The Briefing 08-07-14

The Briefing 08-07-14

 The Briefing


August 7, 2014

 This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, August 7, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is the Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Treatment of Ebola brings a morality of personal autonomy into conflict with a plague

In an ominous development late last night, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued its highest level alert for a response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, even as reports came in indicating that the crisis may now not be limited to West Africa. Late yesterday, Center for Disease Control Chief Tom Frieden said, “Ops Center moved to Level 1 response given the extension to Nigeria and the potential to affect many lives.”

He made that statement on Twitter.

According to Doug Stanglin of USA Today, Level I means that increased staff and resources will be devoted to the outbreak.  He also said it is the first time the agency has invoked its highest level alert since 2009, then over a flu outbreak.  Meanwhile, reports came in indicating that a Nigerian nurse, who had treated the country’s first fatality from Ebola two weeks ago, has herself now died from the virus that has claimed 932 lives, as of last night, in the latest outbreak.

To put this into perspective, Ebola has been recognized as a disease since its first outbreak was identified 40 years ago.  Over all of that time, if you take all the fatalities from the disease, at this point, over one third of the fatalities caused by Ebola have occurred in the most recent outbreak, and at that point, limited to three West African nations. Health authorities in Nigeria have said that five other Nigerian health workers, who also had treated AIDS patients, have been diagnosed with the disease.  One American, Patrick Sawyer, a financial expert who was of Liberian descent, who lives in Minnesota, died on July 25 arriving in Lagos on a flight from Liberia.  Meanwhile, according to USA Today, a Saudi man being tested for the disease has died in Jeddah.  If indeed it turns out that he died of the disease, it will be the first fatality outside the four now West African countries during the latest outbreak.

The World Health Organization has convened a two-day emergency meeting of its health workers to discuss the crisis in Guinea, Liberia Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.  USA Today also reported that next week the WHO will convene a panel of medical ethicists to explore the use of experimental treatments in the latest outbreak in West Africa, and that leads to a very interesting and important moral debate over the issue of medical treatment and the Ebola virus.

We now know that the two American missionary medical personnel who had been evacuated from West Africa to the United States for medical treatment – Dr. Kent Brantley and his colleague, Nancy Writebol – that both of them had been treated with an experimental and non-approved drug to fight Ebola.  The drug is known as ZMapp. The huge issue of worldview and moral significance is reported on by Laura Seay in The Monkey Cage Column of the Washington Post. She writes,

Monday brought news that to many seemed miraculous: the Americans being treated at Emory seemed to have been revived – and possibly saved – from Ebola thanks to an experimental serum, ZMapp, that was secretly transported to their bedsides in Monrovia. Dr. Kent Brantly, who had sensed that he was in the end stages of Ebola and about to die when he ingested the serum, was so much improved that he was able to walk from his ambulance into Emory with only minimal assistance. Missionary Nancy Writebol’s symptoms also improved, although it took two doses of ZMapp for her to experience improvement, whereas Brantly only required one.

That’s a very interesting setup for the big issue that then comes:

The news of a possible cure for Ebola is heartening, but it left many observers with mixed reactions. Why were Brantly and Writebol the only Ebola patients to receive ZMapp? The optics of the situation were already bad enough: at great expense, two white Americans were whisked away to safety and a level of health care that simply cannot be provided on the fly in a Liberian hospital. The black Liberians they had been treating were left to see whether fate would save or kill them under the same substandard health care system they have always lived under.

She continues,

That what now looks like a miracle cure was only given to the white Americans looks even worse. Why hadn’t anyone reached out to try the serum on Ebola patients sooner, especially if its potential to heal is so promising? Is the world of global public health really so biased toward the privileged that Americans get help while everyone else suffers? If nothing else, can we at least start giving ZMapp to as many Ebola-infected West Africans as possible?

At this point Laura Seay takes us into a very deep worldview consideration, when she deals with the morality of this question.  In a very careful and thoughtful report, she gets to the fact that in United States, medications and medical treatments are allowable only if they have been found to be effective, and thus approved. This comes after a long period of study and experimentation, and it also comes when all of those human subjects involved in the experimentations can give what is defined in the United States as informed consent.  They must know about the potential dangers of the medication or treatment. They must be in a position in which, under no duress or urgency, they are able to make an informed rational choice as to whether or not they want to participate. In most of these medical trials  there are not only those who are given the medical treatment or drug, but also a control group given a placebo in order to measure the distinction between the efficaciousness or effectiveness of the drug or treatment against the placebo.

