‘I never witnessed such countenances: starvation on many faces, the children with their melancholy looks, big-looking knees, shrivelled legs, hollow eyes, swollen-like bellies. God help them, I never did witness such wretchedness.’
Need is so familiar that we are almost inured to it. We have come a long way from the first shock of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and the harrowing images it brought into our homes. For a time, we were unable to ignore poverty and suffering, and people’s response was immediate and heartfelt.
Except, these words do not describe the Ethiopian famine of 1984; they are actually an account of the Highland famine of 1845 – 55. More specifically, they are the eyewitness account of the Rev. Norman MacLeod, who was crossing the ford at Gramasdail in Uist, when he saw the destitute population, gathering cockles for their food. His heart was clearly moved, and he appealed to the Creator to take them into His care.
If you do not believe in God, such petitions seem void. I know that the Western Isles Secular Society (or is it Western Isles Non-believers – mo chreach, they have that many denominations, it’s hard to keep up), view prayer as an alternative to real help. Atheists think that to say, ‘I’m praying for you’ is tantamount to telling people that you are unwilling to do anything practical for them.
They say that . . . and then they also object to Christians being involved in charitable works. Groups like Hebrides Alpha should not be able to request a Christian commitment from its employees, palliative care should not be offered by a home founded by Christians; whatever next? It must be difficult, of course, carving out an identity for yourself purely in terms of what you do not believe. Such a negative position must leave you contradicting yourself frequently. I mean, telling Christians that they can’t interfere and impose their worldview on others seems to me a little bit like . . . well, interfering and imposing your worldview on others.
Charity, though, without Christians? Etymologically, the very word derives from one meaning, ‘Christian love’. This is not cold, dutiful alms-giving, but obedience to the Saviour. For He it was who said that the poor would always be with us. I don’t for one minute believe that this was meant as a discouragement, that we should resign ourselves to the omnipresence of grinding poverty. After all, He followed it up with something else – he added that we would not always have Him with us.
So, what was he saying? I believe that it was a reminder that the poor and needy are His proxy in one important sense: those who love the Saviour would not see Him suffer, would not see Him hunger, or thirst. Neither can a Christian look upon need in others, and not be moved in their heart to help. It is their privilege to help, and no man has the right to stand in their way.
The Rev. Norman Macleod appealed to the Almighty for the famine victims in the Highlands and Islands, and then he appealed to the government. Still in its infancy, the Free Church rapidly identified those most in need of food aid, able to do so because its ministers were so close to the congregations they served. ‘Breadalbane’, the boat they had purchased to circumvent problems with pulpit supply and availability of land for new churches, was pressed into service, carrying meal to the hungry corners of the region. Not one of those destitute people, I am certain, questioned the motives of the church in bringing them assistance.
In our own day, the shining example of Christian love in this regard is the Bethesda Hospice. Founded by Christians, built by charitable giving, it offers compassion, kindness, dignity – and, yes, love – to those in the last hours of their lives. They cared for my terminally-ill husband as though they were caring for the body of his Saviour. But they would care for anyone just the same. That is, after all, the essence of charity.
I recently sat in our hall in Stornoway Free Church, and listened to a presentation by Christians Against Poverty. There are people in this country right now who have to choose between eating and staying warm. We heard of a couple who ate only twice a week so that their children could have a meal every day. CAP is doing something about that. Have we honestly reached a point where people believe that work like this should be curtailed simply because it carries the label, ‘Christian’? And if we are reaching that point, what is secularism going to be doing to supply the deficiency? Or are Christians expected to carry on being charitable, and to be complicit in removing their Saviour’s name from their efforts, lest He offend?
I pity anyone who falls for the argument that charity should not be allowed in the name of Christ. There is an agenda being pushed all the time, however, that aims to persuade us of just that. They tell us that it is our right not to have Christ’s presence insisted upon; they try to convince us that it is wrong for Christians to interfere in good works. God forbid that they should succeed. If they do, we might well say then of the secularists themselves, ‘I never did witness such wretchedness’.