Symposium Introduction

Ebola is a rare and deadly viral disease that has infected over 19,500 people and is responsible for over 7,500 deaths worldwide. Nevertheless, its relevance for theology today is not readily apparent. The impetus for this panel is that the task of theology “after” Ebola is to surface this relevance and to make a case about what theology ought to do now. What theological issues are brought to life by the global experience of Ebola? What about this experience has anything to do with faith communities and their task of speaking well of God? Of course, the concern over Ebola in the United States was never just about the disease itself, but rather has become a flashpoint for a discourse on race and global affairs more generally, especially when set in relief against the military conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the genocidal assault on ethnic Yazidis in Kurdistan by ISIL, and the boiling anger over social injustice and racial discrimination represented in the protest and resistance efforts in Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere. If theology desires to engage the materialist struggle by human persons in the world today, it must have something to say about Ebola, about what it tells us about the contemporary contours of the human predicament, and ideas about what our collective endeavors should be in the face of this devastating disease. Our panelists propose that it should raise questions about social responsibility, about health care disparities in the Global South, about the legacy of colonialist power, and about our lingering, but silent, cultural anxieties over the relation of race to disease, purity, and cleanliness.

Silas Morgan
About Silas Morgan, author of
"Theology after Ebola"
Jeff Levin

Response

Ebola: Epidemiology’s Challenge to Theology

LET ME START by saying that I am honored to be invited to contribute to this forum. In the interest of honest disclosure, I am not a theologian. My sole academic credential in this area is an undergraduate degree in religion from Duke. Rather, I am an epidemiologist, and have focused my work over the past thirty years on researching and writing about the broad intersection between medicine and religion. For this reason, I suspect, I have been invited to weigh in here.

But, first, some housekeeping: Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever, one of several that are known to cause disease in humans, also including Marburg, Lassa, and Crimean-Congo. These diseases are typically zoonotic—they reside in animal reservoirs—and secondary (person-to-person) transmission among human hosts is generally through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, either directly or via contact with fomites (contaminated items). They are caused by a variety of RNA viruses from different families (several species of ebolavirus are in the EBOV genus of the Filoviridae family), and they produce a wide spectrum of signs and symptoms, typified by high fever, hypotension/shock, multi-organ dysfunction, and bleeding diathesis (hemorrhaging). There have been several outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF; a.k.a. Ebola virus disease, or EVD) since the first reported epidemic in Central Africa in 1976. These also have occurred in Central Africa and were characterized by severe human suffering and case fatality rates as high as 90 percent.1 The scope of this suffering, in number of victims and in rapid physical deterioration, as described in news stories, popular books, and fictionalized movies, has contributed to the horrifying images evoked by the word “Ebola.”

Contrary to these accounts, EVD is not the most virulent disease out there nor is it the worst global disease threat that we face. It is not even the most lethal disease threat among adults in sub-Saharan Africa—malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS are the sources of the greatest morbidity and mortality, by orders of magnitude, and, worldwide, the threat of pandemic influenza is what keeps epidemiologists up at night. But the current inability to contain the spread of EVD in West Africa coupled with the severity of what is perceived as the typical case presentation have made this a frightening threat to the world’s population in many eyes, a candidate for a truly population-thinning event, a la the medieval plagues or the 1918 influenza pandemic. An additional threat to population-health and well-being—perhaps a more serious threat—has been the construction of public discourse surrounding EVD, particularly during the latest West African outbreak.

Several months ago, when the epidemic first became recognized, I began seeing news stories that disconcertingly minimized the threat of Ebola on the grounds that it was contained within a few locations in Africa. It was affecting “them” and not “us.” Apparently, the suffering and dying of hundreds, now thousands, of (dark-skinned) Africans with many more at heightened and immediate risk equated to “not a threat.” But, now, with a small handful of (white) American lives in danger, it has been wall-to-wall news and blog coverage featuring end-of-the-world headlines warning of the demise of civilization, ignorant xenophobic rants by public figures, and a proliferation of bizarre conspiracy theories.