As it turns out, under the circumstances now operational in West Africa, no one in the United States, committed to the regime of informed consent, believes the people there can give such an informed measure of consent.  Furthermore, Laura Seay also rightly reports that there is no knowledge of the long-term effects of the serum, even though it appeared to have near miraculous results on these two American patients, the reality is no one knows if the drug may be a carcinogen, or if it may lead to dementia years ahead, or any number of other very negative consequences.

But this gets to a big issue in terms of the worldview of the West. The West is now so committed to the ideal of personal autonomy that informed consent is simply taken for granted as a notion of moral significance. But the reality is that almost all of these patients and their loved ones in Africa would be very glad to surrender this notion of personal autonomy. They would be glad to surrender any notion of informed consent in order to have access to what might be and now even appears to be a miracle drug. These are very complicated moral questions.

These two Americans were able to give informed consent not only because they are Americans, but also because they are medical personnel. They were in a much better position to judge whether or not they should take the risk of using the serum. Both did, and at least at this point, to rather remarkable effects.

Laura Seay’s report is a very insightful, detailed, and careful. But the one thing she does not explore is the fact that the American, indeed the Western, affirmation of personal autonomy over virtually any other moral principle now runs into face-to-face conflict with a deadly outbreak, a disease and a contagion. At this point perhaps we need to note that the idea of informed consent does have a very rational basis in Western culture, Western medicine, and in Western law. But when it comes face-to-face with the plague, it’s hard to believe that human autonomy and informed consent are any kind of an even match with the deadly virus and the urgency of questions of life and death.

At this point, even as the CDC announced last night that it is raising its concern to Level 1, it just might be that at least some Americans will come face-to-face with the fact that a morality of personal autonomy is simply not enough.

2) The Great Commission far greater than American nationalism or humanitarianism

And yet from a Christian concern we cannot leave the issue of the Ebola outbreak without turning to another kind of atrocity. In this case the atrocity was an opinion piece published just yesterday by conservative commentator Ann Coulter. She wrote in a piece headlined, “Ebola Doc’s Condition Downgraded to ‘Idiotic’”:

“I wonder how the Ebola doctor feels now that his humanitarian trip has cost a Christian charity much more than any services he rendered. What was the point?” She asked. “Whatever good Kent Brantley did in Liberia has now been overwhelmed by the more than $2 million already paid by the Christian charity Samaritans Purse and SIMUSA to justify him and his nurse home and separate Gulfstream jets specially equipped with medical tents and to care for them at one of America’s premier hospitals.”

Coulter also says, “There is little danger and Ebola plague breaking loose from the treatment of these two Americans at the Emory University Hospital, but why do we have to deal with this at all?”

She then asks these questions; “Why did Dr. Brantley have to go to Africa? The very first risk factor she says listed by the Mayo Clinic for Ebola — an incurable disease with a 90% fatality rate is travel to Africa.” She then asked this question: “Can’t anyone serve Christ in America anymore? No–because we are doing just fine. America, the most powerful influential nation on earth is merely in a pitched battle for its soul.”

At this point we need to note that Ann Coulter’s argument is that this missionary doctor and his nurse colleague should not have gone to Africa in the first place. They should have minded their own business and stayed in the United States. Later in her column she writes:

If Dr. Brantley had practiced at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood powerbroker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything you could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia. Ebola, she writes, kills only the body. The virus of spiritual bankruptcy moral decadence spread by so many Hollywood movies infects the world. If he had provided health care for the uninsured editors, writers, videographers, and pundits in Gotham and managed to open one set of eyes, he would have done more good than marinating himself in medieval diseases of the Third World.”

It is hard to believe she actually wrote this, but she did. And she not only wrote the column, she published it and she continued in it saying:

…Which explains why American Christians go on mission trips to disease ridden cesspools. They’re tired of fighting the culture war in the United States. 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 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 1,000 years of darkness of the entire planet.

She suggests that the efforts of these two Christian missionaries in the United States, these efforts were not heroic, but in her words “idiotic.” She then concluded with words that include these:

Christians need to buck up, serve their own country, and remind themselves every day of Christ words:  “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”… There may be no reason for panic about the Ebola doctor, but there is reason for annoyance at Christian narcissism.

