Monday, October 06, 2014

Those Darn Christian Missionary Doctors!

"These impious Galileans [Christians] not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agapae [fellowship], they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes." Roman Emperor Julian, second half of the 4th century AD.

Fast forward 1700 years, and we read this in Slate:

And yet, for secular Americans—or religious Americans who prefer their medicine to be focused more on science than faith—it may be difficult to shake a bit of discomfort with the situation. Our historic ambivalence toward missionary medicine has crystallized into suspicion over the past several decades. It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?

Brian Palmer, the author of the provocatively titled article, "In Medicine We Trust: Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?" goes on to complain that large regions in Africa are, in essence, not first-world. They lack first-world secular (he qualifies words like 'medicine' with the word 'secular') facilities and reporting standards. Thus, we have even more reason to be worried that Christian missionary doctors are unsupervised and on the loose. He is not alone in his complaint. Both Ann Coulter and Donald Trump have added their far more personal attacks to his concerns. After listing a few of his worries about African medical systems, he adds:

And yet, truth be told, these valid critiques don’t fully explain my discomfort with missionary medicine. If we had thousands of secular doctors doing exactly the same work, I would probably excuse most of these flaws. “They’re doing work no one else will,” I would say. “You can’t expect perfection.”

So, clearly, his primary beef is with the qualifier 'Christian' in the medical care. He would trust secular physicians for no other reason other than they are secular.

The problem is, and this is where he opens his article, secular doctors are not there. And might I add, we should not hold our breath.

As someone who understands Christian history and theology, and who is in a fair amount of contact with a lot of missionaries all around the globe, let me add a couple of thoughts to his.

Christian missionary doctors are there because their theology and historical DNA compel them. In this case Christian theology reveals itself as an anthropology and sociology: all human beings are of infinite value because they are created in the image of the God who really exists. This fundamental belief has the profound theoretical consequence of not allowing Christians to take human suffering lightly. And for those with the means and education, it turns into the practical consequence of traveling where others don't want to go to do the things others don't want to do. (As a side note, the Christian missionary world is way ahead of the secular world in bringing drinkable water to the developing world for the same reason.)

As for their historical DNA, acts of compassion are, for all intents and purposes, the invention of the Christian world. This seems like a radical claim, but history reveals a story bereft of compassion for the 'least of these' until Christians showed up and started taking care of them. The quote from the Emperor Julian is a case in point. Everything we now know as compassion, legitimately understood, is a result of what Christians have done as they imitate Christ as best they can. Even down to funerals for the poor. The influence of Christianity is that deep and ubiquitous. See the works of Rodney Stark and Alvin J. Schmidt on this neglected topic.

As for the 'problem' of Christian missionaries also talking about Christ, two more thoughts are in order.

For the Christian, the very act of taking care of those in need ought to be done in the name of Christ, and is thus, in itself, a witness to the care and love within our faith. On one level, the act itself is the witness. Secondly, the Christian cares for humans because they know them to be eternal beings. Everyone has a existence that extends beyond this physical life, and so the consequences of the Christian message for those lives is enormous. It is popular right now to expect Christians to be privately Christian, but that has been popular before and has failed tremendously before. Many individual Christians will be successfully silenced, but there is no hiding or privatizing the Christian faith.

It really may be the case that Ebola-ridden regions of Africa are devoid of secular doctors because they simply have no compelling reason to be there. Many talk a big game, but Christians are already there and will have made tremendous physical and spiritual strides long before the vaunted secular world catches up.

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