Leftist writer for Slate oozes contempt for volunteer missionary medical care in Africa
Last week Slate writer Brian Palmer gave us yet another example, whining about those awful Christian missionaries and the awful, substandard, unregulated, uncontrolled medical care they give--give--to sick people in poor countries. How dare they! Here are a few of his remarks:
Missionary doctors and nurses are stationed throughout Africa, in rural outposts and urban slums. A large number of them have undertaken long-term commitments to address the health problems of poor Africans. And yet for secular Americans—or religious Americans who prefer their medicine to be focused more on science than faith—it may be difficult to shake a bit of discomfort with the situation.
Our historic ambivalence toward missionary medicine has crystallized into suspicion over the past several decades. It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?
Missionaries have been dealing with this kind of criticism for a very, very long time. More than a century ago the undercurrent of discontent with missionary work had already become so widespread that experienced missionary James Levi Barton penned a book-length defense of his career. Many of his points are, even to my modern ears, reasonably persuasive. No one complains when the West crams its commercial values down the throats of Africans, Indians, and Chinese, he pointed out in 1908. We insist that these unfortunate, uncivilized people buy our wheat flour and bicycles, even though rice and rickshaws are probably just as good. How is that different from what missionaries do? They simply offer Christianity rather than consumerism.It doesn't surprise me a bit that a leftist believes we "cram" our values--both commercial and religious, according to this guy--down the throats of locals. Seems to me that having a machine that mills wheat into flour frees up a lot of time for anyone who eats wheat products. One expects that the next complaint from this asshole will be about refrigerators, or buses. After all, "rickshaws are probably just as good," right?
I'll bet you the drink of your choice that this asshole Palmer has never, ever pulled a rickshaw.
The Ebola crisis, and the role missionaries are playing in it, has brought dislike of missionary work out into the open. When an infected American missionary was flown back to the United States for treatment, Donald Trump griped that do-gooders trying to save Africa should be prepared to “suffer the consequences.” Ann Coulter called the doctor “idiotic,” and asked of his mission to Africa, “What was the point?”
Obviously Trump and Coulter don’t speak for the majority of Americans. Trump is a publicity-obsessed birther who says he “couldn’t care less” what doctors say about vaccines. Coulter somehow manages to be more offensive than Trump, calling the president childish names and insisting that God wants us to “rape” the earth.
Still, a fair number of Americans were thinking a less offensive form of what those two shock merchants wrote. I’ll hold my own hand up. I don’t feel good about missionary medicine, even though I can’t fully articulate why.
Plus, it's so easy to mock Christians as being dumber than you. Uneducated. Gullible. For someone with your vast intellect this is like shooting fish in a barrel.
There are a few legitimate reasons to question the missionary model, starting with the troubling lack of data in missionary medicine. When I write about medical issues, I usually spend hours scouring PubMed, a research publications database from the National Institutes of Health, for data to support my story.
You can’t do that with missionary work, because few organizations produce the kind of rigorous, peer-reviewed data that is required in the age of evidence-based medicine. A few years ago in the Lancet, Samuel Loewenberg wrote that there is “no way to calculate the number of missionaries currently operating in Tanzania,” the country he was reporting on. How can we know if they’re effective, or how to improve the health care systems they participate in, if we don’t even know how many missionary doctors there are?
And Palmer is just getting started.
There are serious questions about the quality of care provided by religious organizations in Africa. A 2008 report by the African Religious Heath Assets Programme concluded that faith-based facilities were “often severely understaffed and many health workers were under-qualified.”Wait...you mean to tell us that missionary medical volunteers aren't all graduates of Hahvahd med school? Why, that's awful! And you say that a report says they're often "severely understaffed"? Why that's...that's...disgraceful! I think the Obama administration should ban all missionary work until they can pass OSHA exams and keep time cards and pay overtime to all their volunteers!
There is also a troubling lack of oversight. Large religious health care facilities tend to be consistent in their care, but the hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller clinics in Africa are a mystery. We don’t know whether missionary doctors are following international standards of care. (I’ve heard murmurs among career international health specialists that missionaries may be less likely to wear appropriate protective equipment, which is especially troubling in the context of the Ebola outbreak.) We don’t know what happens to the patients who rely on missionary doctors if and when the caregivers return to their home countries.
And you have to believe us because we went to Hahvahd, and we work for the emperor!
There are extremely weak medical malpractice laws (and even weaker court systems to enforce them) in much of sub-Saharan Africa, so we have no sense whatsoever of how many mistakes missionary doctors are making. We don’t know how many missionaries are helping to train new doctors and nurses in the countries where they work—the current emphasis of international health delivery.
And yet, truth be told, these valid critiques [really? says you?] don’t fully explain my discomfort with missionary medicine. If we had thousands of secular doctors doing exactly the same work, I would probably excuse most of these flaws. “They’re doing work no one else will,” I would say. “You can’t expect perfection.”So he flatly admits that if exectly the same work were being done by secular docs he'd "probably excuse most of these flaw." Utter hypocrisy.
I’m not altogether proud of this bias—I’m just trying to be honest. In his Lancet article, Lowenberg quotes a missionary who insists he does not proselytize, even though he tells his patients, “I’m treating you because of what God has given me and his love for me.” That statement—which strikes me as obvious proselytizing— suggests that some missionaries are incapable of separating their religious work from their medical work. Whether implicitly or explicitly, some missionaries pressure their patients, at moments of maximum vulnerability and desperation, to convert.And there we have it: Palmer's other charges are transparent bullshit, but this is the nexus: the fear that the Christian missionaries might take advantage of a patient's illness to "pressure" them to--gasp!--convert.
That troubles me. I suspect that many others have the same visceral discomfort with the mingling of religion and health care.One suspects that in Palmer's perfect, left-ruled world, desperately ill patients would be barred from praying. Although he'd probably agree that they could pray to some government agency.
Like it or not, we are deeply reliant on missionary doctors and nurses. The ARHAP report found that in some sub-Saharan African countries 30 percent of health care facilities are run by religious entities. That system is crumbling due to declining funding, possibly motivated in part by growing Western suspicion of missionary medicine. We have a choice: Swallow our objections and support these facilities, spend vast sums of money to build up Africa’s secular health care capacity immediately, or watch the continent drown in Ebola, HIV, and countless other disease outbreaks.