This sermon was first preached on 10/12/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It works through the painful and tragic implications of Ebola, ISIS and our perpetual state of war and how the media intersects this.
Earlier this week, I attended an awards dinner for a cancer charity where my fiancé works. Hundreds of scientists and doctors are flown in from around the world for a several daylong symposium that includes this dinner. There are also other professionals tied to the pharmaceutical companies who are more business-minded people than medical, and a smattering of others – like myself – that are only connected through partners. Everyone from suppliers, to doctors in early fellowship, to scientists who were on the short list to receive a Nobel prize. A pretty amazing cohort that represents some of humanity’s best collaborative scientific work.
As I was moving around chatting with random folks through the cocktail hour, one conversation turned toward the topic of Ebola, where the media would make you think Ebola was knocking on our front doors. (Which it very much is not.) One guest (who like me was there because of someone else, and not because of their medical or scientific expertise) began lamenting about how scary Ebola is; how we don’t really know what “they’re” not telling us – presumably he meant the government – and how it could be everywhere. I calmly replied that Ebola was incredibly rare in the US; can only be contracted through bodily fluids; and pretty much the only Americans who have contracted it are medical professionals treating patients with it. He muttered something like, “well, we don’t really know.” And I let it drop out of politeness, thinking that even at this place filled with the best of our medical and scientific communities, misinformation can infect any of us.
According to CNN, as of Friday of this week, “A total of 416 health care workers are among those believed to have contracted Ebola. Of those, 233 of them have died, the WHO says.” Of course these numbers constitute health care workers who were working in West Africa, not down the street. It’s factually not an airborne virus, so it’s incredibly hard to get unless you’re in intimate or medical contact with someone with it.
This is a horrible illness – don’t get me wrong. With more than 4000 deaths from this outbreak in West Africa, I can only imagine the pain and suffering. But I feel it’s my pastoral duty in the face of the media barrage of insanity and terror to bring this back to perspective. As it’s flu season now, I’ll ask – how many of us have gotten our vaccines yet? (show of hands) I’m going tomorrow to get it finally. The World Health Organization reports: “Influenza occurs globally with an annual attack rate estimated at 5%–10% in adults and 20%–30% in children. Illnesses can result in hospitalization and death mainly among high-risk groups (the very young, elderly or chronically ill). Worldwide, these annual epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 250 000 to 500 000 deaths.” Now the flu is different in that its worst results usually only are seen in the already weak, whereas Ebola can easily kill a healthy person. But when you do the math, the flu kills 246,000-496,000 more people every year than the Ebola virus at this historically worst outbreak. However horrible the virus is to those who have to face it, it’s a blip compared to how the flu affects the world every year – and many of us don’t even get vaccinated for a virus that is actually airborne!
So what’s actually going on? Why do we trump this up right now? Fox and CNN seem to be covering it perpetually. CNN has even gone so far as to ask the burning question: “Is Ebola the ISIS of biological agents? It’s absurd, and it’s mainstream, but I think it may be pointing toward what’s actually going on. Ebola is terrifying. ISIS – noted for public beheadings – is terrifying. Both happen to be in the news right now – and I hate to say this – but it’s far past time more of us begin saying this loudly – terror sells coverage. Information – that which is most sacred to a functional secular society – has been co-opted for profit – and TV journalism has largely gone the route of fake Reality TV mixed with Video Blogging to large audiences.
This isn’t politics. It’s cultural. We are experiencing a profound shift in American identity right now. News that’s not sensational isn’t valuable and comes and goes faster than the wind. Stories that will grip us, even if they’re not actually worthy, in the scheme of things, of perpetual analysis, will linger because they keep us watching. They either reinforce our own beliefs or they foment fear. That’s propaganda. We are beginning to live in a state of propaganda. We’re not getting the context in our news that I recall from my childhood. I was a kid watching the old greats in news broadcasting, and I don’t recall such vapid opinion or sensationalism. And I was an impressionable child – if it were there it would have left a mark. It’s no longer all the news that’s fit to print – as they were wont to say – it’s more all the news that’s fit to sell.