Epidemiologically, this overwrought response is unjustified. This is not, of course, to downplay the potential threats to individual lives here in the U.S. if preventive protocols are breached. This is true for many ever-present communicable disease threats. But the contrast between the relative neglect and downplaying of suffering across the ocean, so long as it was contained to faceless others, and the narcissistic explosion of the past few weeks here in this country is striking. I have been asked several times recently by concerned non-scientist colleagues to describe the likelihood that their lives are in substantial danger or that the current crisis will evolve quickly into a population-threatening catastrophe in the U.S. My answer, not to be glib, is that on a scale of zero to 100 the likelihood is about zero.

Yet, in parts of West Africa the catastrophe has already arrived, and an even greater apocalypse is looming. My jaundiced prognosis at the time of this writing (October, 2014): as the current crisis in the U.S. abates in the coming weeks, replaced by some other juicy story-du-jour (a naked celebrity? a political scandal?), public attention will fade, just as the situation in West Africa reaches critical mass. We will then be back to where we were initially: lots of suffering and dying Africans and not much emotional investment here in the U.S. That misreadings of concepts and data originating in my own obscure corner of the scientific world—epidemiology—are being used to further this mis-response is personally sick-making to me.

There is an opportunity here for faith communities to step up and become vocal prophetic witnesses to the shared humanity of all sufferers. By prophetic, I mean this term in its authentic connotation: as a force that calls people out of sin, in this instance out of grievous complacency and arrogance and hubris and self-obsession. We ignore the plight of the Other—who is at extreme risk; actually beyond mere “risk” at this point—while practically losing our minds over our own presumed risk, which is minimal. Moreover, we fail to recognize that the Other, in its geographic, ethnic, religious, and political construction, is not a meaningful biological construct, and epidemiologically is an unsupportable category. As has been stated many times by many public health leaders over the years, transmissible pathogens do not recognize national boundaries or political status. It behooves us to care about the suffering among West Africans with at least as much emotional energy as we have invested into the panic associated with an overwhelmingly non-suffering American population. We are them and they are us, biologically speaking, and if we continue to drop the ball and the incidence of EVD grows exponentially and spreads throughout West Africa and beyond, then we may indeed come to experience more of a burden of morbidity in this country than we do now.

A challenge for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Americans is to live up to their truest core charge as followers of the three great Abrahamic religions. For Jews, this is to pursue “justice, justice” in the cause of tikkun olam (repair of the world), so that all may thrive (Deut. 16:20). For Christians, it is to pick up the cross (Matt. 16:24) and walk in the same manner as Jesus (I John 2:6), serving as agents of compassion and healing (Matt. 9:35–36). For Muslims, it is to live by islam (submission to God), exemplified by righteous deeds and meeting obligations of zakah (charity) to all those in need (Qur’an 2.277). For none of us is the charge to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to suffering.

How did we get here? How did a public health crisis become reconstructed into an eschatological event in the U.S. conflated, it seems, with other panics related to immigration and terrorism? In the public mind—if innumerable websites and blogs and news sources and social media are an indication—the ISIS beheadings, Central Americans crossing our southern border, and the threat of EVD all seem to have been mashed up together into a sort of singularly and nefariously connected über-mega-crisis that threatens our continuity as a society (and conveniently in time for the fall elections). I am not qualified to comment on terrorism or on immigration policy, but I can speak to the human experience with disease and I can say, with assurance, that the conflation and confounding of Ebola with these other threats does nobody any favors and only impedes the public health response. People of faith—promoters of eternal truth and divine justice—ought to be at the vanguard of resistance to this kind of overreaction and misattribution.

As a scientist, I am not the best person to ask to identify the precise challenges that the current EVD outbreak presents to theology, the theme of this symposium. But I can suggest how theological discourse can contribute to our collectively meeting the challenge of the present crisis. To begin, I think that the theological community can help all of us to become better aware of the historical precedent for the distressing public responses that we are witnessing today. Theologians and religious historians can remind us that objectification of the Other, typically on religious and social-class grounds, is an American tradition.

