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Ebola anxiety, West Africa, and the quality of mercy

Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

It isn’t hard for me to remember that it is good that God is more merciful than I am. I think of it every time I say the Lord’s Prayer. Most of us are used to hearing this same reminder. We’ve been reminded often, but we often need reminding:

That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)

Chrysostom, Augustine, and other ancient preachers made the point a little more sharply than Shakespeare did. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, they tell us, we are asking God to match our own measure of mercy, to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In my mind I always have to add this little asterisk: but not really, Lord. I know I don’t really mean it so I add my little asterisk and I ask God to change my heart, to create in me a clean heart. Make me mean it someday, Lord. And I do mean that. As “you measure, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2). Scripture isn’t vague on the matter.

Lord, have mercy! In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom you hear this (and sing it) over and over again. I love it whenever I hear it or say it or sing it. Commenting on the liturgy in the 14th century, St. Nicholas Cabasilas said that this prayer is the most basic prayer of all. It summarizes every prayer because it encompasses the creature’s whole posture before God. Everything we receive, have, ask, and are — all of it is from God, and all of it is a mercy.

I love the name “Mercy,” and I love its sound. I’d have picked it for a daughter, but my wife said it sounded like a hospital.

“The quality of mercy is not strained.” A lovely line, it furnishes a sadly predictable punchline too often in this place beneath. But that isn’t my first thought when I hear it. Unavoidably, I think of how it struck me when I first heard it, probably when I was a kid, as if mercy were something that one might rate or grade, the way one might talk about a soup or the daily special or some other goodies:

Get your highest quality mercy here! How is your mercy today? Today’s mercy is excellent, sir! I recommend it.

Being a high school teacher, I spend much of my time surrounded by teenagers and their idle, trifling talk. This is either a gift or a penance because I have said many careless and regrettable things in my life, including many said without the excuse of youth.

A girl coughs. “It’s ebola,” another observes drily, laughing. The girl laughs through her cough. Others laugh too. I can tell you that, in high school, if you hear it once, you are very likely to hear it again. And I do.

I do my best to cut short the running of this particular joke. “Ebola isn’t a joke. Thousands of people have died from it, and many more will. Let’s not laugh about their deaths.”

But there is something perversely laughable about the attention that ebola is getting in American public discourse, and the high school kids making light of it aren’t entirely wrong to notice it. It isn’t surprising that people would be interested and even worried about the appearance of a deadly and contagious disease, that local hospitals and health officials would be interviewed so the public can know that their community is prepared as best it can be. But the television news coverage of the possible spread of ebola overshot prudence long ago. New information is rolled out about the movements of people known to have been exposed, or the number of people being seen for possible infection, along with interviews of the nurses who cared for the “first ebola patient.”

And what makes it perverse is the glaring disregard for the thousands who have already died and the millions more who right now stand within its reach in West Africa. If Africans figure in public conversation at all, it’s only as some kind of threat.

“How do we keep them from showing up here?” Think of all the news stories you’ve seen on ebola recently, and ask yourself honestly whether the deaths of “only more Africans” doesn’t somehow count as both “no news” and “good news.” And we resent and malign those who disturb or contradict or try to embarrass our egoism. We resent people going there because they might come back here. My sister told me the other day that she’d heard some talking head or opining voice quip somewhere on the radio or on TV that Doctors Without Borders really needs to become Doctors With Borders. And, sadly, we are not embarrassed.

This has been on my mind for the last few weeks, dogging me like a heavy, itching, stinking cloud. But, in the last few days, two conversations upended my thinking and shook out something better.

I was talking on the phone about it (and some other things) with my aunt. We seemed to be agreeing on something, and then she added, “I really do think that the works of mercy tell you pretty much what you need to know. What should you do? That’s what you need to do — the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.” She said it in agreement but she was really saying more and it prodded me. You can’t be very merciful without actually working some mercy. After all, the works of mercy are works. A vague and passive sense of shame they are not.

So I decided to send a little money toward the effort in West Africa. I didn’t know where to send it so I sent a quick Facebook message to my old friend Patrick Hayes, who has some lasting connections to Sierra Leone and has written recently on the topic for The Living Church.

“Brother, any suggestions for supporting the fight against ebola?” And I began looking around on the web.

Patrick wrote me back, “Well, plenty.”

As it turns out, he had many more suggestions than I had help to give. He knew many who were directly engaged in fighting ebola: a school for the deaf run by some sisters who also operate a clinic, a foundation in New Jersey that can get money and supplies there, a former Peace Corps volunteer, whose nonprofit organization uses 100 percent of its donations to deliver medical care to the neediest.

Just in that little corner of Sierra Leone that he happened to know, there were many laboring away who could use my help. He mentioned too that I could help directly some people he knew and was trying to help, including a couple of kids who were orphaned by the disease. And he was shelling out a whole lot more than I was. Now he may have more to start with, and he doesn’t have kids, but his response to this crisis was also qualitatively different from mine. His mercy was better. I had asked myself how much I could afford to give without affecting my life or raising any objections from my wife. He was figuring out how much he could reasonably do without in order to provide for the lives of others. I felt a little embarrassed by his example.

Talking to Patrick led me or pushed me past thinking about what everyone else wasn’t doing or even what we weren’t doing to the one thing I can clearly do something about — namely, what am I doing? So I asked myself, “What can I reasonably and easily do?”

And I came up with several specific answers.

  • I can give a little money, at least as much as I know I won’t miss, at least for a little while. Check.
  • I’m a teacher — I can try to organize something on the school level: talk to the principal. Check.
  • Talk to the student council. Next Wednesday.
  • And prayer — for the living and the dead — is a work of mercy, and free! Check.
  • Last, maybe I can lend my voice to raising the hue and cry, plead for mercy in the crowd — maybe write something for Covenant? Check.

I am only doing small, specific things that I can easily do. You too can do some small, specific things. Are you praying in your churches for the dead and the dying in Sierra Leone, in Liberia, and Guinea? For those left fatherless and motherless? For those who are struggling to care for them? How is your mercy? Mine is thin and weak and poor and I hope I am not measured by it. But it is better than it would have been without my aunt’s remark or my friend’s example.

Maybe you are already doing what you can reasonably and easily do, but if you aren’t, then maybe I can pass along the favor or maybe you can seek out some friend who knows some other corner of West Africa affected by this danger.

But ask yourself, “How is my mercy? What am I doing? And what small, specific, deeds of mercy can I reasonably, easily do?”

The image above is Van Gogh’s “The good Samaritan” (1890). It is in the public domain.



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