Ebola and ISIS seem to have nothing in common, despite the CNN pithy remark from before. Yet they keep getting linked. We’re hearing story after story of fears that Ebola will invade us through Mexico or that ISIS will invade us through Mexico. On Thursday, Fox News falsely reported that four ISIS agents had slipped through the border. In fact, our department of Homeland Security clarified that four Kurdish terrorists, who are part of an Anti-ISIS group, had slipped through back in September and were detained. Was it ISIS or the enemy of ISIS that got into our country? And did they slip through or were they detained? Can they be detained and at large at the same time? That’s the level of terror-fomenting we’re living with right now. It’s not rational, but it definitely gets a great number of hits on the social media replay.
So we’re stoked on terror and we stay glued. But is that all that’s going on? I think the fear around ISIS (a Middle Eastern horror) and Ebola (a West African horror) and our Mexican border (where human beings are trying to work, migrate and find better homes for their children) is not about ISIS and Ebola, it’s about racism. We can’t argue against immigration reform with integrity, because most of us are decedents of immigrants from the past 100 years, so we need to come up with another way to keep Americans from trusting our neighbors from the South (yet interestingly never are concerned about our White neighbors from the North.)
Just a few months back we had an influx of children fleeing gang violence, trying to find a home in the US and the same media outlets were espousing fake stories about how safe it really was for children there. We can know this is factually untrue if we just think about ourselves. If you’re a parent, could you imagine risking your family’s life, crossing through a killing desert with your family, just to drop your child off somewhere else? And not doing that for any other reason than it’s just simply THAT bad back home? And factually speaking, we actually do know there’s significant violence from gang and drug cartels in Central American countries despite what some politicians will openly lie about. Tragically, these lies about what’s actually going on in Central America rarely get fact-checked live on air so the lies perpetuate. In the US, we call all that gang violence, part of the War on Drugs, yet we’ll pretend it’s not happening when we have kids show up on our doorstep asking for help.
When did we give up being the nation that welcomed the wretched, tired and poor upon our teeming shores? Now we imagine they are terrorists armed with viruses (that can only infect us through intimate contact.) We are in a state of perpetual war, and have shut our borders and imagined that every entry (from countries with people of color) are imminent threats to our safety and health. That we’re a religious (or Christian) nation that can also ignore the pain and suffering of foreign nations wracked with illness – as if caring for the suffering weren’t a religious value. Ignoring the strife and illness in other nations, when they’re asking for help, doesn’t develop allies. It only seeds chaos and nurtures future unrest, that we know from history, often leads to more violence. It’s not a wise a path. It’s not a compassionate path. And it’s not a patriotic path to ignore people in need asking for help. We are more than that.
If we continue to choose to live in a state of perpetual fear and isolation, we will continue to live in a state of war and perpetual ignorance. At a time in our nation where our senior leadership no longer looks white, and our national definition of what is considered normal regarding sexual morals has become more expansive and affirming, we are seeing a knee jerk reaction against anything that appears different from the 1950s standard of normal. We’re also inventing bogeymen where they don’t exist. Or importing real threats to locations where they don’t exist (like Mexico), demographics just happen to neatly match our fears around difference. An individual can go to therapy to deal with this – and that’s good – a nation can’t construct foreign policy based upon it, though. Unless we want to perpetuate the cycles of violence we have lived with for generations.
When we live in the knee-jerk space that is our ethics of “us over them” in all ways, we remain in a place of suffering. Or maybe I should say we create a place of suffering. There’s a difference between putting ourselves at risk and imagining fantastical risks that we need to defend ourselves from. When we live from the place of imagination-as-fear we replace all our creativity with loss and sorrow. Safety isn’t worth that. And I’m not sure the idolatry of safety is even realized when we respond to fantastical imaginations. We’re not safer by protecting ourselves from non-existant threats. We just utter politically correct non-sense that other leaders fear arguing with for worry of coming across as weak on security.
