Fighting the Pandemic with Our Hearts and Our Smarts
Written by The Ministry of Jesus Christ on October 24, 2020
Particularly in this time of global pandemic, we want to know how to care for our local and global neighbors in ways that are meaningful and effective. We want to follow the example of the Good Samaritan in loving our neighbors as ourselves. But we also want to make sure we’re reaching out to those in need with both our hearts and our smarts.
In other words, Christians should approach COVID-19 not just as Good Samaritans but also as what we—writing as a development economist (Bruce) and an expert on humanitarian disaster intervention (Kent)—like to call Shrewd Samaritans. And what are the distinguishing marks of a Shrewd Samaritan? Perhaps the best place to begin is with a visit to the dentist I (Bruce) have been seeing for years.
Thinking Like an Economist
Dr. David Yee’s modest office is located on the street level below his house, near the corner of 31st Avenue and Clement Street, a few miles from my office at the University of San Francisco. Most people avoid going to the dentist. I never avoid going to the dentist because I get to talk to Dr. Yee. Even during the unfortunate visit when oral excavation is required, his calming face, hovering above my open mouth like a smiling moon, has for 20 years offered reassurance during tense episodes of drilling and repair.
Upon learning during my early visits that I was a development economist, Dr. Yee would ask me if I had been to any “crazy new countries” lately. After sharing a few stories about recent travels and research projects, I asked him if he had ever done one of those overseas dental missions. “No, afraid I’m a bit of a homebody,” he would say. “The city is plenty for me.”
And so the conversation looped for some years.
But as he was ushering me into the dental chair before a routine cleaning in 2011, he turned to me and announced proudly, “I went on a dental mission last month.”
The dental mission to Jamaica had gone well, just not as anticipated. Dr. Yee had envisioned preparing a vast equipment bag with cleaning instruments: tooth pickers, plaque scrapers, spit suckers, polishers, and bags of brushes and floss.
“You won’t be needing all that,” the missionary dentist had explained. “All we do here are extractions.”
He had arrived in the capital city of Kingston and walked down the steps of the plane onto the tarmac, where the missionary dentist greeted him. “Did you bring your forceps?” Yes, they were somewhere in the suitcase. “Excellent. How many extractions can you do in a day?”
Dr. Yee had never pondered this statistic, much less tested its frontiers on his upper-middle-class San Francisco patients. “Maybe eight?” He paused nervously. “How many do I need to do?”
“Yesterday I did 140.”
Dr. Yee considered this spectacular figure. It sounded inhumane. He imagined something like an assembly line for tooth extraction with dentists wrenching rotten molars out of cringing patients with blood-splattered dental bibs, tossing them out of the chair, and then yelling to the front of the line: “Next!”
But what he learned in Jamaica was quite the opposite. In a place where infections are rampant and immune systems are weak, infected teeth can be deadly. If an upper tooth is infected, bacteria can spread from the alveolar bone through the maxillary sinus, resulting in a sepsis of the brain. If the infection is in a lower tooth, it can spread to the jaw, where an infection in a rear molar may cause severe swelling that blocks airflow through the trachea, resulting in suffocation. The missionary dentist explained that time spent on cosmetic issues, or even maintaining the lofty standards of Western medical care, carries a high opportunity cost in the world of rural missionary dentistry.
As I listened to Dr. Yee, I was impressed with the missionary dentist because she sounded like an economist. She understood the cost of allowing our fuzzy feelings to dictate our actions to people in need rather than a concern for their health and well-being.
Dr. Yee’s foray into missionary dentistry did not end with the trip to Jamaica. A few years later, as I rose up out of the dental chair, Dr. Yee ushered me toward a corkboard in his office to see pictures of some of his patients grouped by the different countries he had visited. The dental mission trips had clearly transformed him. From them he had developed a deep compassion for those without access to health care. Moreover, joining his new heart for others was a new head for others. He had begun to learn the art of triage, operating with the skill of a MASH medic, prioritizing patients that were likely to receive the greatest benefit from an extraction and treating them as efficiently as possible. He also began to emphasize dental health during his visits. When possible, it was about loving others by preventing pain and suffering in the first place.
Beyond Good Intentions
My dentist was becoming a Shrewd Samaritan. But how is a Shrewd Samaritan different from others with good intentions toward the needy?
If we want to genuinely help people living in poverty—and a world in the middle of a global pandemic—rather than just feeling good about believing we have helped, we are not merely to be Good Samaritans, like the man commended in the famous parable in Luke 10. We should also be Shrewd Samaritans—shrewd like the manager in the less-famous parable in Luke 16, whom Jesus also points to as an example.
In the original Greek, the word for the manager in the parable is oikonómon, which literally means “Econo-Man.” We must be people with big hearts like the Good Samaritan but with minds like the Econo-Man. This means learning to love our global neighbors wisely, one might say even “shrewdly,” by making the best use of our resources—our time, talents, and money—on behalf of those who are victims of injustice, disease, violence, and poverty.
Shrewd Samaritans have made progress through what I call the seven I’s. They have moved past ignorance, indifference, and idealism and toward investigation, introspection, and impact. They have even come to identify with those they seek to serve.
Shrewd Samaritans understand the underlying causes of poverty and need. They can identify interventions that are likely to be effective in different contexts. Their motivation is fueled by the christian call to love our neighbors, but their means are influenced by an understanding of cause and effect and even by good science. Shrewd Samaritans are wedded to a biblical view of humanity and informed by a desire for human flourishing in all respects: physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. They have discerned their own role in extending a hand to the needy at home and abroad and have learned to identify themselves with the poor.
