Right now there is something special playing out amidst the countless stories of tragedy coming from the African Ebola epidemic. There has emerged from the fight against the malevolent forces of nature the image of a strong, confident and fearless man – a superhero of sorts. I’m talking of course about Dr. Kent Brantly, the young American doctor working for the Christian NGO Samaritans Purse who is as I write this battling the disease that he caught in his epic fight against the epidemic. When he first felt the symptoms he quarantined himself; when a special serum arrived he gave it instead to his co-worker (also sick). A man of principle and dignity. A man of faith.
Dr. Brantly is not special for the reasons you will read about in most of the newspapers. He is not a selfless imbecile who has thrown safety to the wind and denied the primordial instinct of self-preservation in order to serve others; as the second hand dealers in ideas would have you believe. “He sacrificed himself, his family and his life for complete strangers, he cares not for himself – only for other people” those who think in groups say, “if only we were all like him, denying our right to ourselves and our money in favor of others, we’d have a better world.” They need this narrative, because it is the tale they use to extend their power in the name of the poor with the final end the perpetuation of their privilege. When that version of the story is uncontested, it is those who make a living telling the story that reap the harvest. So sensing an opportunity, their propaganda machines go into overdrive – explaining how Kent is the living specimen of their ideas of the denial of self, and how real Christianity is socialist – and his sacrifice is proof. “You see” they repeat, “the selflessness that leads to socialism is the closest thing to heaven on earth”; not saying what they truly think, the manipulation of faith for political purposes is a tremendous weapon for power. To them, Kent is a useful idiot; to be used as a shining example of their collectivist political ideas put into practice. A fool.
But he is no fool.
Dr. Kent Brantly is in fact the opposite – he is the last man of self. So self-assured of the truth of his convictions that he is ready to embrace even perilous situations in the service of what he knows to be right; and with his gaze firmly set on his final prize he holds his faith and his freedom on his open palm in confidence. For Kent, his decision to help those who suffer was the most rational – and selfish – thing possible. He was not seeking to live at the expense of others, even to serve them; was not seeking to lose himself or deny himself; he was looking to find himself and live his life in balance and clarity and unity despite the cost. To stand alone, to be counted, to be tried and not found wanting.
This is why we should not pity Kent; not shake our heads at his suffering, attacking and accusing in desperate defense against a life of meaning. And we should not try to use Kent’s story to enslave. We should instead pity ourselves. Few of us truly have the courage to live out what we believe. We use family, or finances, or pragmatism to justify what are in fact decisions made out of sloth, envy or hatred; always trying to hide the truth, that we are afraid – afraid to stand alone, afraid that our convictions will lead to difficulties, and sure that if we were forced to truly look at ourselves, we would find ourselves wanting. And even worse, so much worse, those who seek political power use the heartwarming stories of acts of tremendous courage by others to reinforce their argument of collective action for social reasons – with their eyes always on a temporal trophy. “See, true faith and true socialism are the same thing, selfless. Acts of great courage don’t belong to any one man; they are part of the general collective goodness of humanity.” They have to say this, because if they are honest with themselves, if they allow themselves to know the truth, they must look at Kent and tremble – knowing that he did build that; and knowing that what he built is for him alone and will not be shared by anybody else. This is Kent’s secret. In heaven you don’t spread your reward around; in the afterlife it’s not an issue of fairness – it’s about justice. Each of us will stand naked and alone before our creator and have to answer difficult questions. Unlike what the peddlers of pull believe, salvation is not collective – it is an intensely individual affair. In heaven we get exactly what we have coming to us based upon what we built here on earth; not a penny more, and not a penny less. When we are face to face with God we cannot crib from the great minds or lean on the goodness of some and the evil of others in our defense. “Seek out your own salvation with fear and trembling” the Bible says. These are things that Kent knows well and that guide his life decisions.
No, Kent is no fool at all. He knows exactly what he’s doing. And he knows that what awaits him at the end (and I pray that for Kent the end is very far in the future) is far greater than anything we can imagine.
“He is no fool, if he should choose to give the thing he cannot keep to buy what he can never lose.” Jim Elliot
Great post, Joel! You’ve mined some interesting, intellectual and inspiring layers here, many which are lost in the simplistic, reactionary outcry currently broadcast by Limbaugh and his ilk regarding the Ebola treatments at Emory University. Such an important moment in medical history right now and all the media and social networks seem to feed into the fear factor and not the part where we should sit back and be amazed.