This morning, our pastor spoke on Christ's command to be salt and light in the earth, to be influencing our world with a Christian point of view. I really appreciated his comments, and I may have to snag the MP3 to listen to them again. What I find most interesting is to compare and contrast his views to those of the liberal Christians (who want to do good things, even for sort of the right reasons (because we ought to), but may or may not believe Jesus is fully God and fully man, or that some will be condemned to spend eternity in hell, or what have you), or even the secular products of the Christian heritage of the United States (I have at least one friend who doesn't really believe in God, but she believes in helping people and doing service work, and these things). The latter groups would have us believe that things like helping the sick and the poor are things we ought to do, and rightfully so. We should be doing these things. But we should also have a reason for doing them. If the naturalists/physicalists are right, and this world is really all there is, why should I really do something to help someone else? In fact, when I help others, I'm not helping myself (at least not directly), so I'm doing more harm than good to myself, and isn't that who I should really be concerned with? It would seem so. Yet as Christians, we should be looking to serve others' physical needs as well as their spiritual needs; but we should be doing both.
In a hasty conclusion, I leave you with the following article, some of which was quoted this morning, by Roy Hattersley, published in the Guardian Unlimited on Monday, September 12, 2005:
Faith does breed charityHurricane Katrina did not stay on the front pages for long. Yesterday's Red Cross appeal for an extra 40,000 volunteer workers was virtually ignored.
The disaster will return to the headlines when one sort of newspaper reports a particularly gruesome discovery or another finds additional evidence of President Bush's negligence. But month after month of unremitting suffering is not news. Nor is the monotonous performance of the unpleasant tasks that relieve the pain and anguish of the old, the sick and the homeless - the tasks in which the Salvation Army specialise.
The Salvation Army has been given a special status as provider-in-chief of American disaster relief. But its work is being augmented by all sorts of other groups. Almost all of them have a religious origin and character.
Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations - the sort of people who not only scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.
The arguments against religion are well known and persuasive. Faith schools, as they are now called, have left sectarian scars on Northern Ireland. Stem-cell research is forbidden because an imaginary God - who is not enough of a philosopher to realise that the ingenuity of a scientist is just as natural as the instinct of Rousseau's noble savage - condemns what he does not understand and the churches that follow his teaching forbid their members to pursue cures for lethal diseases.
Yet men and women who believe that the Pope is the devil incarnate, or (conversely) regard his ex cathedra pronouncements as holy writ, are the people most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others. Last week a middle-ranking officer of the Salvation Army, who gave up a well-paid job to devote his life to the poor, attempted to convince me that homosexuality is a mortal sin.
Late at night, on the streets of one of our great cities, that man offers friendship as well as help to the most degraded and (to those of a censorious turn of mind) degenerate human beings who exist just outside the boundaries of our society. And he does what he believes to be his Christian duty without the slightest suggestion of disapproval. Yet, for much of his time, he is meeting needs that result from conduct he regards as intrinsically wicked.
Civilised people do not believe that drug addiction and male prostitution offend against divine ordinance. But those who do are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, replace the sodden sleeping bags and - probably most difficult of all - argue, without a trace of impatience, that the time has come for some serious medical treatment. Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists.
The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand. The close relationship may have something to do with the belief that we are all God's children, or it may be the result of a primitive conviction that, although helping others is no guarantee of salvation, it is prudent to be recorded in a book of gold, like James Leigh Hunt's Abu Ben Adam, as "one who loves his fellow men". Whatever the reason, believers answer the call, and not just the Salvation Army. When I was a local councillor, the Little Sisters of the Poor - right at the other end of the theological spectrum - did the weekly washing for women in back-to-back houses who were too ill to scrub for themselves.
It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity à la carte. The Bible is so full of contradictions that we can accept or reject its moral advice according to taste. Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night.
The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.
Edit: What is my point? Christ commands us to be salt and light in this world, because the world needs it. We can do this by serving others, and we ought to, for they are made in the image of God as are we (as Hattersley mentions). But it's important that we keep Christ in all this. If I volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend, and I'm doing it because I am infused with some Christian ethic, but I deny that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, the Messiah and Son of God, I'm still in trouble. We love others because Christ loved us, and he loves them, and they are human, and there is something beautiful about that. But it seems to me that the one who denies Christ's work on the cross will ultimately choose him/herself over others. Maybe he/she can fake it for a while (and perhaps even a long time), but when it comes down to it, the self will be chosen over others.
Thus, "social Christianity" (what I'm calling the idea of choosing a Christian ethic to live by (or accepting Christ's "good moral teachings") but not his work on the cross) doesn't work, and it doesn't have to, as long as the Church of God is being what He called it to be.