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Ann Coulter, Dr. Kent Brantly, & Telescopic Philanthropy

It’s hard to know where to begin with Ann Coulter’s latest column, which trashes Dr. Kent Brantly, the American missionary who contracted Ebola while treating African victims. Here is a start: Whatever good Dr. Kent Brantly did in Liberia has now been overwhelmed by the more than $2 million already paid by the Christian charities […]

It’s hard to know where to begin with Ann Coulter’s latest column, which trashes Dr. Kent Brantly, the American missionary who contracted Ebola while treating African victims. Here is a start:

Whatever good Dr. Kent Brantly did in Liberia has now been overwhelmed by the more than $2 million already paid by the Christian charities Samaritan’s Purse and SIM USA just to fly him and his nurse home in separate Gulfstream jets, specially equipped with medical tents, and to care for them at one of America’s premier hospitals. (This trip may be the first real-world demonstration of the economics of Obamacare.)

There’s little danger of an Ebola plague breaking loose from the treatment of these two Americans at the Emory University Hospital. But why do we have to deal with this at all?

Why did Dr. Brantly have to go to Africa? The very first “risk factor” listed by the Mayo Clinic for Ebola — an incurable disease with a 90 percent fatality rate — is: “Travel to Africa.”

Can’t anyone serve Christ in America anymore?

It’s really something, this column. It has lit up my Facebook feed, and so far, all those hating on it are Christian conservatives. Well, count me among them. Still, underneath all the callousness, I think she has something of a point. Look:

Right there in Texas, near where Dr. Brantly left his wife and children to fly to Liberia and get Ebola, is one of the poorest counties in the nation, Zavala County — where he wouldn’t have risked making his wife a widow and his children fatherless.

But serving the needy in some deadbeat town in Texas wouldn’t have been “heroic.” We wouldn’t hear all the superlatives about Dr. Brantly’s “unusual drive to help the less fortunate” or his membership in the “Gold Humanism Honor Society.” Leaving his family behind in Texas to help the poor 6,000 miles away — that’s the ticket.

Well, she’s wrong about that: he took his family with them. They are a missionary family. They knew what they were getting into. It’s revolting that Coulter accuses this man who, with his family, risked their lives to serve poor Africans, of doing so for the personal glory. Something is deeply wrong with that woman.

That said, I sometimes wonder about the priorities we American Christians have (and I count myself in this number too). I think there’s nothing wrong, and everything right, about going overseas to serve the poorest of the poor. Do not misunderstand me here. The problem is, how often do we think about the suffering of the poorest people in our own country? Unlike Ann Coulter, I don’t believe it’s an either-or question, nor do I question the motives of people who do what I have never done: go overseas to help the poor.

It’s extremely easy to hate Coulter’s column (you just have to have a heart, or a soul), but to be honest, I think it’s fair to ask ourselves, as Christians, if at least some of us have a Mrs. Jellyby thing going on regarding foreign missionary work. Mrs. Jellyby is the “telescopic philanthropist” in Dickens’s Bleak House who was so caught up in causes to help the African poor that she neglected her own children, and those suffering in her neighborhood. In my case, I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks thinking about the plight of Christian refugees in Mosul. That is as it should be. But Coulter’s nasty column made me face the fact that I almost never spend any time thinking about or doing anything as a Christian for the poorest people in my own country. Why is that? My Christian philanthropy is fairly telescopic too.

UPDATE: Gang, I thought I was clear in the first posting: I think Coulter is almost entirely wrong. I say “almost” not because I believe that Dr. Brantly shouldn’t have gone overseas as a medical missionary, or because I believe that American Christians should not go overseas — I don’t believe either of those things, and I have written here before that Dr. Brantly is, in my view, a hero. And so are all those men and women like him. I say “almost” because her column, as vicious and as ugly as it is, touches on an important truth about what some of you call “volontourism.” In a different context, it’s the kind of thing William Deresiewicz spoke of in his recent essay on the kind of students who get into the Ivy Leagues, and the service projects they list on their college applications:

I’ve noticed something similar when it comes to service. Why is it that people feel the need to go to places like Guatemala to do their projects of rescue or documentation, instead of Milwaukee or Arkansas? When students do stay in the States, why is it that so many head for New Orleans? Perhaps it’s no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service as something they are ultimately doing for themselves—that is, for their résumés. “Do well by doing good,” goes the slogan. How about just doing good?

Here’s a great response to the Coulter column by TimG, who is a regular reader and a missionary:

Whew, writing as a missionary in Mexico, this is pushing all sorts of buttons for me! I should just go to bed and write in the morning!

Just a few observations about missions and the Body of Christ:
1. “Calling”, “vocation” (about which Rod writes sometimes), and “diversity of gifts” are all concepts that run throughout Christianity’s various branches. We’re all gifted and called to different places and different needs–whether full time “professionally” or in “lay” capacity. And the Body of Christ is certainly big enough to allow for some to go to Africa and others to go to Zavala County and others to stay in…Starhill, LA, Tacoma, WA, or wherever. Calidali and others of you have already made this point.

2. You go where you are called, gifted, and enabled. It’s called obedience. The history of Christian missions is long and complicated and, sadly, messy. But Christians have always gone and served and died for their faith. Africa, in question here, is full of the graves of missionaries. If Brantly was called there (with his family) then he was in the right place. When my oldest son was a week old, I had a co-worker’s wife tell me “You can’t possibly take your baby to Mexico! It’s so dangerous there!” And that was before the worst of the drug violence. Well, we’re supposed to be here, so there’s no safer place to be. That would bring me to the next point:

3. People in the US aren’t generally qualified to comment on “risk.” Here we live in a place where drug addiction is so widespread the state police made our neighborhood the focal point for a major cleanup operation 2 years ago. There’s plenty of crime, the schools are bad, teenage pregnancy is high. And yet we walk all over the neighborhood, including after dark. You have to live somewhere to know what the risks really are. And then you live with them.