Think of Roman Catholic immigrants in the Nineteenth Century, notably from Ireland and Italy; working class Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe in the early Twentieth Century; and Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia in recent years. We ought to be more familiar with the unfortunate public images that accompanied these influxes of new Americans: filthy, ignorant hordes of swarthy people with wicked (un-Christian) beliefs and practices, posing an immediate threat to the public’s health, physical and moral. I am reminded of all this whenever I tune into the current public discourse on West Africans (and Mexicans and Central Americans—another story), with its deep and heated opprobrium directed to groups of people who are already suffering under the twin burdens of a terrifying disease and ongoing political dysfunction or oppression.

I am also reminded of the terrible social exclusion experienced by early AIDS sufferers in the middle 1980s. This cultural quarantine was predicated on the shameful presumption that something intrinsic to the character of suffering patients was culpable, etiologically, for their disease state. With so many infectious and chronic diseases, and this is well known to all epidemiologists, there is indeed a non-biological component in susceptibility and transmission. Specifically, a pronounced social-class gradient in morbidity, mortality, and case fatality has been identifiable for 200 years, for as long as there have been reliable population-health statistics.2 Population rates of disease and death are inversely associated with income, educational attainment, occupational status, and composite indices of social class. The greatest determinant of health (or non-health) of populations is poverty status—this is as close to a Durkheimian “social fact’ as epidemiology and public health have ever mustered. I suspect this will turn out to be the case for EVD as well.

The humanitarian and physician Paul Farmer has spoken of the “terrorism of poverty.” He recently asserted that “the fact is that weak health systems, not unprecedented virulence or a previously unknown mode of transmission, are to blame for Ebola’s rapid spread. . . . An Ebola diagnosis need not be a death sentence.”3 EVD is a problem in those parts of the world lacking adequate healthcare resources, including hospitals, clinics, medicines, equipment, and physicians, nurses, and other medical care personnel. It is thus difficult to envision that we here in the U.S. are at risk remotely comparable, for example, to the people of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Moreover, if those nations experiencing the brunt of the current disaster had sufficient resources or better access to Western resources, Farmer believes, case fatality would fall below ten percent.

Closing our borders to and withholding our assistance from those souls suffering overseas from EVD is thus the worst possible response to this crisis. It is cowardly, ungodly, and immoral, and is the most effective way to exacerbate and prolong the crisis. Shame on all the public figures and elected officials whose grandstanding is promoting such noxious ideas. Ditto to the impediments placed before selfless aid workers and medical missionaries, including excessive quarantines, which will discourage further assistance. There may be all sorts of reasons to endorse such reactionary approaches, for reasons of political calculus that are beyond my pay grade, but the persistent meme that distancing ourselves from our sick sisters and brothers is required in order to protect and preserve our own health is indeed “sick.” We, as a nation, ought to do better than that.

We must strive to ensure that our public discourse on this terrible disease does not continue to marginalize the Other. Theologians cannot afford to be complicit in this, and ought to lead the way in calling this out for what it is: sin. These words seem trite and cliché to me: I cannot believe that I am writing them, or have to. But I am compelled to, because collectively we have not seemed to get the message. As a result, for all of us, as a nation, a public health crisis across the ocean has become a moral crisis for us here. Public health is rarely just about public health: it is often about social justice and human rights, and the present situation with Ebola exemplifies this. To an emerging generation of theological scholars looking for a cause worthy of their engagement, I would say this: your prophetic moment has arrived.

