Thinking Out Loud About Protecting Our Borders and the Ebola Crisis by Kelly Brown Douglas

Rev.-Dr.-Kelly-Brown-DouglasJust as crises can reveal the strengths of our infrastructure, so too can they reveal the weaknesses.  At the same time, a crisis can disclose the enormity as well as the limitations of our humanity.  Even as the current Ebola crisis may have shown forth the strong points of the U.S. healthcare infrastructure, it clearly exposed some of its vulnerabilities.

The same can be said in relation to our humanity. From the time that Mr. Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with the Ebola virus, cries to close “the borders” to those traveling from West Africa began. As two of Mr. Duncan’s caretakers contracted the virus, the cries to close “the borders” between the “United States” and West Africa became shrill.

The futility and impracticality of such a measure seems to make little difference to those who call for closed borders.  At stake, they say, is the health and wellbeing of our U.S. citizenry.  Even when marked by sincere concern, I find the call to close U.S. borders a troubling indication of the limitations of our humanity.   A story in the life of Jesus makes this plain.

In the social-religious context of Jesus’ day, there was a long history of conflict between Jews and Samaritans. Jews had constructed images of Samaritans as an indecent and ritually impure people. Samaritan women were considered the most impure of them all. Multiple narratives of power intersected on the bodies of Samaritan women—ethnic, gender, and cultural. Put simply, they represented at once an inferior “race,” gender and religion.  Thus, the social spaces of Jewish men and Samaritan women were to remain separate.  Jewish men in particular had to protect themselves from the contamination of Samaritan women.  Generally speaking, Samaritans were a feared and thus demonized people.

By most accounts, Jesus did not have to pass through Samaria on his journey from Judea to Galilee. This was considered a circuitous route.  It was also considered a dangerous route given the antagonism between Jews and Samaritans.  Again, Samaritans were considered dangerous enemies to the Jews, and most certainly ritually impure. However, Jesus crossed the borders into Samaritan space anyway. By going into Samaria, Jesus placed himself in the midst of those most feared, if not demonized, in the Jewish world.  He ignored all the prevailing animus directed toward the Samaritans and dismissed notions of them as an unclean and dangerous people. He flagrantly rejected the social-religious hysteria about Samaritans by going out of his way to enter their space.  He refused to let the “madness” of his times to blind him to the divine humanity of the Samaritans, or to overwhelm his own divine humanity.  He, therefore, crossed the constructed human borders to bring healing and salvation to the Samaritan woman. This story is of course only representative of a ministry that consistently crossed borders of fear and stereotypes to affirm the humanity of those who were lepers in Jesus’ day.  Simply put, Jesus’ compassion was no respecter of borders.

In the context of today’s Ebola crisis, the people of West Africa are the Samaritans of our day.  To close the borders on these people is to make them nothing less than lepers in their own world.  Instead of searching for ways to close borders, our divine humanity compels us to find ways to cross borders so to end the suffering and to heal the bodies of our fellow human beings.  Mr. Thomas Eric Duncan’s diagnosis should be a spark to ignite the extent of our humanity as expressed in compassion, not a reason to close the borders of our hearts to the suffering of others.

During a CNN report, two young boys were interviewed in Liberia. They represent the hundreds if not thousands of those made orphans due to the scourge of Ebola. One of the little boys sobbed as he told of his mother, stepfather, grandmother, sisters and brother whose lives were lost to the virus. He said there was no one left to care for the little ones.  His younger brother, through tears pleaded, “Please help us.”

To be a people who believe in a divine caring presence, however that presence is understood and articulated, is to be a people compelled to find ways to cross borders to help one another.  Our ingenuity, energy and economic and political resources must be invested in creating ways to cross borders, not to close them. Indeed, the wellbeing of all of us depends on the wellbeing of each of us.  The only way to protect our own human bodies is to care for other human bodies.

Karen Armstrong reminds us that the mantra of the many great religions which emerged during what she terms the Axial age, was “Do nothing to others which you would not want done to you.”  This mantra was made real as the luxury cruise ship carrying a person feared to have been exposed to the Ebola virus was refused docking privileges in Belize and Mexico. I was most struck by the incredulity that was expressed in the news media that these countries would dare to close their borders to “us.”  Enough said.

