In response to Ann Coulter’s article on the ebola doctor, “Ebola doc’s condition downgraded to idiotic,” one person on Facebook said “If you remain a fan of Ann Coulter after reading this, you are as pathetic as she is.”
I understand his strong reaction, and disagree very much with her article, but the fact that she was willing to state her views so clearly serves one vital purpose: it forces us to think hard about what the Scriptures teach and helps us refine our understanding of the truth.
Coulter argues that those who go off to the developing world to serve Christ forget “that the first rule of life on a riverbank is that any good that one attempts downstream is quickly overtaken by what happens upstream.” Hence, “if Dr. Brantly had practiced at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia.”
Further, “your country is like your family. We’re supposed to take care of our own first….Right there in Texas, near where Dr. Brantly left his wife and children to fly to Liberia and get Ebola, is one of the poorest counties in the nation, Zavala County — where he wouldn’t have risked making his wife a widow and his children fatherless.”
I think the best summary of Coulter’s point was made by a person on Facebook, who wrote: “Our neighbors start with those closest to us.”
Is that true?
Do Our Neighbors Really Start with those Closest to Us?
On the face of it, to say that our neighbors start with those closest to us sounds like common sense. But the surprise of the gospel is that in some sense Jesus was very much committed to countering that very notion in his teaching.
For example, Jesus himself left heaven and came to earth to save us. We were by no means his closest neighbors. We weren’t even in the same universe. Yet he came anyway. That is one of the things that makes the gospel so glorious. He didn’t have to come get us, yet he did.
Likewise, Jesus tells the parable of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine (his closest neighbors) to go after the one (Luke 15:1-7). That is a risky thing to do! It is not at all about loving those closest more than those far away; if anything, those closest are actually put at risk.
And the parable of the Good Samaritan is about loving our enemies — whom most people at the time didn’t even regard as their neighbors at all. Though the issue wasn’t physical proximity, in Jesus’ day the common thinking was that people were decidedly not to love their enemies. That’s simply another form of the notion that our neighbors start with those closest to us — though with “closest” defined in relational terms rather than in terms of physical proximity.
At the same time, the rich man in Luke 16 was condemned for failing to love the poor man who was right at his gate — not halfway around the world. And in one sense the Good Samaritan was indeed loving his closest neighbor after all, because he was serving a dying man he had come across right in front of him in the road.
How does this fit together?
Though it’s tough to figure out, I’d suggest something like this. When we encounter a need right in front of us, we are to meet it. In that sense, we are indeed to serve those closest first. But when it comes to meeting long-term needs (including relief of the poor in Africa), we are not commanded to always start with those most physically nearby. The issue becomes one of calling and gifting — where one can serve best — and making sure we don’t let the needs nearby become an excuse to keep us from meeting the sometimes much more challenging needs far away.
If the ebola doctor had passed by a man bleeding on the road on the way to serve in Africa, that indeed would have been a bad thing. But when faced with two large fields of great need (America and Liberia), it is right and appropriate to choose the one farther away.
Further, in relation to Coulter’s point that it would have had more impact for Dr. Brantly to serve people in America (and been less risky), the above passages show us that it is right to do this even if the people farther away are less influential and more risky to reach.
Which raises another issue, best summarized by a Facebook commenter as well: “If he went to Africa to try and help the sick, only to get sick himself, it does seem a little pointless.”
In other words, is what Dr. Brantly did pointless?
We’ve already seen that that can’t be true, based on the emphasis Jesus places on helping those who are indeed far away and even taking risks to do so. To this we could also add his insistence that we serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).
But why wasn’t it wasteful for Dr. Brantly to go to Africa, only to catch ebola and have to be brought back at great expense?
Here’s another way to ask the question: Why does God commend taking risks to serve “the least of these”? And why does he commend that even when the whole attempt ends up costing way more than any results that we see?
Why does God operate this way?
I think the answer is: grace. God is a God of grace, and since grace is unmerited favor, it by definition cannot be clearly seen if the primary focus is on helping those who seem most influential. For then it looks like there are conditions — namely, how influential you are. To show manifestly and decisively that grace is grace — that is, without conditions of merit or influence or ability — God serves (and commands us to serve) those who seemingly have nothing to offer, even at great risk.
This, in turn, allows us to see those with seeming influence (in Coulter’s example, Hollywood power-brokers) in the right light as well — namely, as those who in fact do not have anything to offer of their own either, but rather who are just as dependent on God as those visibly in great need and without influence.
So God isn’t creating an us vs. them scenario where people of influence don’t matter but those of no influence do, or where people next door don’t matter but those 8,000 miles away do. Rather, he is doing exactly what it takes to make it clear that we are all equally and fully dependent on grace.
That’s why we read “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:28-29).
Coulter’s Real Problem
In sum, the problem is not first of all Coulter’s pragmatic argument that helping influential people here in the U.S. is better because it will be more effective (as insensitive as that is).
The problem is that she is failing to recognize that when people like Dr. Brantly go help those who have nothing to offer in far away lands, it helps those of us in America as well. For it helps us see that we are all equally dependent on God’s grace. That’s the message America needs. It’s the message we all need to grasp to the core of our being, and something that can’t happen if we avoid helping the sick worldwide.
In this sense, then, Dr. Brantly’s going to Liberia is indeed far more influential for God’s kingdom than had he focused on helping turn Hollywood power-brokers to God. For it shows that God is not dependent on such power-brokers, and that those with influence in the world are not in any special category before him.
That’s the message of grace, it’s the message we all need to hear, and it’s exactly what Dr. Brantly has demonstrated in his life.