Our sacred writings demand that we do not look away. The God of the Hebrew Bible seems pretty clear on this point: we are to love the Other, because we were once the Other (Deut. 10:19). To draw on my own religious tradition, we Jews place a premium on praxis—specific religious beliefs or good intentions or Torah knowledge are of minimal consequence if they do not lead to ethical action.4 Orthopraxy here is the ideal, less so orthodoxy. Further, this orthopraxy is best realized through actions that prevent or relieve the suffering of others, including the Other. For us, all theology is moral theology. For all people of the Book, our theologies and creeds and beliefs serve us best when they are able to motivate actions in us that mimic the very grace that God shows us when we are witness to God’s abiding love for us.

The appropriate response of Americans to the Ebola crisis overseas is to become agents of grace and, thus, agents of healing. This is how we can be truest to the traditions of faith that presumably inform our collective identity. This is also how we can make the surest and greatest and most immediate contribution to the public health crisis that we are facing.


  1. Thomas W. Geisbert, “Marburg and Eobal Hemorrhagic Fevers (Filoviruses),” in Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 8th ed., edited by John E. Bennett, Raphael Dolin, and Martin J. Blaser (Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders, 2015), 1995–999. See also “Ebola-Marburg Viral Diseases,” in Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, 19th ed., edited by David L. Heymann (Washington, DC: American Public Health Association, 2008), 204–07.

  2. A social-class gradient in mortality in England and Wales was first identified publicly by William Farr in his letters appended to the annual Registrar General’s reports, beginning in the 1830s. See M. Whitehead, “William Farr’s Legacy to the Study of Inequalities in Health,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 78 (2000) 86–87. But a case could be made that identification of a gradient goes back as far as John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations Mentioned in a following Index, and made upon the Bills of Mortality (London: Tho. Roycraft for John Martin, James Allestry & Tho. Dicas, 1662).

  3. Paul Farmer, “Diary,” London Review of Books 36/20 (October 23, 2014) 38–39. http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.lrb.co.uk/v36/n20/paul-farmer/diary.

  4. For more on this theme, see Jeff Levin, Upon These Three Things: Jewish Perspectives on Loving God (Waco, TX: ISR Books, 2014).

Victor Ezigbo

Response

“Theology After Ebola?”

Human Life and Social Responsibility

THE MAIN THEME OF this symposium merits some clarifying comments. The word “after” poses a serious problem for the theologian. For example, if the word is used in an adverbial sense (i.e., as subsequent to), then, having a theological discussion about Ebola now is irrelevant since this dreadful and infectious disease is still rampaging in Liberia, Sierra Leon, and Guinea. However, taking the word “after” in a prepositional sense (i.e., as in pursuit of) offers a better prospect than the adverbial sense. We can theologize as one way of engaging the ongoing devastation in Africa caused by Ebola.

One may ask: what on earth does theology have to do with Ebola? Theologians may respond to this question from two perspectives. First, theologians with enough doses of sociology and anthropology may be interested to investigate how the discourse on God and religious beliefs (such as faith–healing) and rituals (such as burial practices) contribute to the spread of Ebola in Africa and also shape how people in the affected communities are dealing with the losses accrued as a result of the disease. The second perspective, from which theologians may respond to the issue of “theology’s” relevance to Ebola, is to ask: what sort of theological issues does the present spread of Ebola address to theologians? This question draws one’s attention to whether preventable infectious diseases raise issues that should be of concern to Christian theologians. To put the question pointedly, can Christian theology offer a relevant theological correction for the praxis of naming, preventing, managing, and curing infectious diseases? I argue that the recent unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in some countries in West Africa since March 2014 has raised two issues that should concern Christian theologians, namely, worthiness of human life and social responsibility.