If Mr. Thomas Eric Duncan has revealed anything to us, it revealed that the Ebola virus is no respecter of borders. May it also show us that neither is our divine human compassion.

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.

Categories: Activism, Ethics, General, In the News, Social Justice

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11 replies

  1. impressive, informative and details!


  2. I am continually amazed at the stupidity of America’s elected leaders. It is time we the people gave up making the false promise of absolute security our goal and instead accepted the vulnerability of being human and our shared humanity which does not stop at any borders.


  3. As an example to follow from the Hebrew scriptures, the BOOK OF RUTH also has a lot to do with crossing borders. Just the bond of Ruth and Naomi, a Moabite and a Jew, is expressive of a leap beyond the closed mentality of nationalism and self-protection. During a time of personal loss, when Ruth crosses the border into Israel at the side of Naomi, she sets an example of compassion beyond all borders. The following is a profound meditation on the topic from GOD AND THE RHETORIC OF SEXUALITY (p.173), by Phyllis Trible:

    “From a cultural perspective, Ruth has chosen death over life. She has disavowed the solidarity of family: she has abandoned national identity; and she has renounced religious affiliation. In the entire epic of Israel only Abraham matches this radicality, but then he had a call from God. Divine promise motivated and sustained his leap of faith. Besides, Abraham was a man, with a wife and other possessions to accompany him. Ruth stands alone: she possesses nothing. No god has called her; no deity has promised her blessing; no human being has come to her aid. She lives and chooses without a support group, and she knows that the fruit of her decision may well be the emptiness of rejection, indeed of death. Consequently, not even Abraham’s leap of faith surpasses this decision of Ruth’s. And there is more. Not only has Ruth broken with family, country and faith, but she has also reversed sexual allegiance. A young woman has committed herself to the life of an old woman rather than to the search for a husband, and she has made this commitment not “until death do us part” but beyond death. One female has chosen another female in a world where life depends upon men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.”


  4. PS Kelly, I am struck by how differently we may come to the same conclusion. Jesus and the Samaritan woman have nothing to do with it for me, except in the most general terms. I do not find Jesus’s behavior exceptional or even particularly worthy of note. I view his behavior as one example of empathetic behavior, which I consider a human capacity, most likely also found in our other than human ancestors as well.

    This is not a criticism, but an observation.


  5. Thank you Kelly, I used the little link and shared this on my FaceBook page.


  6. Thank you once again for reminding us of who Jesus was and is.


  7. Brava! Thanks for speaking up for compassion. All those motherless kids who have crossed our borders–who’s taking care of them? People who live on the streets and cross borders by daring to talk to us–who’s taking care of them? I suspect Jesus might take care of all those kids and other people, but a lot of the people who say they work for Jesus don’t take care of anyone but themselves. And I’m with Carol–I am flabbergasted at the stupidity of so many people who get elected to our federal, state, and local governments. What does that say about the people who vote for them? It’s such a sad commentary.


  8. I have often said that the measure of an individual, or a country, or an organization, is how it uses its money. The billions that we put into “defense” as opposed to the paltry sums we put into humane relief efforts shouts about our true nature. And it is tragic.


  9. “Indeed, the wellbeing of all of us depends on the wellbeing of each of us. The only way to protect our own human bodies is to care for other human bodies.” Yes, we are all a part of the interconnected web of existence, a fact that is ever more clear through the globalization of our lives. For me, caring for our and other human bodies in this instance DOES involve closing borders, but not the borders of the United States. We have the means to deal with a few cases of ebola here (see what’s being done in terms of finding those who might be infected and quarantining those who are). The borders that need to be closed in order to save lives are the borders between West African countries where ebola is raging and their neighbors, who have yet to see the epidemic, because West African nations don’t have the means to counteract this plague. And, of course, we need to care for people in those countries affected, partly through education (don’t touch the bodies of ill or dead ebola victims), and partly through health care (first of all, rehydration and as soon as possible for those affected and a vaccine that will protect West Africans).


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