Ebola, the Media and Christianity

A little analysis from our favorite media giant with the Big Religious Blind Spot, The New York Times, from an article on October 10:

“The first to respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Doctors Without Borders remains the primary international medical aid group battling the disease there.  As local health systems have all but collapsed and most outside institutions, including the United States military, have yet to fulfill all their pledges of help, the charity has erected six treatment centers in West Africa, with plans for more.”

So, Doctors Without Borders was the first organization to respond the Ebola crisis.

Uh, not quite.  When Doctors Without Borders arrived in Liberia to battle Ebola they collaborated with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical missionary agency.  Samaritan’s Purse has had medical care in Liberia since 2010, so they were right there when Ebola first broke out.  They were, in fact, trying to alert the world to the Ebola problem before it became a big news item in the West.  In July, an official of Samaritan’s Purse declared:

“We need them all to help us in the fight against this dreadful disease…I call on the international community and the donor governments of the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, to step in and recognize the very limited capacities of the ministries of health in West Africa and to help them contain this disease.”

And where does one find this declaration from Samaritan’s Purse, an organization fighting Ebola in Liberia along with Doctor’s Without Borders?

A New York Times blog.

Don’t these reporters read their own paper?

A picture from the Times in July, showing Kent Brantly treating Ebola patients in Liberia.  Any further comments I would make at this point about this would be way too snarky and disrespectful.

A picture from the Times in July, showing Kent Brantly treating Ebola patients in Liberia. Any further comments I would make at this point about this would be way too snarky and disrespectful.

That article even carried a picture of Kent Brantly working on Ebola patients.  Brantly, as you may know, is the doctor from Samaritan’s Purse who later made international news as the first American to contract Ebola.

So why does The New York Times say that Doctors Without Borders (which is an excellent organization, by the way) was pretty much the only organization in West Africa working on this?  Why do they fail to mention the work of an organization like Samaritan’s Purse?

Another blind spot.  And it is a blind spot connected to the reality that missionary organizations make some secular people uncomfortable.

You don’t have to take my word for it.  Slate writer, Brian Palmer, who declares himself to be an atheist, makes the very point that missionaries are overlooked in the whole Ebola crisis.  Palmer explains how he was recently at an international conference discussing Ebola and the control of infectious diseases and somebody made the point that Doctors Without Borders were the “only group on the ground” dealing with this problem.

Palmer, however, wrote in the Slate article (he doesn’t mention whether he said anything at the conference) that missionaries have long been on the ground dealing with these issues.  He also indicated that missionary doctors and nurses actually have long-term commitments, don’t just parachute in during a crisis, and do not profit economically from their work.

Of course, this is not news to any of us who are familiar with missionaries.

But it is news – uncomfortable news – for certain kinds of secular Americans. Palmer gives reasons why secular people are uncomfortable with missionaries — and why he himself, in fact, is uncomfortable with them.  (The subtitle of his article is  “Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?”)  There’s nothing new there — those arguments he gives have been around for more than a century, as Palmer points out himself.

I give Palmer a great deal of credit, however, for bringing to light the good work done by a group with which he has serious disagreements.  That is a difficult step to take.  It is so difficult that The New York Times can’t seem to pull it off.

Now before I end up out of line in my snarky comments about the Times, (I might already have crossed that line, actually) I better point out that I am often not able to pull that off, either.  We Christians, who ought to know something about humility, respect, and loving those with whom we disagree, ought to be able to regularly point out good work done by people with whom we have serious disagreements.

Do we?


(My thanks to my friend and colleague, Scott Waalkes, who brought the Slate article to my attention and understands evangelicals and missionaries, even though he grew up amidst Calvinists in Grand Rapids.)


NPR Has Discovered Christians in Hong Kong, and Boy, Are They Surprised

Maybe there is a little progress being made on the religion in the news media thing.  NPR, which in my estimation has had something of a blind spot for religion, has reported that the Christian faith is an important part of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — as well as some Christians who are voicing criticism.

NPRNPR is surprised by this, but I’m not surprised they are surprised.

