Mission control

Although I appreciate the coverage of my attendance at the Albert Schweitzer International Conference, the reference to Schweitzer as a missionary doctor is a grievous error but a label often ascribed to him, despite his more vast accomplishments. A missionary’s goal is diametrically opposed to Schweitzer’s philosophy of Reverence for Life.

Schweitzer had earned four doctorate degrees: in music, philosophy, theology, all earned before the age of 30. He was world eminent as an organist, musicologist and philosopher before earning his fourth degree in medicine at the age of 38.

He was a theological radical and had to promise the Paris Missionary Society that he would not preach when he went to Africa in 1913 under their auspices as a medical doctor.

Among the criticisms of Schweitzer was that he did not modernize the hospital or change tribal customs. Reverence for Life means respect for others and Schweitzer told me he was in Africa as a guest and not to induce European ways.

Schweitzer was influenced by Eastern philosophies, particularly Jainism and Buddhism. Many religions claim him but he appealed to me as an agnostic humanitarian with an ethical devotion to Reverence for Life. Anything that preserves, enriches, heals life, is good. That which destroys or intrudes on life is bad.

I have interviewed missionaries for various articles in Gabon, Addis Ababa, Gondar, Israel, Germany, England, Japan and the United States. Some were sincere and provided helpful goods and services. But like a TV commercial, they were selling something and the bottom line was to convert people to Christianity, often with the threat that people were damned if they didn’t. I oppose this arrogant cultural intrusion as I’m certain Schweitzer would.


Schweitzer’s legacy is his inspiration to others who have opened hospitals and perform good deeds all over the world in the spirit of Reverence for Life, who accept people where they are for themselves. The bottom line is to accept and do good, not convert someone to satisfy a personal agenda.

That is why Schweitzer was a great humanitarian, not a missionary doctor.

Donald M. Desfor, Ph.D.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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