There’s a really excellent opinion piece on Bill Moyer’s blog that goes into all the bit-by-bit construction of our perpetual state of terror that I strongly recommend we all read. It’ll be linked here on the sermon online if you have the time to read it. But one quote that sums it up well is:
“In this context, perhaps we should think of the puffing up of an ugly but limited reality into an all-encompassing, eternally “imminent” threat to our way of life as the final chapter in the demobilization of the American people. Terror-phobia, after all, leaves you feeling helpless and in need of protection. The only reasonable response to it is support for whatever actions your government takes to keep you “safe.””
I’m not sure I’m willing to be so cynical that the government is systematically taking all these steps to fool the population into complacency. I personally feel it’s more the combination of “terror-selling-news” mixed with politicians remaining “politically correct” on the talking point of security for fear of losing an election over it. But I do agree with the author of that quote that terror-phobia leaves us feeling helpless. If we remain a helpless people for too long, what is the cost on our culture and our nation? How much do we choose to live in a state of terror?
Living in NYC for 10 years post 9/11 (and living the prior 10 years a few miles west of the City), I remember the day we began seeing military, with assault weapons, guard Penn Station. I remember being more afraid of those guns than the idea of terrorists. I remember being more afraid of living in a city that had people walking around with assault weapons, than I was taking my first flight after 9/11. I have friends and family in the military, friends in the police, FBI and secret service. I have always trusted their competence and their ability to keep serious threats off our borders. Mistakes can happen, but considering their remarkable track record on our nation’s ground for the past 200+ years, we can say it’s not commonplace, although sometimes tragic when they occur. Placing assault weapons in our transit hubs, when there’s never been a case where that was ever needed – they certainly wouldn’t have helped on the planes 13 years ago – only serves to get us used to living in a state of perpetual war. They’re a marker, a sign. Politically, they make us think we’re safer, but think about it, would you ever want to be near one – in a very crowded Penn Station – should they ever be put to use. If it gets that far, we have a much bigger problem. Friends, unless you are or you have a close family member or friend who is actively serving, it’s hard not to become numb to our state of perpetual terror and war. What we’ve accepted as normal, is changing our national identity.
As a religious people, we hear truth in the words from our choir song this morning. They relate to the teachings of St. Francis – they pray that we understand rather than be understood. That we actively care for others first rather than seek to be cared for first. It’s not always and only about us – and it is certainly not about our imagined fears. When we react to the world as if it were really only about our imagined fears, we remain locked into generations of violence, rather than seeking creative ways to improve our situation and the lot of others. That’s how things have been, it’s not how things must continue to be. Our perpetual choices to close our borders are not real – interestingly only on the borders that would welcome people of color – and to fantastically create links between obscurely rare viral illnesses with terrorists from the other side of the planet, speaks more about us than reality.
For as the prayer goes: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is injury, help me to pardon.” We have abandoned public discourse to arguments of the inherent permanence of terror. We allow ourselves only to be instruments of war. Knowing that our military use of drone strikes in civilian areas has significant civilian casualties, we can confidently say that our actions make it easier for terrorists groups to bring in new members. Terror breeds terror. And our hands are bloody over civilian deaths.
We begin by bringing love to places of suffering rather than arming rebel groups who will become our next enemy in a generation. We begin by traveling to places of suffering, like West Africa, and helping to treat outbreaks of Ebola before governments become destabilized and we have yet another hot bed of civil war that often creates new terrorist cells. We welcome the tired and weary who come to our borders and help their children find places of safety, rather than send them back to be easy victims for cartels or easy targets for new recruits. If a family wants to come to the safety of our shores and contribute to the American Dream, we let them. We don’t send them back to a nightmare. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is darkness, let me bring light. Where there is sorrow, let me bring joy.”
Let us return to our story this morning, remembering the words of Mr. Rogers’ mother in the face of tragedy, “to look for the helpers amidst the tragedy. There are always helpers.” This is one of the fundamental messages of Mr. Rogers’ formative years, which helped to shape the character of his public ministry. If there was ever a more universally beloved figure among my generation and the generation before mine, I could not think of one more trusted. What happens to our spirit, as a nation, when we so carelessly toss aside such wisdom? Look to helpers. Can we find them among ourselves?