I. The Issue of the Worthiness of Human life

Seeing the littered corpses of the victims of Ebola in the streets left at the mercy of scavenging dogs causes me to ponder the worthiness of human life. Can we look at the corpses ravaged by Ebola and truly say: “these are indeed God’s image bearers”? One of the theological implications of the Christian teaching on the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that God values human life. This understanding of the resurrection of Christ perhaps led Jürgen Moltmann to argue that Christians and people of other religions should engage in “a common struggle for life, for loved and loving life, for life that communicates itself and is shared, life that is human and natural—in short, life that is worth living in the fruitful living space of this earth.”1 Life, in this context, should be understood as “fruitfulness and abundance, longevity, communal flourishing, and individual well-being.”2 But infectious diseases (such as Ebola) make human life meaningless, not worth living. Such diseases remind us of the risk of dissolution of the being and meaning of human beings. The Christian principle of existing “in the world but not of the world” does not entail renouncing all involvements in the affairs of the world but rather renouncing the agencies of the world that make human life unworthy of living. The principle invokes a dialectic social ethic that requires social actions in this world. Such social actions should be governed by self–giving, which includes devoting one’s intellectual resources, donating money and materials, and risking one’s comfort in order to preserve and make human life worth living. The issue is not merely providing help to the victims of Ebola but rather a deeper task of making our societies uninhabitable for poverty, social inequality, and other agencies that make human life unworthy of living.

II. The Issue of Social Responsibility

As an African—one born and raised in an African country—I lament the glaring state of social inequality in many African countries. To describe Africa as a “poor continent” without some qualifications is deeply misleading. Only one who has not visited some of the major towns and cities in Africa can give such simplistic assessment. In Africa, many government officials, church leaders, and business people have private jets, own several mansions, send their children to expensive private schools in Europe and North America, and own numerous luxury cars—a form of lifestyle that many people living in Europe and North America cannot afford. If find myself often asking: at what “cost” do these people afford such exorbitant lifestyles? Are the non–existence of good roads, good hospitals, failing education systems, and the absence of protection of life and property in many African communities the costs of such lifestyles? These questions are too complicated to answer in a short essay. But raising them should remind Christian theologians to actively participate in holding accountable those who have access and control the wealth and resources in Africa, ensuring they use the resources to tackle the problems of social inequality, poverty, sufferings, poor health, and infectious diseases. For African Christians not to engage in this social responsibility is to betray the genius of the Christian gospel. The point I am making is that African people must shoulder the responsibility of addressing the structures that make it possible for the spread of preventable infectious diseases such as Ebola in their own nations. Taking a stand (in the forms of intellectual critique, protest, etc.) against social inequality, asymmetrical constellation of resources (some of which are acquired through illegal means), and corruption must be a primary concern to churches in Africa. As the former President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, argues, the church must rebel “against the social structures [that] condemn [people] to poverty, humiliation, and degradation.”3 African Christians must think really hard about the ways in which they are implicated in corruption in their communities.

Turning now to the issue of global social responsibly, I commend local and international response teams, especially those who have died fighting Ebola. But do the countries that are not directly affected by Ebola have the responsibility to act sacrificially to halt the spread of the disease, to cure it (when plausible), and to prevent its future occurrence? On October 20, CNN columnist, John D. Stutter, described the world’s response to the Ebola epidemic as a “tragedy.” Stutter’s frustration is justified. He noted that Liberia, one of the affected countries, requested for 2.4 million boxes of protective gloves but received only 18,000 boxes.4 Discussions about global social responsibility are too complex to explore within the confines of this short essay. Yet Christian theologians cannot successfully avoid it if they are really serious about exploring the question the Ebola epidemic addresses to them.

Christian theologies of divine providence and theological anthropology supply theological “reasons” for addressing the issues of global social responsibility of humans to and for humanity’s struggles against evils, sufferings, and diseases. If, as the vast majority of Christians believe, human beings are God’s image-bearers, and that God summons humans to join in re-making a fallen creation, gradually redeeming it of its decay and sufferings, it follows that Christians should not get involved in attacking the Ebola epidemic primarily for selfish reasons (such as to avoid disastrous global economic impact or preventing the disease from spreading to their own countries). On the contrary, they must do so as a moral duty, as an act of participating in God’s providential work in the world. If Jesus Christ embodied and exemplified God’s providential act in his healing of the sick, Christians as followers of Christ, have the moral duty to proclaim him as God’s good news to world by continuing in his work of providing for the poor, healing the sick, and comforting those that are broken–hearted.

