When we chose to use “Compassionate Christian Community” as our church’s ‘byline’ and in our mission statement, we did so because compassion is a part of our ‘DNA.’ It is a beautiful and expansive word that reflects the embodied love of Christ who “suffered with” and for us.
An article in the Gordon-Conwell Seminary magazine, Contact, captures the legacy of Christian compassion that defies the rhetoric of many of the “New Atheists.” It is a good follow-up from one of the “Tough Questions” in a previous post, The Church – Bad for Humanity?
The Living Gospel: The Church’s Historic Witness, by Dr. Frank James, Contact magazine, Spring 2013.
In recent years, Christianity has been the object of considerable ridicule. The New Atheists—Dawkins, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens—have made a nice living by declaring that religion in general and Christianity in particular “poisons everything.” Of course, this is nothing new. Karl Marx demeaned Christianity as the “opiate of the masses.” The British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, defiantly asserted: “The Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of the moral progress in the world.”
So it was surprising to read an article from another atheist who took a rather different slant on Christianity. Matthew Parris, columnist for The Sunday Times of London, wrote a provocative online article titled: “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.” Returning to the Africa of his youth, Parris makes the startling observation:
“It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These along will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
This is a refreshingly honest sentiment from one who demurs from personal allegiance to Christianity. If we are honest, Christian history has its fair share of skeletons in its collective closet. This is hard to swallow, and I wish it were not so. Despite the fact that Christians have not always behaved in ways that would please Christ, the many examples of Christian compassion down through the ages are nothing short of dazzling.
From the beginning, Christians have been known for their compassion for the disadvantaged. Perhaps one of the most astonishing examples is the opposition to infanticide in the early church. In the Greco-Roman world, female infants and males born with deformities were of no value and often deposited on the village dung heap to die of exposure—or perhaps even more tragic, raised as temple prostitutes. In a chilling letter written one year before the birth of Christ, a Roman citizen named Hilarion directs his pregnant wife: “When you are delivered of a child—if it is a boy, keep it; if it is a girl, discard it.” The Stoic philosopher, Seneca, is even more callous: “Monstrous [deformed] offspring we destroy; children too, if born feeble and ill-formed, we drown.” This is the cruel world to which Christianity came with their counter-cultural message. Over time, this gospel changed the Roman Empire.
Christian compassion has manifested in many ways down through the ages. In a world entirely lacking in social services, Christians became their brothers’ keepers. At the end of the 2nd century, Tertullian wrote that while pagan religions spent their donations “on feasts and drinking bouts,” Christians spent theirs “to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents and of old persons confined to the house.” By the 4th century, Christians had become especially well known for their compassion for the poor—both Christian and pagan. The Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate (361–363), even complained about “those impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.”