Well the real annoyance here, indeed outrage, is not over the service of these two missionary doctors. It is over this kind of column that flies in the very face of everything Christ taught his disciples. The logic of the Christian church and of Christian missions has nothing to do with American nationalism. Some parts of Ann Coulter’s article where she speaks especially of Africa come very close to racism, but she certainly falls directly into nationalism when she says that American Christians need to “serve their own country.” And when she says that America is the most consequential nation on earth and implies that Christians should simply give all their attention, especially American Christians, to trying to save this country and by that she means our culture, those are very consequential issues.

But American nationalism flies right in the face of the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the command of Christ given in the great commission. Coulter has written a very sad article. It is an article that should lead to outrage in Christian circles. It reveals a radical nationalistic and libertarian worldview that is fundamentally incompatible with evangelical Christianity, with the scripture, and with the command of Christ. American evangelical Christians did not come up with the Great Commission because we were frustrated with losses in the culture war. American Christians are not “slinking off to foreign countries in order to escape the United States”; they are going in obedience to the command of Christ. True gospel missionaries—those faithful to the command of Jesus Christ—are not “narcissistic” to use Ann Coulter’s word, they are indeed heroic. More than heroic, they are simply faithful.

We should also note the common sense realization that most of the modern medical facilities we know today were founded by Christians who did so out of a humanitarian impulse driven by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, we need to note that the Christian church, when it has been faithful, has been obedient to the Great Commission and when it has not been obedient to the Great Commission it has been profoundly unfaithful. Christians are under the obligation to be obedient to Christ long before we should enter into any kind of calculation about whether or not it is good for the United States of America. That is an entirely extraneous question.

In a strange irony, a contrast to the position taken by Ann Coulter is taken by columnist Nicolas Kristof in the editorial pages of the New York Times. He writes about Dr. Brantly and about his nurse, Nancy Writebol, and suggests that they are fighting Ebola for us all. He writes about them in heroic terms:

“Some people have blamed Brantly and another American missionary infected, Nancy Writebol, for bringing the danger to themselves, even objecting to their return to Atlanta to be treated for the disease at Emory University Hospital. For Example, Donald Trump argued that Brantly and Writebol should not be brought back to the US because of the risk involved ‘People who go to far places to help out are great but must suffer the consequences!’ Trumpsaid on Twitter.

Kristof comments, “This Ebola outbreak underscores why we have not only humanitarian interests in addressing global health, but also a national interest in doing so. Brantly and Writebol are moral leaders in this effort and underscore the practical imperative of tackling global contagions early on. They deserve our gratitude and admiration.”

Kristof writes that we should be very appreciative of these two American missionary doctors and others from the western world who are fighting this contagion in Africa because if the disease is not stopped there, it will indeed come here.

That is an argument that is certainly superior to the argument of Ann Coulter. But it also is an argument that is far short of the Christian worldview. These two American missionary doctors did not go merely as humanitarians. They did not just join Doctors Without Borders as some other kind of very valid humanitarian effort. They were sent by American Christian missionary organizations. Their concern was not just the bodily health of those they would serve through medicine, but the spiritual condition and indeed the eternal fate of those they would meet as they went to West Africa. We certainly should appreciate all of those who are fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa because it is certainly true: if it is not contained and the outbreak continues, that Level 1 alert may be for the United States one day, not just for West Africa.

But that is hardly the point. On moral terms, Nicolas Kristof’s essay is infinitely superior to the column by Ann Coulter, but it also falls short of the true Christian reality. 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.

What is missing from both of these analyses are the final words of the Gospel of Matthew. We know these words as the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:18-20, “And Jesus came up and spoke to them saying, ‘all authority has been given to me on heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And, lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.’”

Those words may have escaped the attention of both Nicholas Kristof and Ann Coulter, but they had better be at the forefront of our minds and on our hearts at all times. It turns out that the news about Ebola that lead to the beginning news story of our consideration lead us straight to the heart of the gospel. Other issues, though pressing and urgent and important will simply have to wait.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website, at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing



Podcast Transcript

1) Treatment of Ebola brings a morality of personal autonomy into conflict with a plague

CDC issues highest-level alert for Ebola, USA Today (Doug Stanglin)

Ebola, research ethics, and the ZMapp serum, Washington Post (Laura Seay)

2) The Great Commission far greater than American nationalism or humanitarianism

Ebola doc’s condition downgraded to idiotic, (Ann Coulter)

Fighting Ebola for Us All, New York Times (Nicholas Kristof)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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