The Golden Dream
Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn on Flickr.
Last month I expressed frustration that despite all we proclaim and do in our churches to bring the love of Christ to hurting and lost people, the prevailing view of Christians in our land is that we are intolerant, arrogant, irrational, holier-than-thou monitors of others’ behaviors.
In short, when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel, we are losing badly.
Here’s the good news, though. When it comes to doing the Gospel, we’re winning on an important front. Even though few people realize it, through the work of the faithful, God has radically reshaped our culture in God’s image.
Conventional humanist wisdom asserts that compassionate attention to the needs of the poor and powerless is just a part of human nature and has nothing to do with religion or Christianity.
But behavioral psychology tells us that empathy is an acquired trait. It is not innate in humans -- it has to be taught. Social justice cannot happen without empathy; therefore a desire for social justice is not something we are born with. It had to come from outside us.
Where did it come from? Compassion did not just bubble up out of the goodness of peoples’ natures. Ancient cultures were shockingly cruel by our standards today
Much of our culture is derived from the Greeks; we think of them as the wise philosophers and innovators who established the groundwork for democracy, etc. -- the height of civilization. Listen to what Plato, one of the most enlightened Greeks of all time, had to say about social justice:
A poor man who is no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die.
That wasn’t just Plato; that was the Greek view. “God helps those who help themselves” was a common theme in Greek literature.
What about the Romans, the other enlightened cradle of Western civilization? Under the influence of the Pliny the Elder, the Romans debated whether any kind of aid to the poor should be allowed to exist, or should be prohibited by law.
The Romans’ rationale was coldly analytical: According to the philosopher Plautus, “By giving to the poor, you lose what you give and prolong his life in misery.”
In our secular, cultural heritage, there is no such thing as the blind receiving sight, the lame leaping for joy, lepers being cleansed, and the poor having good news preached to them. According to our secular traditions, the answer to “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a resounding, “No!”
Through the Hebrew people, God introduced the bizarre, out-of-the-box notion that a just, fulfilling life for all is responsibility of the community.
Building on this tradition, Jesus proposed an idea of social justice so radical it was not on the radar even in the world of the famously compassionate Hebrews until he introduced a revolutionary concept that absolutely astounded world -- the concept of universal agape love. This, he said, was THE distinguishing mark of God’s faithful.
The early Christians lived this truth. “Let the poor man be provided with food from the self-denial of him who fasts,” they taught, and they backed it up with actions.
This was so outside societal norms that the Romans laughed at it. According to the satirist Lucian in the 2nd century, “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible.”
But more thoughtful Roman leaders began to see that this attitude produced a more prosperous, peaceful society. Embarrassed that a politically powerless, offbeat religious sect contributed more to the stability of realm and the welfare of its citizens than they, emperors such as Julian and Constantine embraced the idea of social justice and tried to emulate it.
Should we feel incensed that secular humanists and others have co-opted the Christian message of compassionate justice for all and claimed it as their own? Maybe. But the important thing for God is that compassionate justice flows throughout the world. If some in the secular world now do it better than we, perhaps we in the church need to reflect on how well we carry on the early Christian message. A legacy of selfishness from our Greek and Roman and other secular cultural roots continues to thrive among us and we are called as Christians to spread a message that combats that.
But at least we have tangible proof that a valuable part of this message has been heard and embraced well beyond our church doors. God is indeed actively working in the world through us.