The Corner

Wait, There’s a Problem with Christian Medical Missionaries?

Let me begin by confessing my biases right away. Kent Brantly — the American missionary who contracted Ebola while treating patients in Liberia — isn’t just one of my heroes, he’s also (distantly) family. He’s my uncle’s nephew. I’m not sure if that makes us some form of cousin, but it feels family-ish.

And let me confess more bias. That same uncle served for years as a medical missionary in Nigeria and Tanzania, and my brother-in-law (also a doctor) has taken multiple medical mission trips. Heck, as a lawyer I feel near-useless (completely useless?) by comparison. 

So, given this background, I reacted with perhaps special revulsion upon reading this piece from Slate’s Brian Palmer, where an atheist asks, “Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?”

Now, why would someone possibly be concerned that a number of fellow citizens have decided to leave the prosperity of American medicine (for all its problems, it’s still pretty darn lucrative), travel to the developing world, and sometimes risk life and limb to provide medical care to the poorest of the poor?

Here’s why:

And yet, for secular Americans—or religious Americans who prefer their medicine to be focused more on science than faith—it may be difficult to shake a bit of discomfort with the situation. Our historic ambivalence toward missionary medicine has crystallized into suspicion over the past several decades. It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?

Let’s translate. Dear missionaries who are sacrificing so much because of your love for Jesus, shut up about Jesus. Squelch the beliefs that guide your life, that give you meaning and purpose, so that other people — thousands of miles away — don’t have to think of you sharing the Gospel. 

(And never mind the utterly insulting insinuation that faithful Christian doctors aren’t as focused on science.)

As the writer notes, this is an old critique — one that treats the Christian message as a kind of cultural cancer, something to be contained and ultimately excised (so long as it doesn’t kill the good deeds). One hears this critique in the states all the time, especially on campus, where the only “good” Christians are the ones who shut up and serve. Get thee to a soup kitchen! And don’t let me hear a word!

This message ignores the reality that a missionary is a human being, a whole person, not an antibiotic-dispensing robot. And as a whole person — made fully alive by their faith — they recognize that physical aid (as important as that is) is only part of the story. They understand that the most significant message of Christ isn’t “Get up and walk,” it’s instead, “Your sins are forgiven.” Why should a missionary ignore the most important message to deliver the lesser service?

Not content with the classical critique, Palmer continues:

There are serious questions about the quality of care provided by religious organizations in Africa. A 2008 report by the African Religious Heath Assets Programme concluded that faith-based facilities were “often severely understaffed and many health workers were under-qualified.” Drug shortages and the inability to transport patients who needed more intensive care also hampered the system.

There is also a troubling lack of oversight. Large religious health care facilities tend to be consistent in their care, but the hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller clinics in Africa are a mystery. We don’t know whether missionary doctors are following international standards of care. (I’ve heard murmurs among career international health specialists that missionaries may be less likely to wear appropriate protective equipment, which is especially troubling in the context of the Ebola outbreak.) We don’t know what happens to the patients who rely on missionary doctors if and when the caregivers return to their home countries. There are extremely weak medical malpractice laws (and even weaker court systems to enforce them) in much of sub-Saharan Africa, so we have no sense whatsoever of how many mistakes missionary doctors are making.

In other words, he has a problem with medical missionaries because they’re not operating in first-world hospitals with first-world reporting systems and first-world systems of legal accountability? If there weren’t staffing shortages, drug shortages, a lack of large health-care facilities, and all the other issues that dominate developing-world medicine, we wouldn’t need medical missionaries.

But in the end, Palmer — despite his biases — swallows his objections because, well, there’s just no choice. Let the filthy Christians serve:

We have a choice: Swallow our objections and support these facilities, spend vast sums of money to build up Africa’s secular health care capacity immediately, or watch the continent drown in Ebola, HIV, and countless other disease outbreaks.

As an atheist, I try to make choices based on evidence and reason. So until we’re finally ready to invest heavily in secular medicine for Africa, I suggest we stand aside and let God do His work.

The column is not redeemed by a closing non-aggression pledge. 

I hope and pray that if presented evidence that people from another faith (or no faith at all) were doing good works at a rate that put my own church to shame, I’d have the integrity to unreservedly applaud them for their virtue and exhort my church to do better. 

While Mr. Palmer is no Ann Coulter (who wrote the worst column ever penned about Christian service overseas), his post was sad evidence that, at least in some quarters of the atheist community, it is virtually impossible for “evidence and reason” to overcome their own bigotry.

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