Proclaiming Jesus as God’s good news to world requires asking serious questions about how and where we are using our resources, what we are doing to tackle human sufferings, and what we are doing about preventing future sufferings that are avoidable. For example, Christians have the social responsibility to participate in the public discourse on the production and accumulation of weapons of mass destruction (such as biological ammunitions like the Ebola virus and its cognates), which are sometimes justified by with the rhetoric of “deterrence.” I cannot fathom why it is difficult for countries of the world to raise $1 billion requested by the UN to fight Ebola and yet this amount is insignificant when compared to the figures some countries spend in developing and maintaining weapons of mass destruction.


  1. Jürgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! Gods Future for Humanity and the Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 77.

  2. Kathryn Tanner, “Eschatology with a Future?,” in The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology, edited by John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 226.

  3. Julius Nyerere, “The Christian Rebellion,” in African Christian Spirituality, edited by Aylward Shorter (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1980), 82–83.

  4. John D. Stutter, “Where is the Empathy for Ebola’s African Victims?” http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/17/opinion/sutter-ebola-empathy/index.html?hpt=iaf_r1. Accessed on October 30, 2014.

Michael McCarthy

Response

Ebola, Medical Research, and the Christian University

Introduction

THOMAS ERIC DUNCAN, a forty-two-year-old Liberian man visiting relatives in Dallas, Texas, twice presented at a local emergency room and was eventually admitted to the Intensive Care unit with a high fever, weakness, and abdominal pain. He had recently, and unknowingly, been exposed to the Ebola virus while assisting a pregnant neighbor to the hospital. She was spontaneously bleeding, which was thought to be a complication of her pregnancy. After she was turned away due to limited space, Duncan, the woman, and her father returned home. It remains unclear whether they suspected Ebola was suspected to be the cause of her bleeding. She died later the same day, September 15. On September 19, Mr. Duncan flew from Liberia to Dallas. He was asymptomatic until September 25. On that day, he presented at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. He too was sent home. He returned four days later, highly contagious with increasingly worsening symptoms. After a blood test, it was confirmed on September 30 that he had Ebola, fifteen days after his initial exposure. He died on October 8. To date, Mr. Duncan has been the only victim of the virus to die on U.S. soil.

Mr. Duncan’s story highlights the complicated reality of the Ebola virus. In his story, one hears of man who was willing to help others and of a healthcare system with limited resources. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the disease has killed 6,346 people to date. All but fifteen of those deaths have occurred in three countries: Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.1 The epidemic has spurred conversations about access to health care and the importance of public health infrastructure. However, it also raises the issue of underfunding medical research on diseases that affect poor and vulnerable populations, i.e. those whom comprise the majority of the world’s population.

The majority of people in the world live in poverty, with two-thirds living on less than $2 a day. 93 percent of those who die from preventable disease come from low-income countries, but only 5 percent of research is devoted specifically to addressing health problems related to these preventable diseases.2 Paul Farmer and Maura Ryan in particular have challenged universities to directly address this disparity in research with limited success.3 I want to propose that Christian universities bear a unique responsibility to take up this challenge on both socio-ethical and theological grounds. Christian universities should continue the message of Jesus in history, not only by reflecting on a socio-historical reality in which over two-thirds of the world lack access to effective health care or public health infrastructures, but also to focus their efforts to rectify the paucity of medical research targeting the health burdens of the poor majority.

