Friday, January 15, 2010

We won! (Why aren't we cheering?) (Sunday Reflections for January 17, 2009)

Within hours of the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti this week, individuals, charitable organizations, and governments around the world began mobilizing rescue and relief efforts. Monetary donations began coming in almost immediately to support those efforts. Haiti was on everyone’s mind and people wanted to help.

It’s what we have come to expect. So much so, that a day after the quake there was some criticism that relief efforts were not happening fast enough. A corner of some kind was turned in public response to disaster with the horrific Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami just after Christmas, 2004. It killed over 230,000 people in 14 countries and generated an enormous worldwide humanitarian response, including monetary donations of over $7 billion.

The assumption that unaffected people should aid those suffering from disasters in other parts of the world has been taking hold for some time. What has changed most recently has been greatly increased awareness and ability. Global media coverage, now supplemented by a variety of internet outlets, brings almost instant news of major disasters. Modern transportation and organizational resources make it possible to deliver aid within days or even hours of these events.

Yet as impressive as those technological abilities are, what is even more remarkable has been the change in attitude. It is simply assumed that when people are suffering, wherever they might be, we will come to their aid. Why? How did that happen? And do we even realize what a tremendous human advancement this has been?

Helping the poor, sick or other victims of misfortune is encouraged or commanded by most of the world’s religions. For Christians, nowhere is this better summarized than in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Indeed both the Old and New Testaments say that acts of charity are more important than observance of religious ritual. Thus, the parable both lifts up the Samaritan’s generosity and condemns the religious authorities who pass by the injured man they meet on the road.

Over the centuries institutions like hospitals and orphanages were established by the church to care for the poor and weak in fulfillment of Jesus’ injunction to love one’s neighbor. Still, at times of major disasters like wars, famines, plagues or earthquakes, most everyone was on their own—as they knew. The resources and social organization simply didn’t exist to provide large scale help.

Two developments which mark the Modern Era caused that to change: the Enlightenment’s social revolution and free market capitalism’s Industrial Revolution. From the former came the notion of the essential equality and worth of all people and from the latter came the ability to turn those ideas into reality.

Perhaps the best known literary example of these two developments coming together is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge holds to the ancient notion that misfortune is somehow the victim’s fault. When asked for a contribution to help the poor at Christmas he expresses mocking dismay at the possibility that the poor houses (debtor prisons) have gone out of business. The poor should be punished for their condition, not rewarded.

After a series of Christmas Eve visions, Scrooge experiences a dramatic change of heart and becomes a benefactor to Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit’s family. In Dickens’ secular view this is redemption, yet it actually comports well with the Bible’s own practical understanding of repentance and salvation. A Christmas Carol was an instant success and gave voice to the growing belief that all people have a duty to come to the aid of those in need. In the decades to come, large-scale aid organizations would be established (Red Cross) and a growing body of legislation would: first, restrict abusive practices (slavery, child labor), and then, create government programs to help people in distress (unemployment benefits, public hospitals).

The biggest change, however, came with the global catastrophe of World War II. Millions of people were displaced and needed aid of all kinds. Donations of food, clothing and shelter were made on a scale never before seen. The shattered economies of Europe also came in for help in the first true foreign aid program, the Marshall Plan. But the really dramatic change came in the victors’ treatment of the vanquished. After World War I, enormous reparations were laid on Germany in punishment through the Versailles Treaty. This was now recognized as simply planting seeds for the next war. This time Germany and Japan also received aid to rebuild as a means to keep them from returning to their militaristic past.

So not only has Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbors been accepted as a standard of human behavior, so too has his much more ambitious challenge to lover our enemies. Are either of these observed fully or perfectly? Of course not. Yet they are now seen as norms, not just for individuals, but for nations as well.

This dramatic advancement in human relations has not gotten the notice or appreciation it deserves. Oddly, this is especially true in the church which, it can be argued, should take some credit for this change by its spreading of Christianity over the centuries. The reason for this, I suspect, is the strange ambivalence the church feels about its own mission.

In spreading the message of Jesus, does the church really want, or expect, to succeed? I don’t think it is a stretch to see that one of the church’s problems today, and at least a partial explanation for its modern decline, is the success of its outreach. It has succeeded in convincing people of Jesus’ and the Bible’s view that all people are of equal value and all need to be cared for: we are our sisters' and brothers' keepers. In the struggle for people’s hearts and minds, the church won!

But there hasn’t been a lot of cheering. For one thing, I don’t think Christians really believed it would or could happen. Did Jesus really believe the kingdom of God was at hand? Aren’t people inherently evil? Hmm, we may need to rethink that one. Second, whenever an organization accomplishes a task it’s faced with a new challenge: What next? In some ways that is the church’s dilemma right now: What do we do for an encore? This is another twist on the popular adage: Be careful what you pray for because God may just give it to you.

Yet we should be cheering, even as we recognize that humanity still faces many challenges ahead. Besides the earthquake's damage, much of Haiti’s misery now is the result of its poverty and the abuse it has suffered from its own leaders and as well as foreign governments. What’s needed is the will to do what’s necessary to change that situation. And while not easy, that challegne is nonetheless obvious and accepted, demonstrated by the aid flowing in from around the world.

It’s easy to be discouraged or depressed by the world’s many problems. We also need to recongnize that there have been real accomplishments, to give us strength and hope for the struggles ahead. Only then can we look past the horror and suffering that is Haiti today and see the new world of justice and peace emerging at the same time and in just such places.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure we are taught to cheer. It's nice to be noticed though.

Here's a clip of a worship service I saw today that was pretty inspiring. Oh, thanks for the uplifting post. David Mc