disease

A Prescription for the Earth

Deforestaion
Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock

AS THE FATE of the world hangs in the balance, one humble pastor—leader of the world’s smallest nation-state—offers a word. Well, closer to 40,000 words.

Pope Francis’ much awaited social teaching on ecology was released in June to global acclaim and thunderous Twitterapplause. Laudato Si’ (“Praised Be to You”) takes its name from a line in St. Francis of Assisi’s “The Canticle of the Creatures,” written in 1225. The encyclical lays out the house rules for this earthly commons we share—archaea, bacteria, and eukaryota alike. (Google it. You, me, all the fauna and flora, are part of eukaryota.) So, what do you need to know?

1. The news is not good. The world’s leading spiritual physician has diagnosed “every person living on this planet” with a progressive and degenerative disease. A soul sickness has spread through us to infect the soil, seas, skies, and even the seasons. Among humans, the poorest have the least resistance and the richest are the major vectors. This disease multiplies in isolation and loneliness, with symptoms of obsessive consumption, greed and corruption, and habitual narcissism. “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”

2. This disease is having dire consequences: objectification of the other, a failure of awe in the presence of beauty, and a defiance of reality by those who claim the “invisible forces of the market will regulate the economy” and dismiss the impact on society and nature as “collateral damage.”

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Moral Free-Riders

IMMANUEL KANT has been on my mind as I’ve followed the national response to recent measles outbreaks. Kant, a German philosopher, emphasized the danger of a temptation we are all vulnerable to—the temptation to make special exceptions for ourselves. The person who acts against principles that she thinks others ought to follow becomes a kind of moral “free-rider,” attempting to benefit from public moral order without contributing to it.

The spread of disease among the intentionally unvaccinated highlights the free-rider problem faced by parents who seek exemption from vaccination.

Some people believe that leaving their children unvaccinated (or under-vaccinated) minimizes their children’s health risks. If everyone around them has been vaccinated, their risk of infection is indeed low. But when too many people decide to forego vaccination, “herd immunity” is lost and disease outbreaks occur.

In a public without herd immunity, the risks posed by disease far exceed the small risks associated with vaccination. In other words, free-riding does not work when everyone is doing it. Herd immunity does not require universal vaccination, but it does require vaccination of a sufficient majority.

Who should get to be in the minority that remains unvaccinated and yet retains protection from disease? This is who: Babies who are too young to be vaccinated, our elders who cannot mount a robust immune response to some types of vaccines, and cancer patients and people with compromised immune systems all clearly have a claim to be shielded by their neighbors’ immunity. The decision to ask for an exemption for one’s own healthy child is a morally risky decision, one that requires an honest examination of conscience.

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Why God Is Sending Christians Straight to Hell

Mindok / Shutterstock.com
Mindok / Shutterstock.com

So much of Christianity has become about avoiding hell. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is sending Christians straight to hell.

Christians need to stop thinking of heaven and hell as primarily places we go after we die. Heaven and hell are primarily realities that we experience here on earth.

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God, also known in the Gospels as the kingdom of Heaven, is a present reality. You don’t have to wait until after death. In fact, you shouldn’t wait because it’s here. It’s now. It’s among you.

Now, if the kingdom of God is a present reality, we can safely assume that hell is also a present reality. In fact, the word Jesus frequently used for “hell” was the term Gehenna. Gehenna was well known in the ancient city of Jerusalem as “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Within the valley was a place called Topheth, where people would sacrifice their children, thinking that God demanded this sacrificial violence. As the prophet Jeremiah explains, this hell on earth is a purely human creation and God had nothing to do with this hell. Jeremiah said about those who sacrifice their children, “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind.”

God doesn’t command the fires of hell; it doesn’t even come to God’s mind! Who, then, does command those fires? We do! René Girard said it succinctly in his book The Scapegoat, “[We] create [our] own hell and help one another descend into it.”

Hell is a place of suffering caused by spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. What does the kingdom of Heaven do when confronted with the violence of hell? The kingdom of Heaven goes straight into it.

All Saints’ Day: Facing Death

What does our response to Ebola say about our attitude towards the poor in spirit? Photo via R. Gino Santa Maria/shutterstock

“Administration officials have repeatedly assured Americans that they were prepared for Ebola. Less than two weeks ago here at the White House, they insisted they knew how to stop this virus in its tracks. But so far, the virus appears to be outrunning the government. “

So began Scott Horsley’s report from the White House, one of three separate stories NPR’s news showAll Things Considered devoted to Ebola on Wednesday, October 16. According to yet another report, a recent Harvard School of Public Health survey finds that 40 percent of Americans feel “at risk” of contracting the disease.

We have Ebola on the brain.

Several of my friends expressed alarm when the first Ebola patient flew to the United States for treatment. Now we find that not one but two Dallas nurses have contracted Ebola, likely because their hospital did not adopt proper Ebola protocols. Americans know that their medical system is far better equipped to prevent an Ebola outbreak than are those in West Africa. We know our system is better prepared to offer effective treatment. But the appearance of multiple cases, one involving a nurse who took a commercial flight while possibly contagious, has people concerned. When a key public health expert says, “It’s a learning process, and . . . our confidence in the hospitals was ill-founded,” the rest of us might get a little nervous.

