This is a two-part guest post by my blogging (tor)mentor, Andy Murray, author of Ragged Theology. Part two of this excellent piece to follow tomorrow.
Philanthropy is not a casual product; it is not a mere outcome of a zeitgeist, or fashion of the age; its roots are deep in the soil of Christianity; it cannot pick up a living either from Paganism, or Agnosticism, or Secularism, or any other system cut off from the influence of the love of Christ.
This is one of the first paragraphs in William Garden Blaikie’s Leaders in Modern Philanthropy published in 1884. What follows is a barnstorming tour of all the great Christian philanthropists over many centuries from John Howard, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Andrew Reed, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, David Livingstone, William Burns, John Patterson, Agnes Salt and many others. The claim that some make that Dr Thomas Guthrie was some kind of lone voice in 19th century Scotland is simply not supported by facts. Guthrie built on the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and John Pounds in England. His work was taken up by many particularly Lord Shaftesbury in England. He was part of a wider movement that rediscovered evangelical theology and roused a sleeping church to the Biblical mandate of fighting for justice and showing mercy to the marginalised. Their work sprang from their theology.
Despite the UK’s departure from its Christian heritage, much of our society remains rooted in the Bible. The idea that we are all equal in the sight of the law, the idea of education for all, the concept of compassion for the poor, are all inextricably linked to a Biblical view of humanity. If you don’t think this is important look closely at other societies and see the radical difference. The foundational Christian belief that man is made in the image of God has radical implications for the way we treat our fellow man, particularly those who need special protection and care. Christianity teaches that everyone has dignity and worth. It also teaches that anyone can be redeemed from their fallen/sinful state. Man’s fundamental problem is not poverty, housing or power; it is sin (Matthew 15 v 15-20). The addict, the wife beater, the thief can all be redeemed and transformed by the grace of God. Christianity is about grace, hope and most of all love. It is religion of redemption and second chances.
But much more than personal transformation, Christianity places on the believer ‘a strong dynamic impulse to diffuse the love which had fallen so warmly on themselves’ (Blaikie). Our Saviour, ‘the friend of publicans and sinners, is our ultimate example. Jesus taught repeatedly about the need to love the poor in parables such as that of the Good Samaritan. His teaching in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats couldn’t be clearer. He defined true greatness thus: ‘the servant of all being the greatest of all.’ Remember that Jesus was speaking at a time when the order of the Roman empire masked a barbarous culture. Gladiatorial sports slaughtered tens of thousands for nothing but the amusement of the baying mob. Slavery was commonplace and women were often used as sexual playthings. Yes, there were occasional spurts of compassion when an amphitheatre collapsed, but there was no systematic relief of the poor. It was a hierarchical society where groups and classes were systematically oppressed and kept down. A bit like modern Britain.
It was as the New Testament church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire that Christianity’s counter-cultural message of love for the poor began to change societies. As Blaikie says: ‘In the course of time, barbarous sports disappeared; slavery was abolished or greatly modified; laws that bore hard on the weaker sex were amended; the care of the poor became one of the great lessons of the Church.’ This is not to say that the church did not frequently go wrong. Often the methods of showing love became exaggerated and distorted. The alms-giving in the mediaeval church became more about the abuse of power than equipping the poor to become self-reliant. The Reformation was a great return to Biblical Christianity, and while it was a time of great conflict it also saw a return to Biblical philanthropy and care for the poor. It encouraged education and saw the start of schools, colleges and universities. The Bible was not only given to the common man but he was also taught how to read it. This why William Tyndale became a hunted terrorist. His English New Testament was a threat because it smashed the power of a corrupt church.
So far so good. Even the most cynical atheist would surely acknowledge that Christian philanthropy has done great good. But let’s be honest, there have been many inspiring philanthropists who haven’t had an ounce of love for God. It is wonderful to read of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie building libraries, donating ornate organs and building palaces of peace. My family home in Sutherland has many monuments to the generosity of Carnegie. We celebrate every effort that is made to relieve the poor and change society for the better whether in Christ’s name or not. Nobody can deny that many charities have sprung up with little or no Christian inspiration. History, however, shows us that all too often the greatest social reformers have been compelled by a zeal for God that leads to an enduring love for his neighbour. They inspire followers who, if not always sharing in their theology, agree with their goals and are willing to follow their example. Often secular philanthropists (such as Carnegie) are blessed with great fortunes and influence, but it takes an exceptional love to persevere in championing the poor without wealth or power. It is one thing for an inspiring political leader to rise up, but unless it is underpinned with the theology of Christian compassion, how long will it last?