I just finished Mountains Beyond Mountains, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder’s true account of the life of Dr. Paul Farmer, an infectious disease (ID) specialist. Here’s part of the inside-the-front-cover blurb:
“In medical school, Paul Farmer found his life’s calling: to cure infectious diseases and to bring the lifesaving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most. Kidder’s magnificent account takes us from Harvard to Haiti, Peru, Cuba, and Russia as Farmer changes minds and practices through his dedication to the philosophy that ‘the only real nation is humanity.’”
Though I found the accounts of worldwide medical politics fascinating, what gripped me most was Farmer’s dedication to the patients right in front of him. Many accounts reminded me of the stories my family-doctor father told at the dinner table. He, like Farmer, saw every person as a patient, someone to be helped. What also grabbed both my attention and my heart was Farmer’s insistence that we must treat the poor as if they are our own sister or brother, child or mother.
This insistence has often put Farmer at odds with medicine on a grand scale. The World Health Organization and other international medical entities, understandably so, want to impact the greatest number of lives with the limited funds they have, which means that those who suffer with resistant strains of a disease often get ignored. Dr. Farmer disagrees with this practice, in part because of his theory (which has been proven time and again through his and other’s clinical studies) that resistant strains, when untreated, eventually enter the general population, and the problem then multiplies. Better, though more expensive in the short-term, to make great efforts to find every person in a region who suffers from the disease, treat every case, no matter how complicated, and systematically eradicate the disease in that area in all its forms.
But the greater reason Farmer treats every patient he encounters is because of this belief: “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” If you visit the Web page of Partners in Health, the organization Farmer, with others, founded, that quote of his is at the bottom of nearly every page.
This belief means Farmer is holistic in his approach to patient care. Well-fed people, living in decent housing, are less susceptible to infectious diseases, he argues. Therefore, in the process of administering medical treatment, he works to improve the nutrition and living conditions of his patients. He has poured out his life in order to accomplish this level of individual and community healthcare in some of the poorest places around the world.
The book is a good read. It’s also convicting. The title Mountains Beyond Mountains refers to a Haitian proverb: “Beyond mountains there are mountains,” and means that as you solve one problem, another presents itself, and so you go on and try to solve that one, too.
The proverb is so very true, and it should impact all of us, not just those who, like Farmer, are on the front line of the battle against poverty, disease, and injustice/oppression. The rest of us, though, can feel like we have no ability to impact the battle. What is the point, then, of thinking of it at all, of reading books like this? Kidder wrote: “The world is full of miserable places. One way of living comfortably is not to think about them or, when you do, to send money.”
Yet for those of us following Christ, “not thinking about them”—even if we do send money—is not an option. Paul Farmer is quoted as saying, “[Many people] think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We (Partners in Health) don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.”
We Christians don’t believe that either. We are called to think and pray and care to the point that our own comfort eventually becomes secondary.
Still, it can sometimes feel like an abdication to simply send money or even to pray.
As long as the prayer and the giving impact our hearts, it’s not.
At a different point in the book, Kidder said of Farmer, “Lives of service depend on lives of support. He’d gotten help from many people.”
I tell my kids all the time that we are richer than 98% of the world’s population. (They often finish my quote and say, “We know, Mom. We know.” By the way, you can check your own ranking out at the Global Rich List). It helps our perspective to remember that fact so we don’t simply compare ourselves with the other middle-classers surrounding us and see our wealth as being a means for keeping up.
Kidder spoke on this truth: “How could a just God permit great misery? The Haitian peasants answered with a proverb: ‘Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe,’ in literal translation, ‘God gives but doesn’t share.’ This meant… God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but he’s not the one who’s supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge was laid upon us.”
NOTE: I’ve been through enough vague guilt trips that I certainly don’t want to lay one on anyone else. So what do we do when we don’t know what to do?
We start with prayer. God knows the resources He’s provided us with and the purpose He has for each one (whether they be time, money, or expertise). God directs us to (or directs to us) the neighbor next door, the local homeless shelter, orphans across the world, persecuted believers, resettled refugees from Syria or the Congo, or the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
Is it easier, perhaps, not to be burdened? Absolutely! But we’re missing so, so much if we stay aloof. We must be bold to pray even when we know it will push us to know God’s heart better—the heart that cares for the entire world and knows each injustice and sorrow.
We can’t know His heart if we don’t pray.
LINKS: Here are a few links to U.S. and international organizations that are concerned with justice and health for all:
For smaller organizations, please see the “What I’m passionate about” column on the right side of my blog.
FURTHER READING: To read more about the subject of Biblical justice, follow this link to “A Justice Manifesto,” written by Kelli Trujillo for the July/August 2013 issue of Relevant Magazine. It’s a great big-picture article with excellent sidebars on specific issues and/or ways to get involved.
In the same issue of Relevant, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson wrote “Why You Can’t Save the World.” It’s excellent and a good reminder of the truth that we aren’t called to save the world, just to trust and follow Christ. Saving the world is His job.
PRAYER: Father, as Christ taught us, we, too, pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our hearts long for heaven, Lord, for Your goodness and justice to be the living reality for all. We pray against oppression, inequality, and persecution. Teach us Your justice and how to live justly where we have been placed. Teach us and then so soften and burden our hearts with Your grace that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with You.
In Christ we pray this. Amen.