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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Ebola: fear and love in West Africa

The name Mabalo Lokela may not mean much to you. He lived in a place called Yambuku in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the end of August 1976 he suddenly became ill and was admitted to the local mission hospital. At first, the staff thought it was malaria. But he failed to respond to the usual drugs. In a week he was suffering from uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhoea and terrible pains. Then he started bleeding from his nose, gums and eyes. No-one had any idea what these frightening symptoms meant. On 8 September he died. Within days, his family and those who had treated him developed the same symptoms. Soon hundreds of cases were reported. The mortality rate was nearly 90%. 

You’ll have realised by now that I am talking about EHF, Ebola haemorrhagic fever. It is one of the deadliest diseases to have emerged in our time. Many of us remember the rhetoric of the 1950s and 60s when we were told that thanks to modern drugs, epidemics were a thing of the past. But for every disease eradicated like smallpox, others have sprung up like Medusa’s heads: Lassa fever, Lyme’s disease, Legionnaire’s disease and of course HIV-AIDS. Ebola is one more in the litany of names to strike fear into human hearts, and as we are learning daily, it is perhaps the most lethal and most frightening of them all. In Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea it is rapidly getting out of control. Thousands have perished; the attrition rate is doubling each month. ‘With war you know to avoid the enemy’ says one Christian sister who is well-used to violence and civil conflict. ‘With Ebola you just don’t know.’ And now thanks to global travel, it threatens people across the world, not only those who have travelled to West Africa or been with those who have, but all of us, wherever we are. 

Once upon a time, disease was seen as divine punishment for wickedness, unleashed by the pale green Horseman of the Apocalypse whose name was Death and who had authority to kill with sword, famine and pestilence. Retribution was the most plausible explanation. It has a long and ugly history that goes back to the ten plagues visited upon Egypt in the Book of Exodus. In the early days of AIDS, you frequently heard reckless and cruel talk about a gay plague sent to punish homosexuals. You might have thought that the Book of Job had put paid to this idea of reward and punishment for all time. Not so. But as with all suffering, it is unexplained and unexplainable. Why does God allow it? It is beyond our understanding. When victims ask ‘why me?’ and cry out that it isn’t fair, they are right. It never is. The best we can do is acknowledge the risk that is built into our universe that is the price of existing at all. But civilisations have been here before. When the Black Death swept across Europe and arrived in Durham in 1349, peoples’ hearts failed them for fear. This was final judgment. It wasn’t of course. But it took generations for England to recover, not least from the economic and social fallout. I don’t want to frighten you but I’ve read that it’s even possible that the Black Death was not bubonic plague but a haemorrhagic disease like Ebola. Whatever it was, it haunted the European imagination and left it with a profound foreboding as you can see in Dance of Death wall paintings in churches of that century. It was not until the Great War that Europe suffered a shock comparable to it.

Why am I disturbing the tranquillity of Cathedral matins by reminding you of this? Because I believe that every threat our world faces is our business as human beings and as churches, whether it is ISIS, Ebola, climate change or world poverty. Because of that, I believe that it is God’s business too. God cares about the victims of Ebola. God cares about those who are caring for them, at great risk to themselves. God cares about the panic that is running through populations in West Africa. God cares about those who researching the causes and cure of this disease. Perhaps the most important thing the preacher can say today is that whatever ordeals humanity faces, we are not alone. And that should give us courage as we try to find ways of responding to what is rapidly becoming a worldwide health crisis. 

So what does God want us to do in the face of Ebola? We all need to recognise, and name, and deal with these atavistic fears that are taking hold. We need to know that this epidemic is not an apocalyptic event sent to punish us. We need to understand the causes of Ebola and how the virus is transmitted. We need to throw everything we can at it by way of scientific research, hospitals, beds, drugs and everything else that the best health care needs. We need to support relief efforts going on across western Africa. I mean not only the medical emergency but its social consequences: failing economies, food and water harder than ever to come by, orphaned children whose schools are closed. So much needs to be done to contain at its sources a virus that is doubling its victim count each month.

Many of you will know a 20th century novel that charts the impact of an epidemic, Albert Camus’ The Plague. It’s a profound exploration of how the contagion of fear spreads through a society and paralyses it; how panicky self-interest, the survival instinct dominates all else, how preachers try to make sense of the catastrophe that is happening. This epidemic set in. North African town was fictional, but it stood for an important truth. Writing in Vichy France during the 2nd World War, Camus meant it as a metaphor of enemy invasion and occupation, and how a terrorised society reacts. But we can see in it a metaphor of another occupying power that holds sway over humanity: the effect of fear on ordinary people's lives, the corruption of motives by self-concern, putting ourselves first, protecting ourselves from harm at all costs. In an important way, it is fear that spreads a spiritual plague, not because it’s unnatural or wrong to be afraid, but because of how we respond when it takes hold of us. Like prayer, what matters for fear is what we do next. 

Stories coming out of West Africa point in another direction. Even non-religious observers have noticed that in some villages it is imams, priests and religious who are willing to take supplies into stricken villages because only they are willing to put themselves at risk. I wonder how we could emulate that response here in the west. It's good that the UK is taking a lead by putting resource and muscle into fighting the epidemic on the ground. The World Health Organisation, the United Nations and Médecins Sans Frontières all tell us that this is where the battle to contain Ebola will be won or lost, not here. But all that is being done is not yet enough. We must multiply our support twentyfold if we are to contain the disease, avoid a global pandemic and bring sufficient medical support and health care to many thousands of victims. That means doing what we can to meet a grave emergency out of care for our fellow human beings who are in desperate need. But as Anthony Banbury, head of the UN Ebola emergency response mission warns, 'Time is our enemy. The virus is far ahead of us.' 

I recognise the part fear plays in our response to Ebola. But I have good news. In today’s lesson, St John takes us to the source of what makes us Christian. At its heart is love, ‘not that we love God but that he loves us and sent his Son’. Now he addresses the consequences of this for how we are with one another, how we live in community. ‘Since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another.’ And he faces the issue of fear itself, and its paralysing effect. What is the antidote? John tells us. ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.’  So what must we do? ‘Beloved, let us love one another not in word only but in deed and truth’. We can bring this kind of love that is 'in deed and truth' to our comrades in suffering by holding them in our minds and hearts, by giving financial support to the relief agencies, and by raising awareness of a real crisis where it might make a difference to how western nations respond. And in all this, falling on our knees and saying our prayers.

Durham Cathedral, Trinity 18, 19 October 2014 
1 John 4.1-18

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