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

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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