"Will You Kiss the Leper Clean?" -- On Ebola and Our 'Tribes'


President Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life? Will Bailey: I don't know, sir, but it is.

-The West Wing, season 4 episode 14, "Inauguration, Part 1"

Yesterday I attended a workshop led by Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?*: Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World.

McLaren likes to mix things up in his work, blending Bible, theology, history and anthropology. He talked about our evolutionary history as a species---a story of expansion and migration from the southern part of Africa to all of the world's major land masses in about 130,000 years. What allowed this expansion to happen? Our identity as tribal beings, McLaren argues. We cohere into groups. We put on our "tribal paint." Sometimes that's literal identifying marks---gang signs? hipster glasses? tricorn hats and NRA t-shirts? Sometimes it's a religious or political doctrine to define who's in and out.

And we band together against common enemies and threats. "When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves," he said, quoting this article by Jonathan Haidt in the New York Times, called "Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness."

There's evidence that this tribalism is hard-wired. Young children naturally gravitate to people who are like them, racially and socially.

Jesus, by contrast, breaks down this tribal identity in the gospels, constantly lifting up the dignity of those on the margins and outside of the club. It's interesting to relate this posture of Jesus to the idea of his being "without sin," or fully divine as well as fully human. Is there something about our tribal, with-us-or-against-us mentality that is fundamentally flawed, even sinful?

Sure, it's the evolutionary mechanism by which we expanded and thrived as a species. But now a new evolutionary shift is necessary---because our tribe is the whole human race. Globalism means that what impacts people across the world will inevitably affect us here, sooner or later. Just look at climate change. Yes, more vulnerable populations will feel those effects sooner than more affluent ones. But we will all be affected, no matter what our tribe.

Or take Ebola. This past summer, when the death toll was confined to West Africa, I heard lots of genuine concern and sadness expressed... often followed by the sotto voce comment: "I just hope it doesn't come here."

Well, Ebola is on our shores now. How could it not be thus? As David Wilcox sings, "There is no more far away." We may still have our tribes, but these tribes mix and infiltrate and bump up against one another on a massive scale, the likes of which we've not seen in those 130,000 years. Our ability to survive and thrive will depend on our ability to transcend our own tribalism, in effect to go against our own evolutionary wiring.

As a Christian, I see Jesus as the model for that work, though there are other models as well. But we know it when we see it---stunning examples of people going beyond their own self-interest and those of their immediate tribe. Sacrificial love. Love that costs something.

Consider this heartbreaking story from StoryCorps about nurses in Sierra Leone, and how difficult it has been not to offer basic human expressions of care to those who are grieving. Imagine not being able to hug someone who's lost 10 members of their family.

One day, an Ebola-infected mother brought her baby into a hospital, Purfield recalls. The mother died, and the baby was left in a box.

"They tested the baby, and the baby was negative," says Purfield. "But I think the symptoms in babies and the disease progression in babies is different than adults.

"So the nurses would pick up and cuddle the baby. And they were taking care of the baby in the box," she continues.

Twelve of those nurses subsequently contracted Ebola, Purfield says. Only one survived.

"They couldn't just watch a baby sitting alone in a box," Dynes says.

The title of this post is from a popular Christian hymn called "The Summons" by John Bell. It's been going through my head since the Ebola outbreak began. Those nurses who cared for that infant, refusing to let it just be a baby in the box, "kissed the leper clean." But it may have cost them their lives. I hate that it did---I want such heroic love to be rewarded. From an evolutionary perspective, it's not helpful for the good ones to die---we need their like to propagate. And I want nurses and doctors to take appropriate precautions.

But perhaps such stories can live on, to tug at our humanity and to inspire and direct us to seek out the path of sacrificial love, regardless of tribe.


*Why did they cross the road? To get to the "other."

photo credit: Dietmar Temps via photopin cc

The Hunger Games, and Understanding Sacrifice

I'm 2/3 of the way through the Hunger Games trilogy. I'm holding off on Mockingjay because people are counting on me to drive them to piano lessons, and buy groceries, and  actually finish sentences instead of letting them trail off, eyes on the Kindle.

[Minor spoilers for books 1 and 2 ahead]

There's a lot that could be said about HG. I haven't gone looking for commentary, but c'mon, the Internet has got this. I just want to hone in on something in particular.

I was in a conversation about terrorism recently, especially suicide bombers. One person was baffled over why people go the self-destructive route in order to try to effect change. Don't they realize that there are more constructive routes, like education and organizing and economic betterment, that would work so much better? Another person countered that those options seem so remote to people without any power that they may as well be imaginary. If society sees you as worthless---as good as dead---then maybe it's not a huge jump in your mind to being actually dead. And maybe these people figure that a small jump into death can shift the picture. It doesn't end up working that way, but that's the warped logic of terrorism.

Another way to say this: the idea of educating yourself and accumulating power in order to effect change is a very privileged way of looking at things. I say this, obviously, as a person of privilege myself. If you're already middle class, improving your lot in life using the traditional tools is a relatively short hop. For someone near the bottom in society's estimation, it's a huge leap. So some folks get into terrorism or gangs or whatever, because those are the tools that are immediately available.

Now, there are people at the bottom of the power-and-privilege scale who DO organize and mobilize and change things. And I don't want to come off as condoning or promoting terrorism in any way. The evil of suicide bombing is that they take a bunch of other people out with them. But setting that aside, isn't this same self-obliterating dynamic at work in the Hunger Games? Part of what makes the story compelling is that people are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. This theme appears again and again. And yet it's not hard to see why they'd be willing to do so. Between the starvation and the oppression they suffer, conditions are so dire in the Districts that the main characters have very little to lose by being willing to give their lives for their families and fellow countrymen. That short jump from "good as dead" to "dead" is exactly why the HG are such effective tools of social control. The people are conditioned to see themselves as weak. Helpless. Tribute-fodder.

In fact, as deeply as I feel for Katniss and Peeta and the others, the most emotional moment in the book for me was Cinna's act of dressing Katniss as the mockingjay, thus stoking the fires of rebellion. Here is a person who could have lived in comfort and ease for the rest of his days, but he gives it all up for Katniss's sake and for the sake of the greater good. I'm not saying he's the big hero. But as a resident of the Capitol, he had a lot to lose by doing what he did. And he risked it all anyway.

I preached two weeks ago on "deny yourself, take up your cross and follow," and every time I deal with that passage I think about how impossible that seems for anyone, but it's hard for the wealthy and powerful in a very particular way.

I realize this post could be interpreted as extolling the heroism of rich people over poor people. Not so. Indeed, the fact that Katniss and Peeta and others without power and privilege are willing to die makes their sacrifice poignant and resonant in a completely different way than Cinna's. They must face their own deaths knowing that ultimately it may not make a bit of difference. They act as they do, knowing that nothing may change at all. But Katniss knows that standing in for her sister, or teaming up with little Rue, or allying with 80-year-old Mags, or doing everything she can to keep Peeta alive, though she must die, are good things that are worth doing for their own sake. They have a dignity to them. Like Peeta, she wants to live and die on her own terms, because that's the one thing that the Capitol elites cannot take away. That gives their story a power that Cinna's and others of his status will never have.