The right’s answer to Bill Maher, the lovely, the talented, Ann Coulter seems to have touched a nerve with her post about Dr. Kent Brantly, the physician who contracted Ebola in Liberia and is now (after being evacuated) receiving treatment in Atlanta.
Ann thinks the $2 million spent on the Dr.’s medically air-tight flight will wind up hurting Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian charity that sent him, more than any good Brantly might have done in Africa. That seems fairly commonsensical. The missions committee of my communion needs to live within its budget. Its officers can’t simply flash an OPC Mastercard when a special opportunity arises or when the Spirit is supposed to have moved. For Presbyterians, everything must be decent and in order, which means within budget. I don’t know what Samaritan’s Purse’s reserves are like, but $2 million, if that is the correct figure, does sound like it could put a dent into good-doing in other parts of the world.
But Collin Garbarino believes the example of Jesus may teach a different lesson about Brantly’s situation:
Christianity has always been a little topsy-turvy. The mightiest king in the universe was born in a lowly stable. The second person of the Godhead “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.” “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” He had “no place to lay his head,” and he surrounded himself with a rag-tag group of fishermen and tax collectors. Jesus could stand as a righteous judge, but he allowed himself to die a sinner’s death. Through sacrifice God saved his people. Through death death is conquered. What’s more foolish than dying in order to live? Christ calls his people to do just that. Take up your cross and follow him.
The thing is, Jesus was born in the stable precisely because his parents didn’t have lots of cash to afford anything better. So doesn’t the humble birth of Jesus in some way back up Ann’s point? Doing good doesn’t allow you to escape creditors. And if Garbarino had gone to Satan’s temptation of Jesus, imagine the conundrum in which he would have found himself. For Jesus could have done a lot more good for planet earth (from one perspective) had yielded to the temptation to bow down to Satan and rule over all the earth’s kingdoms.
But Ann’s post went beyond finances to the motives of missionaries like Brantly — how this became a debate about missions when Samaritan’s Purse is a relief agency is an odd twist.
Of course, if Brantly had evangelized in New York City or Los Angeles, The New York Times would get upset and accuse him of anti-Semitism, until he swore — as the pope did — that you don’t have to be a Christian to go to heaven. Evangelize in Liberia, and the Times’ Nicholas Kristof will be totally impressed.
Which explains why American Christians go on “mission trips” to disease-ridden cesspools. They’re tired of fighting the culture war in the U.S., tired of being called homophobes, racists, sexists and bigots. So they slink off to Third World countries, away from American culture to do good works, forgetting that the first rule of life on a riverbank is that any good that one attempts downstream is quickly overtaken by what happens upstream.
America is the most consequential nation on Earth, and in desperate need of God at the moment. If America falls, it will be a thousand years of darkness for the entire planet.
Ann has drunk a little too deeply at the font of American exceptionalism, but Al Mohler is not happy with Coulter’s raising questions about missionaries motives:
These two missionaries and all the others who have gone as authentic missionaries in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ have not been driven by a mere humanitarian impulse. They have not just gone to help those who are victims and patients. They have gone because they believe that every single human being on the planet is an individual made in God’s image. And they also believe that every single individual on the planet is a sinner in desperate need of salvation. They believe that every single human being on the planet, whether in West Africa or in the advanced Western nations including the US, are in great need of the gospel of Jesus Christ–and that what hangs in the balance is not just the outbreak of a contagion or the future of health but indeed the eternal realities of heaven and hell.
For Mohler, humanitarianism isn’t good enough. A missionary’s motives must be spiritual. They must be pure.
How do you disagree with that, except that most Christians if they are honest know that their motives are mixed (which is why it is so hard to follow the Obedience Boys). Even if I am performing a good work with the intention of being good, aren’t I really guilty of denying the sinfulness that clings to me as a child (though redeemed) of Adam? We are not perfectionists. And this is what makes a show like The Wire so valuable. I put my finger on this last night while watching Brotherhood, a series that comes as close to the feel and sensibility of The Wire without being a mere imitation. In both series we watch characters who are both ambitious (read selfish) and loving. Their ambition takes them to places they should not go — whether they play for the legal or illegal team. At the same time, they belong to families and neighborhoods and that membership sometimes motivates them to use their selfishness in selfless ways. The characters are a mix of vice and virtue.
Well, some might ask, are these shows about Christians? Aren’t Christians different or supposed to be? Well, Brotherhood features an Irish-American family for which the Roman Catholic Church is more than merely a backdrop. But even on Protestant grounds, I’m not sure that the Christian experience is decidedly different from the way these shows present the human experience. We are a mix of holy and wicked. What may make Christians different from the non-Christians of these series (and the real world) — to play by the confessional Presbyterian rule book — is that the latter don’t have holy motives but merely exhibit civic virtue. As the Confession explains — always steering us away from the temptation to invoke “human flourishing”:
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (16.7)
But it is also important to remember that the Confession says our good works “are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.” Perhaps this is granting more charity to Ann Coulter than she deserves, but her reservations about Dr. Brantly and other evangelical “missionaries” may be closer to the way that Christians should question themselves (and their good works) than the kind of blanket endorsement that Al apparently renders.