In a fascinating article for the New York Times, Helene Cooper describes the plight of thirty young men in Liberia that helped to stem the tide of Ebola that ravaged their nation last year. Prior to the outbreak, they were just like the rest of their people. However, as the disease continued to spread, the country’s leadership took the advice of global health experts and made the difficult decision to hire these men to start burning the bodies of the deceased.
It is perhaps difficult for us to understand the gravity of such a choice. You see, in Liberia, the dead are treated with a degree of reverence that far surpasses that of most in western culture. There is a national holiday, Decoration Day, which exists for the sole purpose of granting people the necessary time to clean the graves of their loved ones. Marble tombstones and mahogany coffins are common even among the poor and funeral services can last for days. As Cooper describes, “Many Liberians believe that if the dead are not properly buried, they will come back to haunt the living…A dead body for many Liberians is, in a sense, still a living thing, to be nurtured, looked after and lovingly sent onward.”
While such beliefs may seem like little more than superstition to us, they remain an integral part of the Liberian culture. So when the men hired to burn those bodies began doing their job, their friends, neighbors, and even their families were quick to let them know that there would be little gratitude for helping to save their lives. As Matthew Harmon, one of the workers at the makeshift crematorium, described, “My ma said, ‘You burning body?’ Then I’nt want see you no more around me’.”
The other workers faced similar reactions from their friends and families. Several were kicked out of their homes and moved in together where they quickly turned to drinking and drugs in an effort to simply get through the day between shifts. The government even began sending them alcohol in an attempt to help them cope.
Police officers and soldiers had to be stationed along the road to where the bodies were being burned in order to protect the workers and the site from the villagers nearby. That didn’t stop the crowds from hurling insults and threats at those responsible for potentially saving the lives of their tormentors. Even now, nearly a year after the cremations ended, those men are still infamous for the role they played in burning the disease-ridden bodies of the deceased.
They had expected to at least receive some kind of public recognition from the government that hired them to do the previously unthinkable, hoping that maybe that would help end the ostracizing that has made their lives so difficult. Unfortunately, they were left out when the president held a ceremony to thank health care workers for their efforts and, instead, received little more than a certificate of appreciation from the Health Ministry. So their plight continues as each day is met with new barbs and discrimination for the role they played in helping to save the lives of the very same people that now shun them.
What would Jesus say to these men?
I think he would start by letting them know that he loves them even if no one else does, and that he understands, better than anyone, what they’re going through. That he understands what it’s like to be shunned by those you sacrificed to save. That he understands the discouragement of being offered disgrace where gratitude is due. And that he understands the temptation to despair in the face of injustice and misplaced anger.
But I also think he would tell them that, in the midst of their doubt and regret, they must focus on the larger truth that what they did was right and that the correctness of their actions is not dependent on popular opinion. As Augustine said, “Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.” The people around them don’t have to understand or agree with burning the bodies of deceased Ebola victims for the men’s actions to be justified.
That is an important truth for us to remember as well. While few of us are likely to know the kind of ostracizing and hatred that these men experience on a near-daily basis, we are all faced with situations where doing the right thing means going against popular opinion. Whether it is holding to the truth of scripture even when it is politically incorrect to do so, reaching out to that slightly odd person at school or work that other people mostly ignore, or any number of other examples, Scripture is clear that we are to value God’s understanding of what is right over that of everyone else (Matthew 10:26-33).
So get ready, because a time will soon come when you are called to make a choice between pleasing God and pleasing men. And while such decisions and the consequences they bring will seldom be easy, God promises to offer us the necessary strength to stand for him in the face of adversity (Matthew 10:19-20, 28:20). However, such strength will never be forced upon us. Rather, each day we will have to choose whether to meet those challenges in his power or ours. Only one of those options is likely to end well. So which will you choose today?