By Mark E. Moore
Jesus’ half-brother asserted, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). A cursory glance at the Gospels suggests that Jesus would agree with his sibling. After all, he spent as much time doing good as he did teaching us about being good.
So why do our churches seem so reticent about compassionate ministries? Why have we allowed social awareness to be hijacked by secular liberals such as Oprah and Extreme Makeover or religious liberals such as beer-drinking priests and agnostic denominationalists for whom benevolence appears to be a substitute for doctrinal integrity? In short, how come the liberals get to be the good cop, holding hands with victims, and we have to be the bad cop, trying to stand for the truth?
A FALSE CLAIM
Answer 1: The notion that our churches care little for compassionate ministries just isn’t true. The fact is, the evangelical church has led the way for decades.
Before there was ever Extreme Makeover there was Casas por Cristo and other like-minded ministries building homes across our borders for people who would never be able to repay them. And just because we didn’t fund our endeavor through media blitzed materialistic marketing, does not mean we touched fewer lives.
And while I have a great deal of respect for Oprah for a great many things (not least of which is being able to use just one name) her “Big Give” is a secular knock-off of Jesus’ words—something to the effect of “if you lose your life you will save it.” Moreover, the first responders in and the last ones out of Katrina’s aftermath where born-again believers.
Fact: AIDS relief and education in most of Africa is directly due to evangelical churches. Where AIDS is the greatest problem, Christians are the greatest solution. We don’t see that because it is so far away and because the secular left so bashes the church for being homophobic (an unfortunate but often apt designation). In 2008 Pediatric Nursing’s Humanitarian of the Year Award went to Kathy McCarty, a Christian church missionary, for her innovative work with AIDS patients at Chidamoyo Christian Hospital in Zimbabwe (past winners include Paul Newman and Jimmy Carter).
Conservative Christians have led the way in compassion, benevolence, and charity for a very long time as is testified to by the names of hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and safe houses all over the world. And though Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie got unequal press for their adoption, the lion’s share of children rescued around the world are by believers for whom saving a child is God’s business, not merely politically correct benevolence.
Evangelical Christians have been standard-bearers of benevolence, and this coming generation is going to step it up a notch with social activism for trafficked girls, AIDS sufferers, and a plethora of other human tragedies. Be warned, those who have yet to earn a college degree are going to rise to leadership in the church with fervor for the fringes of society. The homeless and imprisoned, the addicted and abused, the alien and the trafficked are no longer faceless and nameless to them. They are engaged in the trenches with the dregs of humanity and will demand a space for their friends in both the sanctuary and the budget.
Even so, most of our churches have a great deal of room for improvement in overt involvement in social justice and compassion. If you object to this statement, then take a closer look at your church budget to see what kind of priority is given to the poor; ask whether the percentages would satisfy Jesus’ repeated admonitions to care for the poor.
PICKING AND CHOOSING
Answer 2: Historically there have been four primary “tests” of spirituality: (1) doctrinal purity, (2) personal morality, (3) numinous (supernatural) experience, (4) and social justice. Each of these four is clearly articulated in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and in the book of Acts. In other words, all four are normative for God’s people.
This, however, is a lot to ask of any mere mortal. It is just easier to pick two of the four and run hard after them. And usually, any given individual or church will be pretty solid in a couple of them and pretty lax in the others. This may explain why most professed believers master only half of James 1:27.
Most denominations are lax in a couple of the areas of spiritual expression while justifying themselves through their weighted emphasis on others. You might ask, why are we forfeiting social justice to liberals? Maybe it’s because we are unbalanced in overemphasizing our personal morality and doctrinal purity. One can only do so much, I suppose.
This is not to belittle ethics or doctrine. It is, however, to suggest that pure and undefiled religion is a balance of keeping oneself unstained by the world while working in a pigsty. How can one have clean hands raised to God and at the same time dirty hands lifting a beleaguered brother? This is the tricky balance that eludes most of us.
Answer 3: We are afraid of anything that leans to the left. So if the secular left co-opts compassion, it suddenly becomes taboo. . . . OK, not taboo, but really suspect. It appears that we took a secret oath when we joined the club not to imitate the liberals.
We say we’re neither Republican nor Democrat, but who are we kidding? It is not only that our social agendas have been aligned with the Republican Party (or was it the other way around? I frankly forget who first seduced whom) but our non-agenda must reject that of the other. In other words, we can’t participate in things of the “world” lest we validate their waywardness.
We are afraid of being labeled liberals. Maybe we should follow Jesus’ advice, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Compassion is serious business. We will one day stand before the King of all nations, and he will not quiz us on our doctrinal perspicuity. He will demand from us a tangible account of our compassion. It is time that our “unstained” morality is matched by a social activism that reaches a sin-stained humanity.
Mark E. Moore teaches New Testament and hermeneutics at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. He is director of the Institute for Christian Resources.