You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19)
I was a child when AIDS first came to the United States, sometime around our country’s bicentennial. My memory of that celebration centers on one brief episode. I was flying to New York City to meet my father, who, in the usual tradition of the Meisters, was going to leave town as soon as I arrived, fleeing the crowds. (I found this frustrating; I would like to have attended the bicentennial celebration, to have sat on his shoulders and watched the fireworks, which were sure to be spectacular. Fireworks on TV just aren’t the same at all.) Anyway, the pilot announced that we were going to fly over New York Harbor, where they had just unveiled the Statue of Liberty following its restoration. We all pressed toward the windows, and there it was, surrounded by a sea of small boats, so many boats that you could probably have walked on them from one side of the harbor to another without ever getting your feet wet. It was a glorious thing to see, all those people who wished our country well. Only years later did I read And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’ book about the early years of AIDS in the United States, and realize what a contagious disease could do in a place where everyone wanted to come.
Shilts’ book is a searing study of the effects of indifference, arrogance, and carelessness, and it has been much on my mind as we have watched the ebola crisis unfold around us. “Watched,” being the key word there. When AIDS first came to the United States, it cut a path through the gay community, and the rest of the country were largely indifferent to the fact that gay men were dying. At the time, too many people still thought of them as contemptible, not seeing that they, too, were children of God. Shilts points out somewhere that the government poured resources into Legionnaire’s Disease after it had harmed a handful of people, but it was years before they gave much attention to AIDS, and we all payed the price. The kids one or two years older than I grew up believing that if you had sex, you might get pregnant. My class knew that if you had sex, you might die.
Shilts’ book has been on my mind because I cannot help believing that we are doing it again. When ebola started in Africa, the people who were dying were poor, black, and far away, and located in countries with little strategic value, and neither we nor anyone else poured in the resources necessary to stop the spread of the disease. Our leaders even reminded us that “we” were safe, as if it didn’t matter that human beings were dying anyplace but here. And when we did finally respond, the resources do not seem to have been adequate to the challenge. Now the CDC is estimating that new infections may climb to 10,000 per month — and those are not numbers. They are men, women, and children whom God loves, and whom God commanded us to love, too.
Even now, we are not taking adequate steps to protect even the health of the persons in the United States. “We are not at risk,” our leaders keep saying, but people are beginning to die. Good people: Health workers who were brave enough to care for the suffering, a man trying to build a new life with his family. We don’t know the good they would have done, if they had been given the gift of years. Or the evil. We don’t know, and that’s the point.
What does it mean to love our brother? What does it mean to love the stranger? I am, as we all are, deeply imperfect in the art of love, but I do know this: it does not mean looking at a situation far away in which thousands of men, women, and children are dying, and deciding that it’s OK, because “we” are not there. It does not mean being arrogantly indifferent about our own risk either. It does not mean that when we see a predator, we wait until “enough” bodies stack up for us to determine it’s really a menace. It does mean that one dead person, here or abroad, black or white or brown or rich or poor or male or female, is too many. We follow a Lord who came and lived and died and rose from the dead so that the power of death would be broken, and we are not allowed to abet its power by our inaction.
The bitter thing here is that we do know how to stop the spread of infectious diseases. You hit them hard, right at the start. You use quarantines to arrest their spread. You don’t let people travel over regional or national borders until they are proven not to be carrying the disease. If you find someone who is infected, you give them help in a designated center where people are trained to assist them. It is that simple. And, apparently, that hard.
Near the end of her most recent book, Marilynne Robinson writes, “There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall upon them.” (Lila, p. 260) And grace does not just fall from heaven, not always; most often, it comes toward us on human hands.
What would it look like to be bearers of grace toward all those who are suffering this thing? Can we dream something that big, that holy? Jesus said, “truly I tell you, whoever gives you even a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” (Mark 9:41)