The Horizon of the Poor Majority

Liberation theologians have pointed to the theological significance of the poor majority, whose suffering continues to reveal the crucified Christ in history. Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino both draw on the image of Isaiah’s suffering servant as symbolic of a community’s witness to and bearing of historical suffering: suffering caused by human freedom to sin. The suffering servant, “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases . . . wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Is 53:4–5). This same suffering figure, at times referred to as both an individual and collective, serves as a light to the nations “that [God’s] salvation may reach the end of the earth” (Is 42:6, 49:6).4 Jesus’ suffering and death does not supersede the suffering servant, but rather continues the story of God’s revelation in and through those who suffer, and so emerges as the source of the Christian narrative through whom God comes to be known most fully. Ellacuría and Sobrino note the historical suffering of the majority of the world today function as an historical sign of Jesus’ continued crucifixion in history. The “crucified people” represent the result of the deliberate choice and freedom for human beings to choose against God. “This crucifixion results from historical decisions, actions, traditions, and structures and represents, in Ellacuría’s view, the most urgent and theologically dense of all the contemporary signs of the times.”5 Yet, it is not the crucifixion of Jesus or his people that have the final say, but rather the resurrection.

The resurrection is not a call to complacency, but one of action to participate in God’s Kingdom now.6 Thus, the Christian university insofar as it continues to participate in God’s Kingdom is called to recognize and assist in the alleviation of the suffering of others, “taking the crucified people from their cross.”7 This is not an ahistorical task, but one to be embodied in history, and one that ought to permeate the tasks of the university’s teaching, service, and research.

Research and Social Projection

Christian universities participate in Christ’s resurrection, insofar as they take-up historical actions that reflect reality through social projection. The socio-ethical task of social projection goes against the “ivory tower” or disengaged notion of the university, arguing that university activity should transform the injustices within the social context in which it exists. “Social projection understands itself here as a function that puts the totality of the university, although through its parts, in direct relationship with social forces and processes.”8 While each of the parts of the university—departments, academic disciplines, students, etc.—have their particular roles to play, the way in which each of these roles should most effectively be carried out is with knowledge of, and relationships with, those persons and institutions outside of the university itself and in the community in which it operates. In this way, the tasks of the university reflect the needs and concerns facing the reality of the poor majority. David Gandolfo comments that the university as social projection must insert itself effectively in society and recognize its responsibility to allow the needs of society to penetrate and permeate the university “determining its curriculum and research agendas.”9 Insofar as the university projects reality on to reality, then the work of the university should be reflective (i.e., the intake of data for processing, etc) and projective (i.e., identifying solutions, critiques, and necessary resources to transform the immediate unjust reality). Thus, the function of social projection for research is to take up questions and investigations that reflect and project the social situation.

Ebola and Social Projection

All but fifteen of the global deaths from Ebola can be localized to three West African countries. This is not only a health crisis, it is a dehumanizing problem that necessitates historicization. To historicize medical research is to critically examine priorities for research that have historically, either intentionally or circumstantially, overlooked research that is aimed at benefiting the majority of humanity: the poor, to be more specific. To historicize research requires a critical turn to unmask the structures that allow for such gross disparity in disease burden and to explore what role increased research can play in altering this injustice. For universities engaged in medical research, this task proves even more challenging given the limited control they have over available grants and funding for investigations given the partnerships that have developed between academia and industry driven research.10 However, if the mission of medical research at the Christian university is rooted in social projection, then the Ebola crisis offers an opportunity to critically examine the structures that have created this disparity in research.

For all of the talk that has taken place in the U.S. about the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, certain illuminating aspects of his story have been ignored. As was chronicled in Paul Farmer’s Ebola diary and a recent America magazine article, Ebola is about social and economic challenges, a lack of medical care, and a lack of treatments for the disease.11 The death of Mr. Duncan is easily contrasted with the care of his two of his treating nurses, Ms. Pham and Ms. Vinson, both of whom contracted the disease in the U.S. Upon presenting with symptoms, both were treated and given immediate care and proper precautions—including the quarantining of Ms. Pham’s dog—were put into place. The response was immediate: a systematic health care response was in place, public health precautions were taken, and the treatment was delivered quickly and effectively. In Liberia, however, a few dozen physicians are responsible for the 4.2 million people. While research alone will not fix the Ebola epidemic, it shines a light on the fact that a disease like Ebola that disproportionately affects the poor majority has gone largely ignored from a medical research perspective. Rather than participating in research structures that perpetuate the widening disparities between the “winners [and “losers”] in the global era,” Christian universities should reflect and transform the dearth of research focused on quicker diagnostics and treatments—including vaccinations—for diseases like Ebola.12

