Okay, let’s face it, we have a lot of differences that are not easily reconcilable. We are split over dozens — maybe hundreds of issues. So, why do we go out of our way to misunderstand one another and to ascribe negative (even malicious) intention where there is none? Obviously, the current political campaigning is an excellent illustration, but let’s not go there. Let’s keep it close to home. I’ll use a personal example. I attended a conference last week, then came home to a long holiday weekend. When I checked my email, I found seven angry messages about “what I said” about Imagine No Malaria. Now, this is news to me, since I can’t remember the last time I said anything about Imagine No Malaria, but I guess someone “quoted” me at a recent regional gathering. Interestingly, the “quotes” are actually quotes, but taken out of context they are being used to convey a very different meaning. Here are three quotes pulled from things I have written:
- “…the United Methodist Church creates a bigger problem by saving all these lives.”
- “It is irresponsible to take such a simplistic approach to such a complex problem. This isn’t just about combatting one disease. The solution just shifts the problem elsewhere, but let’s us feel good about ourselves.”
- “…anything less than a systems approach to global health is indefensible. …we are compounding a tragedy.”
Man, I sound like a real jerk, don’t I? Badmouthing our efforts against malaria! What was I thinking? Well, first of all, these quotes all come from a panel discussion at Vanderbilt University in 2008, when our Nothing But Nets emphasis was in full swing. I had been working with three professors on a critical examination of what is happening in Africa — specifically in areas of economic sustainability, continent-wide health concerns, and the growing problems of malnutrition, starvation, and tribal/gang/domestic violence. My role in the discussion was to explain what The United Methodist Church was doing, and to set our war on malaria in a larger context. The bottom line was simply this: saving a baby’s life is just the first step in a lifelong commitment and responsibility. It might only take $10 to buy a net and save an infant’s life, but it requires over $7,500 of support to raise the child to adulthood. The sustainability experts laid out a bleak view of unintended consequences — growing malnutrition, starvation, various childhood diseases, overcrowding, tribal competition for diminishing resources, rising youth violence, and a half-dozen other ills — all supported by World Health Organization reports and statistics. The more successful Westerners are at saving infant lives, the greater the burden placed on African infrastructure. The example used was that it costs $2.5 million dollars to save 250,000 lives; it will cost one billion, eight hundred seventy-five million ($1,875,000,000) to bring those children to adulthood. My challenge — then and now — is: are we truly willing to assume responsibility for the lives we are saving? The price tag for saving a life is not $10, but $7,500+. We need to be honest about this.
So, my quotes were actually these (in context):
- “Whenever we ignore responsibility for the larger picture, the United Methodist Church creates a bigger problem by saving all these lives.”
- “It is irresponsible to take such a simplistic approach to such a complex problem. This isn’t just about combatting one disease. The solution just shifts the problem elsewhere, but let’s us feel good about ourselves. True, fewer children are dying of malaria, but more children are dying due to malnutrition, starvation and violence than ever before.”
- “No one is saying we shouldn’t do everything in our power to save lives, but saving a life takes more than a net — it takes food, clean water, medicine, education, and providing hope for a decent future; anything less than a systems approach to global health is indefensible. Unless we are willing to feed, shelter, clothe, care for, and nurture the lives we save, we are compounding a tragedy.”
Now, you may read these quotes in context and still think I am a jerk. That’s cool. I am okay with anyone disagreeing with me — when they deal fair and square. I hate being misquoted and misrepresented. Anyone who says I have ever claimed we should not fight malaria is lying. I have been a staunch supporter of this effort. In fact, I have been almost a lone voice saying we need to do MORE rather than less. I have been critical that we took the path of least resistance and tackled something that seems simple when it is not, but that doesn’t mean I am against the effort. I just think if we’re going to do something, we should do it with integrity.
As Christians, I believe we need to play by a better set of rules than the rest of the world. Twisting words, ascribing intention, lying and trying to make those we disagree with look bad are all rules of the secular game — but we can do better. Critics of contemporary Christianity accused us of being obtuse, and when we work so hard within the fold to attack and discredit each other, we merely fuel the fire. There is a lot of room for us to learn to speak the truth in love.