Ebola Prompts Hands-Off Mass in Fort Worth, Texas

Catholic priest giving Holy Communion. Photo courtesy of Photographee.eu via Shutterstock/RNS.

The Blood of Christ will not be offered during Mass. The Host will be placed in the hands, not on the tongue. And the faithful should not hold hands while reciting the “Our Father.”

These are but a few of the guidelines the Diocese of Fort Worth — not far from the Dallas hospital where three Ebola cases have been diagnosed — has sent to its parishes to calm fears about the deadly disease and to prevent the spread of flu.

While the diocese is perhaps the first in the U.S. to send around such a memo thanks in part to Ebola, such restrictions are common during flu season in Catholic and other churches that offer Communion.

“It’s the same guidelines we have used in past years,” said Pat Svacina, communications director for the Diocese of Fort Worth. “This is just a normal thing. There is no panic whatsoever.”

Holding On and Letting Go

I WAS PRESENT when my uncle died. I didn’t plan to be, but once I understood his end was near it felt right. I had been the flower girl at my aunt and uncle’s wedding, the ritualized beginning of their life together, so witnessing this milestone event of my uncle’s death seemed appropriate. And I wanted to support my aunt, I told myself.

My aunt is my father’s youngest sister. They are the last living siblings from nine brothers and sisters; both their parents are also long gone. My aunt wears this fact like a veil. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable; sometimes it’s the only thing she sees. While my parents’ divorce had kept me apart from my aunt for much of my life, it seemed important, the fury of those old family dramas now covered with dust, to offer my aunt support in her husband’s last days, hours, then moments. She was hardly alone. My aunt has three grown daughters, and my uncle comes from a huge family, most of whom were packed into the hospital room where he died at 2:20 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2013.

My aunt told me she was happy to have me, a representative from her side of her family, present. So I was there. For her, I said.

But to tell the truth, I was there to learn. I have plenty of information about the beginning of life. People in my generation received hours of tutoring, lecturing, indoctrinating, and warning about puberty, childbirth, birth control, and “safe sex.” Although we were actually not given much information about sexuality—I had to learn that on my own. But I knew even less about death.

In those days during my uncle’s passing, I felt the need to understand what some call the great mystery, the last journey, the final frontier. When my uncle died, would there be a bright light, a cold shudder in the room? Would time stop? Speed up? Would angels descend on clouds of harp music? Would there be someone or something to lead him from his physical body when he passed? Where was he going? Was he ready?

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Is the West's Reckless Lifestyle Killing Our Poorer Neighbors?

Outline of Tanzania, Aleksandar Mijatovic / Shutterstock.com
Outline of Tanzania, Aleksandar Mijatovic / Shutterstock.com

I spent an entire day a couple of months ago in an outpatient clinic (I'm fine; thanks for asking). I met a lot of nurses, and every one of them was excellent.

When Velda came to take away the remains of my lunch, I offered her my untouched can of ginger ale.

"I don't drink soft drinks," she replied. Since I rarely do either, we started chatting.

Velda grew up in Tanzania, moved to Belgium, spent several years in London, and finally came to the United States. She returns to Tanzania regularly, and she is not happy with what she sees.

"I grew up eating lots of vegetables," she told me. "We might have had ice cream once every three years. But now people are eating American-style junk food. They don't know it's not good for them."

Mother's Week: Standing Up for Fairness

Daughter holding her mother's hand, OtnaYdur / Shutterstock.com
Daughter holding her mother's hand, OtnaYdur / Shutterstock.com

Our health care system is not arbitrary. It does not operate by a set of principles that are beyond comprehension. We govern it. We participate in its capitalistic maneuvering and its political favoring. My family has health insurance in part because we have been given advantages due to racial identity, family networking, and being part of the 1 percent. All of these things have worked specifically in my favor to save the life of my dear mother. None of this is fair. 

When I praise God for my mother’s enduring health, it is impossible not to think of how many others have indirectly contributed to this success. And to wonder if we have also indirectly contributed to their failures.

Mother's Day: A Legacy of Wisdom and Strength

Cynthia Martens with her mother, photo via Cynthia Martens
Cynthia Martens with her mother, photo via Cynthia Martens

Sharing stories of my own mother and the ways she taught and encouraged me feels like the best way to honor her on Mother's Day. To this day when I am thinking of expressing an uncharitable thought I can hear her voice “If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything.”

Although this may sound like a cliché, it is a teaching that I am relearning once again in a class called “Wisdom of the Desert” and finding that my mother's sensibilities had many similarities to that of the early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers. Gratitude and hospitality, two huge teachings of the desert monks, were also lessons I learned from my mother.

Something in the Blood

Red blood cells. Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/ysvxWb.
Red blood cells. Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/ysvxWb.

Usually when I hear people talk about finding the good in the midst of a difficult situation, my cynical radar goes up. I picture the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Brian and the two thieves are being crucified while whistling and singing “Always look on the bright side of life.”

Yeah, right.

I reminds me a girl named Cathy that I knew in high school who already lived on her own before she had even graduated. At school she was the perpetual ray of sunshine, always offering warm smiles and hugs, but hardly concealing a deeper undercurrent of sadness that you could nearly taste.

But once in a while, we have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of grace in the middle of the worst humanity has to offer. And it’s in those moments that I tend to recognize God in our midst.

 

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