Will The New York Times finally start to see what others are seeing?  There is still no sign that the light is dawning there.  They did mention the Catholic church and other “non-governmental organizations” like Amnesty International in a story about groups that Chinese officials are worried about.  The Chinese government is worried about Catholics?  Hmm.  Why would that be?  (Hint.  Hint.)

(My thanks go out to my daughter Brenna, who tipped me off to the NPR story.  You might might be interested in reading her blog — she’s a better writer than I am — about her work in Egypt.  She is serving in a one-year program established by the Mennonite Central Committee that places Christians in service work with other Christians around the world.  She’s working at a retreat center run by the Coptic Church.)



Is this News to You? The New York Times has a Blind Spot with Religion.

In the last couple of weeks, pro-democracy protests have been surging through Hong Kong.  Evangelical Christians are playing a significant role in the organization and leadership of the Umbrella Movement leading the protests.

Yet, in its extensive coverage of these developments, the New York Times doesn’t  discuss religion.

Are you surprised by this?

I am not.

An example:  The Times ran a front page story last week (October 2) about Joshua Wong, who is leading the pro-democracy student protests.  The paper ran the headline, “At 17, Leading Protests That Rattle Hong Kong.”  Several pages later the story continued with a second headline, “Student at Forefront of Hong Kong Democracy Movement is Unlikely Agitator.”

Joshua Wong

Joshua Wong

What makes him unlikely?  Well, he is young.  We find out that Wong started protests of government curriculum in his school three years ago.  And we learn that he represents an idealistic culture of protest.  We also learn that his university entrance exam scores were middling.

What else is unlikely?  It would be unlikely for the Times to recognize that Joshua Wong has been shaped by evangelical Christianity.  The article did mention that Wong’s parents were “Protestants who kindled a concern for social justice,” but that is the only mention of religion in any of the articles the Times reported.

It is not just Wong.  A disproportionate number of protesters in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement are Christian.  The same goes for the Scholarism movement that Wong founded several years ago.  Two of the three leaders of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement are Christian.   And interestingly, some of the criticism of the movement, as well, comes from Christian leaders.  One of the most vocal critics in Hong Kong is an Anglican bishop.  The Times does not mention any of this.

I’m not surprised because, as I mentioned in my last post, the Times has a blind spot when it comes to religion.  Now, I should mention that I subscribe to The New York Times.  It’s a good way for me to get relatively deep coverage of world events.  That is, the coverage is good unless religion (particularly Christianity) is a significant factor in the story.  It appears to me that the people in power at that newspaper just don’t understand religion or have a good sense for how it could motivate modern people, particularly in public ways.

The Times is not alone in that regard.  A lot of the news media has a blind spot when it comes to religion, Christianity and evangelicalism.  Much of the rest of our news media is just like the Times in this regard.  That is one reason why many American Christians argue that there is a liberal bias in the media.

But the problem of blind spots is not just with “liberal media.”  The “conservative media” has its own blind spots.  (See Bill O’Reilly on race, for instance).

The problem with blind spots is us.  By “us” I mean those individuals who breathe and think and have desires, a demographic that covers a remarkably high percentage of people.

I have blind spots.  So do you.  We don’t know what they are, because we are “blind” to them.  Get it?

Every now and then, our eyes are opened, at least a little bit.  That was the point of my embarrassing story about my exchange with the post-modern feminist on my dissertation committee.  You might recall that she asked rather pointedly how I could claim to provide a solid analysis of the evangelical missionary movement and not consider women, since women made up a majority of missionaries.

I wonder, then, what would happen if were able to ask the editors of The New York Times how they could claim to be investigating the causes of this pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and not consider the role Christianity plays, since Christians make up a good deal of the leadership?  Of course, people like me don’t have the ear of the Times editors.  And even when our blind spots are pointed out, we often don’t truly believe that they exist.  So we don’t see them.  I doubt I could convince the Times editors that they have a blind spot.

But the point here is not to tweak the noses of The New York Times.  (Well, OK, I have to confess that I do actually want to tweak the noses of The New York Times.)

My point is that we need to realize that all of us have blind spots and we need to be aware that they exist, even if we don’t know what, exactly, they are.