. Refreshments to follow.