Posted in African theology, reflections

Fear or faith? Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Ebola virus

Mrs-O-Leary-s-Cow-Realizes-How-She-Can-End-the-Carnage-in-Chicago-s-SlaughterhousesYou’ve heard of a scapegoat. How about a scapecow?

From October 8-10, 1871, the Great Chicago fire cut a huge swath through the city, resulting in $ 192 million in damage to property, killing 300 and leaving 100,000 residents homeless. Urban legend has since blamed Mrs O’Leary’s cow, though a board of inquiry never conclusively established the fire’s cause. A popular poem nonetheless assigned blame:

One dark night, when people were in bed,

Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in her shed.

The cow kicked it over, winked his eye and said,

“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

It has been 143 years since the Great Chicago fire, but some things don’t change. We still want to assign blame. The latest example is a group of more than 100 Liberian clergy who – in a statement reported by  the Liberia Observerblamed “homosexualism, etc.” for the “plague” of Ebola. One may wonder why homosexuals – a tiny minority of citizens – were singled out by name when others in the majority only merited an “etc.”

This week, two American doctors infected by the Ebola virus while treating patients in Liberia were evacuated to a containment facility at Emory University hospital in Atlanta. One of my FaceBook friends – a Christian – questioned why these infected individuals were brought to the U.S. at all, where they might spread it to others. His solution? Treat them over there! His concerns were voiced despite the media carefully outlining the extraordinary measures being taken in Atlanta to prevent such an outcome. In my friend’s defense, even some U.S.-based doctors expressed the same concern about the disease being accidentally introduced on U.S. soil.

What strikes me about the response of the Liberian clergy and some of my fellow Americans is the fear that animates it. Let’s be honest:  Who among us is not tempted sometimes to give in to fear? We’re tempted like the Liberian clergy to connect the dots between calamitous events and the sins that are purported to have caused them. Charles Wesley  (1707-88) responded to the 1755 great Lisbon earthquake by penning his sermon, “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes.” In it, he suggested that the calamity was divine retribution for wickedness. It’s interesting in contrast that Jesus – when questioned along similar lines regarding a tower that fell and killed eighteen (Luke 13:1-5) – refused to draw such a cause-effect conclusion . He just reminded people that we all are offenders and in need of repentance.

Which evokes this question:

In the face of calamity, do we respond based on fear or based on faith?

The New Testament contrasts fear with love. Paul wrote to the young Timothy: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7, ESV). Elsewhere, one would expect John to say that “perfect courage casts out fear.” Yet that’s not what he wrote. Rather, he advised:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18, ESV).

Note the connection: Where there is fear, we are focused on punishment. It’s not a large leap from there to scapegoating. But confronted by catastrophe, instead of asking God to bless our witch-hunt, shall we not instead ask God to fill us with perfect love? If we do, then what place is left to succumb to fear and its damaging excesses? Fear asks: Whom can I blame? On the other hand, faith asks: How during this difficult time can I ease the pain of my brother or sister? How can I love them with God’s perfect love? How can I be Jesus to them?

More niggling questions arise:

1) If the Ebola virus is a plague sent from God, then wouldn’t Christian medical personnel trying to treat victims and contain the disease  be working against God, interfering with the lesson that God is trying to teach sinners? Wouldn’t the more logical thing in such a scenario be to step aside and let God’s vengeance have full reign?

2) If Ebola is God’s punishment on sin, then why are Liberians, Guineans and Sierra Leoneans taking the brunt of it? Like Jesus in Luke 13:4,  I ask: “Are they any worse offenders than others?” With Paul, perhaps we need to say in humility:  “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34, NIV).

Overconfidence in knowing the mind of God can lead to scapegoating, a fear-based response not worthy of the Gospel of compassion. Instead, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will empower us to make a faith-based response that commends Christ to others. May God not grant us knowledge of whom to blame; rather, may he bestow upon us an extra measure of grace  to love our neighbors as ourselves. Above all, as messengers of hope for this life and the life to come, let us take advantage of this golden opportunity to talk with people about eternal things, to remind others of life’s brevity (James 4:14). Let us point people to Jesus – the Way, the Truth, and the Life – and the only One who can conquer both fear and death.


Image credit: Richard Hill Painting


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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