Love in the Time of Ebola

posted by Scott Schaeffer-Duffy on January 30th, 2015

bethuneSome 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]

Two events

  • 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.

jordan police

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2 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On February 17, 2015 at 19:48 Theo Kayser said:

    Dear Scott,
    We are writing concerning your recent article, “Love in the Time of Ebola.” We appreciate you addressing the important issue of racism and oppression, but we believe that you have misunderstood the feelings of the St. Louis Catholic Worker on the recent non-indictment of Daren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown.
    We noticed that you use the “we” voice in this article, and think that this can be problematic (ie, “we” must consider police brutality, or that or “we” must consider Mike Brown’s behavior). Despite your radical politics, as a white man you are still a member of the dominant group, which comes with both massive privilege and substantial blind spots. To assume that others would draw the same conclusions as you do if they would simply “see through the eyes of their opponents”can be unhelpful.
    We believe that it is inappropriate for white people to tell people of color (those in a targeted group) to empathize with their oppressors. While you quote Scripture to admonish those whose anger led to the destruction of property, without passionately decrying the loss of life of black people, you paint a false picture of a level playing field (as in, both sides have equal power, and this issue is a simple disagreement). In this country the police, just like the military, are representatives of unchecked state violence. As representatives of the state, they hold all the power and very little accountability. On the other hand, people of color can be, and are, killed by police (even on camera as we saw in New York) without any repercussion.
    You note that “…reconciliation requires understanding of all sides. And people are more likely to accept criticism when they aren’t being demonized.” We find your choice of language on “rejecting demonization” troublesome in that Daren Wilson literally said that Mike Brown “looked like a demon” during their confrontation. The fact is that black people – not the police – are the ones historically, savagely and wrongly demonized by this filthy rotten system. We hope for reconciliation and love among all people, but in the words of bell hooks, “Without justice there can be no love.”
    We are hearing a tempered victim-blaming in your statement, “Without justifying his murder, we even have to consider Brown’s belligerence when confronted by Wilson.” Would it be appropriate for to say, “Without justifying her rape, we have to consider her showing up to a frat party dressed like that”? In addition to ignoring the reported belligerence of Wilson during their initial contact(1), this blame shifting is misplaced in that Brown was shot while fleeing (153 feet from the police vehicle).(2) How many reasons, over hundreds of years, have white folks found in this country to justify the lynchings, rapes, beatings and killings of black folks? Far too often, white people focus on justifying and minimizing police brutality rather than working to end it.
    At some point we must ask ourselves the oft repeated question, “Which side are you on?” As it says in Revelations, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” With this in mind we question your decision to host a roundtable discussion featuring the police. Would you likewise allow the military speak at your house on why the invasion of Iraq was necessary? Would you host representatives from Walmart or Bank of America on the difficulties and dynamics of surviving in a capitalist world? While we believe strongly in the value of personalism and personal relationships with all people, we also believe that as Catholic Workers, it is important to choose whose voices we amplify.
    We hope you receive this in the humble spirit in which is written. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but want to be part of a movement that is challenging itself to live out the radical Gospel message. We invite you to join us in March for our National CW Anti-Racism Workshop so that we as a Catholic Worker community can delve deeper into these issues and better clarify our thoughts in the direction of liberation for all people.

    Theo Kayser and Jenny Truax


  2. On February 22, 2015 at 17:05 Scott Schaeffer-Duffy said:

    I believe that Christ’s invitation for us to love our enemies erases all distinctions which separate us from one another. Jesus’ contemporaries had prejudices against Samaritans and good reason to be angry at tax collectors and Roman soldiers. Christ presents the Samaritan as the only one who cares for the man who was robbed. He chooses a tax collector as an apostle and dines at the house of another. He tells us that a centurion had the most faith of anyone he met. The words of this centurion are still included in the Mass. I oppose violence of all kinds because of Christ’s example. I believe it is my Christian duty to proclaim that nonviolence in all circumstances. It has nothing to do with telling other people what to do, but with sharing the good news of Jesus’ totally different response to evil, a response that is sorely needed. I refuse to take sides. I will sit down with anyone at any time and listen to their story. A preferential option for the poor does not preclude me from looking for goodness in the rich. Although I am a white male, I grew up one of seven children in the projects. I envied the rich and hated them too as a child. My views and emotions were changed largely through the influence of Martin Luther King, who faced similar questions as you raise, questions that Malcom X and H. Rap Brown raised about sepratism and black power. MLK’s passionate work for justice without racial chauvanism remains a remarkable example of the Christ I feel we need in the face of the events in Ferguson and elsewhere. My passion for this nonviolence was deepened by the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Andre Schwartz Bart, and by the writings of Gandhi. It solidified when I saw the consequences of racial, ethnic, and or religious division in Bosnia, India, Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Darfur. The question “Which side are you on?” which tempts me as someone familiar with the labor movement is one I must nonetheless answer “neither.” Injustice is the enemy, not groups of people.

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