Conclusion: The Humanization of Medical Research

Following the liberation theological perspective of Ellacuria, “socially projected” medical research, like the social projection of the university, establishes its research priorities based on the immediate needs of the community.13 It is the place of the poor—understood as the socially, economically, and biologically disadvantaged, i.e. those that die before their time—as the place from which medical research ought to focus. Medical research, at its most fundamental level, is about the promotion of human health and improving the lives of those who are unable to participate fully as human beings in the just-ordering of reality. From a Christian perspective, medical research ought to prioritize research that targets those forgotten in the current research agenda. By narrowing the focus of this research agenda, Christian universities will have to look for new partners outside of the usual funding sources for research and explore relationships with private investors, e.g. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Clinton Foundation, etc. The universities should explore collaborative partnerships with other mission-based institutions that know the needs and realities of the communities with whom they work. Finally, it will be necessary to reconsider the hiring practices for medical researchers that emphasize not only their intellectual capacity but the commitment to and capacity for work within the institution’s mission. Research that does not at least offer the possibility of realistically improving the health of the majority of humanity is research that fails to meet the standard of the Christian university. While the Ebola victims in West Africa continue to bear the burden of disease, they also shine a light on where the focus of research at the Christian university ought to be placed.


  1. “2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa—Case Counts” Center for Disease Control, accessed December 9, 2014, http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/2014-west-africa/case-counts.html.

  2. Report of the Consultative Expert Working Group on Research and Development: Financing and Coordination, Research and Development to Meet Health Needs in Developing Countries: Strengthening Global Financing and Coordination, by John-Arne Rottingen (Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2012), 32.

  3. Paul Farmer and Nicole Gastineau Campos. “Rethinking Medical Ethics: A View from Below,” Developing World Bioethics 4, no. 1 (2004), 17–41; Maura Ryan, “Health and Human Rights.” Theological Studies 69, no. 1 (2008), 144–63.

  4. Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological View (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 261.

  5. Kevin F. Burke, The Ground Beneath the Cross: The Theology of Ignacio Ellacuría (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000), 181.

  6. Jon Sobrino, Christ the Liberator (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 13.

  7. Jon Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994).

  8. Ignacio Ellacuría, “Universidad Y Política,” in Escritos Universitarios (San Salvador, El Salvador: UCA Editores, 1999), 186. Por proyección social se entiende aquí aquella función que pone a la universidad como totalidad, aunque a través de su parte, en relacion directa con las fuerzas y los procesos sociales.

  9. David Gandolfo, “A Different Kind of University within the University: Ellacuría’s Model within the United States,” in J. Matthew Ashley, Kevin F. Burke, SJ, and Rodolfo Cardinal, SJ, eds., A Grammar of Justice: the Legacy of Ignacio Ellacuría Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2014).

  10. M. Rao, “Public Private Partnerships: A Marriage of Necessity,” Cell Stem Cell 12, no. 2 (2013).

  11. Paul Farmer, “Ebola”, London Review of Books, 36, no. 20 (2014) 38–39, accessed: November 3, 2014, http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.lrb.co.uk/v36/n20/paul-farmer/diary. Michael Rozier, S.J., “The Real Story About Ebola,” America Magazine, 211, no. 15 (2014), 27–29, accessed, November 3, 2014, http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.americamagazine.org/real-story-about-ebola.

  12. Paul Farmer, Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 226.

  13. While Ellacuría anticipated, perhaps sooner than others, the globalized world in which the university operates, the “community” in which research is conducted necessarily includes the institutions immediate and local community. However, given the internationalization of university collaborators, this “community-based” approach would necessarily include the social projection of the local and global community, as applicable.

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