Just 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 Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’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.