“This Religion Thing;” An opportunity to be seized

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

The image of Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, has been tarnished in the last decade or so, primarily through the divisive culture wars.

Not that those issues aren’t important–they need to be addressed. But, they have been approached by violence on the street, hate mail and articles and a general ambience of fighting an issue while forgetting the cause—Jesus Christ.

The result is that many in our society and around the world have disowned Christianity or just plain been turned off from any consideration of the claims of Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, all of the heat generated by these battles has distorted and damaged the message of the Good News and the ministry of those who reach out to the hurting in Christ’s name.

In the midst of all this, there has been some hopeful news and a renewed focus on the healing and serving nature of Christians (and people of other faiths) in a world of such pain.

I was greatly encouraged to read this fascinating article from IPS News about a new openness by development officials and relief groups to the great contribution that religions in general (and, by implication Christians in specific) can make to alleviate human suffering, violence and abuse.

In it Dr. Azza Karam, Senior Advisor for The United Nations Population Fund and Coordinator of the UN Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development says, “The arguments used… to generate positive interest in the role of religious NGOs in international multilateral fora were relatively straightforward. Today they are almost a cliché: religious institutions are the oldest social service providers known to humankind, and several basic health and educational institutions of today are administered or influenced to some extent by religious entities.”

Recognizing that some secular and government agencies have been reluctant to partner with or recognize religious activity, she affirms that now many recognize this work as a valid segment of international developments efforts.

However, she suggests that this recognition is late coming. She writes, “It was only when migrants appeared to ‘flood’ European shores (albeit in numbers which are only a fraction of those ending up in developing countries), that there was a noticeable surge of keen interest by several western governments in ‘this religion thing’.”

Christian efforts to serve others in relief and development work, in hospitals and health care, in the nurture of orphans, the rescue of slaves along with assisting the homeless, caring for the widows and victims of violence were, in fact, part of the reason that the early church grew so quickly and widely.

In his book The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, Dr. Rodney Stark, the distinguished professor of sociology at Southern Baptist-related Baylor University, described the living conditions where early Christian communities developed as a “remarkably filthy existence.”

Stark notes that “the smell of urine, feces, and decay permeated everything.” He added, “A recent analysis of decayed human fecal remains in an ancient Jerusalem cesspool found an abundance of tapeworm and whipworm eggs, indicating that almost everyone had them.”

Stark noted that the followers of Jesus initially appeared to be just another cult emerging in the society. But, it soon became evident in the midst of abject poverty, filth and illness, that Christians became a blessing to their communities not only spiritually but also physically. The simple provision of food and water to severely weakened people often allowed them to recover. Nursing by Christians may have cut mortality by two-thirds.

Stark indicates that the low mortality rates among Christians combined with the influence of Christians on non-believers, (i.e. their social work) attracted many of the early converts to the church.

Or as Marvin Olasky, the editor-in-chief of World magazine wrote: “Christianity grew both numerically and proportionately through the plagues that swept the empire in the first few centuries after Christ. There was martyrdom here as well: for while many were heading for the hills for safety…Christians stayed to care for the sick, exposing themselves and sometimes succumbing to the danger. Through their care many survived, for in many cases what was required was simple nutrition, water, and shelter. This, too, led many to follow Christ. Christianity’s proportion of the population increased also in that they cared for each other, meaning that their relative survival rate was higher than the pagans.”

There have been other recent indications that Christian ministries are having an impact on addressing many of society’s ills and are being recognized for that.

The excellent book Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade–and How We Can Fight It, by Dr. David Batstone, a professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco highlights many organizations that fight slavery worldwide. Most of those that he cites have strong Christian roots.

Then, in a recent article by award-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof,  we find a reference to Cure, a Christian organization working in 29 developing countries to alleviate the problems of children born with clubfeet. 

While we cannot and should not become too self-congratulatory, we must be encouraged by a wider, secular recognition that Christians, as well as those of other faiths, are ministering to those with debilitating needs around the world.

Dr. Karam summarizes her recent article by saying, “…(I)f we are serious about strengthening health systems and universal access to healthcare, enhancing educational institutions, content and accessibility, protecting our environment, safeguarding the rights of marginlised and vulnerable populations, countering social exclusion and ensuring human dignity, then – the argument is – we have to work with those who influence minds, hearts, and continue to provide and manage significant amounts of social services in most countries.”

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Another article by Dr. Karam on a similar topic can be found here:

 

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