4. Of course the question is, $2 million to evac them? And of course Cosimanian Orthodoxy would leave them to die rather than pay that! Heck, I’d probably die before I racked up that kind of bill. I’ll admit to not even reading Coulter, but giving her the benefit of the doubt on the numbers, I would suspect they had medical evacuation insurance. That’s totally just a guess and I’m not taking the time to look it up, but that’s pretty par for the course.

5. I’m really shocked at how little credit people give to actual ministries in the US. Just a quick Google of Zavala Country reveals 10 churches in the county, of all branches. I would find it hard to believe that there are Christians ministering there right now. Could they use more help? Probably. Are they doing everything perfectly? No, probably not. But I’m sure they’re there. And churches DO make trips within the US to serve. A big trend is “Incarnational Ministry”, for believers to move back into the city, into hurting neighborhoods and to be the Body of Christ there. That’s been trendy (mostly in a good way) since I was in college. We’ve had a couple of youth groups come down to work with us this summer and they also take kids to Chicago and West Virginia to serve in needy areas. This is a classic case of the “Excluded Middle”. Having believers serve in Africa does not exclude (or exempt) others from serving in a different place.

I’ve loved Rod’s focus on “locality.” It’s fun to read about the joys of life in the small-town South, which is a world very far removed from the NW, where I grew up. But I’ve also appreciated his balance in recognizing that a) you can’t always go back home–sometimes because of calling and b) you can create that community where you are. It’s our (my family’s, and our team’s) calling and privilege and joy to be doing that here. Could we do it in the US? Yes. Would we like to be in the US? We aren’t 3500 miles from family because we want to get away from them. Rather, we’re where we’ve been called to go, for as long as we’re called to be here and we wouldn’t be anywhere else. Last Sunday a friend asked me, “Where would you live of all the places you’ve been?” I told him, “I’ve already chosen. I’m here.”

I would guess that Brantly and his family would say the same.

UPDATE.2: Reader Mark makes a strong point about the effects of Jellybyism in his own family:

This touched a nerve for me. My great grandfather was a Baptist missionary to China. He and his wife were captured and killed in the Boxer rebellion in 1900. They left 4 orphaned kids back in England, and the effects of his unfortunate death reverberated down through the generations, in particular a strong and perhaps understandable surge of atheism among his children (my grandparents).

I’ve often wondered why he did what he did, why he didn’t stay home and help the inner city poor of England – plenty of work to do there, still is. Some combination of strong faith, desire to evangelize and a wandering spirit I suppose. Probably more a taste for adventure than a desire for recognition. I’ve read some of his letters to his kids back in England, in which he speaks of his duty to help the downtrodden of China, and describes in detail his building of a church, homes and gardens for his flock. I wonder how his children, back in an English boarding school, felt reading that?

UPDATE.3: Icarus writes:

My first cousin once removed spent twenty years as a missionary in Chad. Her husband and daughter left half-way through the mission because of the civil war there, but she persevered. Finally, her parents got her out by a ruse (“father had a heart attack; not expected to survive”). Back in civilisation and comforts of a war-free urban life, she was hit by a motorcyclist two weeks later and died.

Why did she do it? We thought she was crazy. Then I met a man who had spent time with her in Chad. There are entire villages where women work in weaving workshops that she set up; the looms are named after her. She could have helped poor people in her home country, but she could never been able to bring so much good to so many people for so long if she had been elsewhere.

UPDATE.4: Charles H. Featherstone:

Because the poor abroad fit into another narrative, one that doesn’t focus on their bad choices and chaotic lives and all that they could do to fix things or behave themselves. The poor abroad are the virtuous poor, perfect, unsullied victims, somehow utterly incapable and completely not responsible for their circumstances and yet a whole lot more able to fix their circumstances. We don’t know them, we don’t live with them, so we can project a great deal upon them. They aren’t our neighbors, not really, not in a “I found you beaten nearly half-dead on the road to Jericho” kind of way. We have to go out of our way to meet them.

Real neighbors are inconvenient. Real neighbors, people we might have concrete obligations to, who we might meet on accident if we didn’t seal ourselves in well-kept isolated homes and traveled to well-kept, isolated work places places in well-kept, isolated cars. The ability to meet people on accident, people we might have obligations to because we have met them on the road, is limited in a world in which whole communities are built on choice. On the ability to include and exclude at will.

This kind of missionary urge is a modern one, born in Europe in the early 17th century of German pietism and Danish colonialism (in India, of all places). The first German missionaries in India, serving the King of Denmark in Tranqebar (the first modern protestant mission), were tried as heretics when they came home. “Spread the Gospel? Already been done, says so in Acts!” Lutheran pietism heavily influenced Wesley and Methodism, and that’s where protestant missions really begin. (Modern Catholic missions began in India, too, with the Jesuits.) There was missionary work before that, but it was different. Missionaries went to live among the people they preached to and served, and the process of conversion was not so linked to power as it would be, especially in the 19th century. And sometimes it was linked utterly to power. If your sovereign or master took the faith, you did too. You had no choice.

I’m not impugning the doctor’s motives. Or his faith. It’s just easier to serve people far away in our world. Because we can. Because it’s not so messy. Because the relationship is easier (and more imagined), and requires less work to maintain on both sides.