From Ignorance to Idealism
So, what does it mean to be a Shrewd Samaritan during the current global pandemic? As I (Kent) consider our varying responses, I find that it helps to consider them through the lens of the seven I’s. As the global situation continues to evolve, let’s consider how we can learn to love our neighbors in more meaningful and effective ways.
At the outset of the pandemic, ignorance reigned among the vast majority of people in the United States. In December and January, COVID-19 was certainly an issue, but an issue on the other side of the world, barely mentioned in American news coverage. By now, of course, most people have moved well past the ignorance stage. And yet we can still fall into the habit of closing our eyes to the devastation the virus is causing beyond our own circles and beyond our own shores.
In my book Slow Kingdom Coming, I talk about how practice of justice starts with attention. We awaken to the various needs and injustices around the world, and we allow the Holy Spirit to focus our attention on the needs we’re being called to address. In the months since the pandemic has hit the United States, COVID-19 has provided a wake-up call.
By February, ignorance had largely given way to indifference. Most of us had heard of COVID-19, but it still felt like something for China, Italy, and Iran to deal with rather than a disease that might truly spread across the globe. The prevailing mindset was that it, like the SARS virus preceding it, would mostly go away before hitting our shores.
While this was months ago, many Americans, including some Christians, still take this approach, believing COVID-19 is out there but won’t affect them personally. One way this is clearly illustrated is in the issue of wearing masks. Although the CDC repeatedly advises the public to wear masks and backs its reasoning with research, many people still don’t. As listed on the CDC website, the main reason to wear a mask is not to keep from getting the virus but to keep ourselves from spreading it to others. Quite simply, wearing a mask during the pandemic is a way to move beyond indifference toward loving our neighbors.
In March, COVID-19 became a serious domestic issue. We could no longer be ignorant, and it was much harder to be indifferent. The predominant mentality had shifted toward idealism, which occurs when we move out of indifference but try to solve a complex problem with overly simple solutions. We’re aware of a problem but don’t really understand it. (Think of a short-term mission team that goes to another country to “solve” someone else’s problems, which they don’t really understand, in just one week.) Then we operate by rules of thumb guided by our feelings and instincts. We compartmentalize people and responses into general categories. We’re responding but not necessarily responding well.
As COVID-19 spread throughout the US and the world, the responses came in two general varieties. Some gravitated toward defiance and downplaying: They weren’t indifferent about the virus, but they tended to assume that it wouldn’t touch them personally. The virus is not much worse than ordinary flu, they might say, and people are overreacting. Among those with this mindset, mask wearing and social distancing were often viewed as infringements on personal liberty and American rights.
On the other end of the spectrum came calls for complete lockdown. This way of thinking held that the virus is very bad, but science is going to tell us the right thing to do and eventually solve the problem. And in the meantime, the only responsible thing to do is shelter in place until we come up with a vaccine. For some lockdown proponents, any attempt to balance this view with the importance of maintaining human contact—or minimizing the awful economic toll—could be chalked up either to ignorance or to outright malice.
Both of these responses fall prey to a kind of naïve idealism, assuming either that the virus can be defeated without sacrifice or inconvenience or that the lockdowns will deliver us to safety without exacting any great toll of their own.
From Investigation to Impact
So how do we move beyond habits of ignorance, indifference, and idealism for the sake of thinking and acting as Shrewd Samaritans? This is where the fourth I, investigation, comes into play. Investigation involves humility. When we move into the investigation stage, we’re preparing to move beyond our gut instincts.
In the case of COVID-19, Christians must ask, “What does the best evidence say about how I can help slow the infection rate of the virus as well as help others persevere through it?” We inform our responses with the best available information. We seek the advice of qualified experts. We take the heart of the Good Samaritan and pair it with the head of the Shrewd Manager. At Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute (where I serve as director of humanitarian and disaster leadership), we’re helping churches, individuals, and families do just this. (Another excellent source of both information and inspiration is the Salt & Light Project, a website dedicated to showing how Christians are following Jesus during the pandemic.)
While it’s important to study the most effective ways we can respond, we also need to reflect and pray, asking God how he would have us respond individually. This leads to the fifth I, introspection.
Simply put, investigation allows us to understand how we could help. But introspection involves asking, “What should I do?” We’ve taken the time to understand COVID-19 as well as the needs of those around us. And at this point, we reflect on how we can love and care for our local and global neighbors, asking questions like these: What gifts do you embody? What resources are at your disposal? How do these match up with the needs in your community and in the world? We must ask ourselves, “What can I do in my community during this time to keep me from getting and transmitting the virus—but also to help my neighbor through it?”
Ideally, a process of careful investigation and introspection will lead to the sixth I, meaningful impact. After we’ve done the work of understanding the need, learning effective interventions, thinking through our own abilities and resources, we’re poised to make a genuine difference. I’m encouraged by the way I see this happening within the church in so many ways.
Sometimes this takes the form of supporting local organizations working on the frontlines of pandemic relief. With so many millions of Americans unemployed due to the pandemic, their efforts could hardly be more urgent. One of my humanitarian and disaster leadership students at Wheaton is the director of a local nonprofit that helps refugee women make and sell items like purses and earrings. But once the virus began spreading, the organization quickly pivoted toward having the refugee women produce thousands of facemasks, which kept them employed while meeting a tangible local and national need.
Helping can also take the form of giving to organizations involved in global relief efforts. While the pandemic has hit wealthiest countries hardest at this point, the World Food Programme has warned that the number of people in the developing world living with “acute” hunger could double