In 1948 a young evangelist went to China to preach the Gospel. At one conference a number of youth responded to his message decided to follow Jesus. The morning after, this evangelist was confronted by the conference director, informing him that one of the responding girls had been beaten up and abandoned by her parents for accepting Christ, and was now homeless. Already caring for a large number of children, the director put the bleeding child in the arms of the stunned evangelist and asked him one simple question.
“What are you going to do about it?”
June 20 noted World Refugee Day, a time when the world takes stock of the plight of the now around 50 million children, women and men who are displaced from their homes due to fear of violence, conflict and disaster. This is the highest number since World War Two, largely as a result of growing conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The overwhelming majority (80%) of these flee to neighbouring cities or countries. The UK currently hosts about 200,000 refugees (0.27% of the population, in Lebanon its more than 40%). Once there and having lost everything, they are often dependent upon (mostly poor) host communities and aid organisations for food, water and shelter until they can find work or return home. Often they stay for years in improvised shelters.
Faced with such numbers, one question I have been asked many times is “what response does the world owe to people in need?” Standing in a refugee camp in eastern Congo a few weeks ago, I was asked this question by a malnourished 12 year old boy who had lived in a makeshift tent for 3 years. This is often followed by a second question: “how can we as followers of Jesus in the west respond to people suffering in places far away (or near), be they refugees or among the 1.4bn people who live on less than $1.25 a day?” That’s right, 1.4bn today cannot afford to buy half a flat white coffee, never mind food. So how do we handle this glaring injustice? Pretend it does not exist and ignore it? Engage with it?
I recently heard a famous philosopher try to answer this question from a secular, utilitarian point of view. He believes the world should act to end extreme poverty, and that we should do it by applying our skills and resources in an efficient manner to get the greatest (measurable) outcomes for the greatest number of people. This sounds good in (western) theory perhaps, with its inclination to judge morality based on the consequences of action and its confidence in the goodness of mankind. Still, its focus on efficiency (how) can leave you wondering about the motivation (why).
So what more does Christianity have to offer to this issue?
Quite a lot.
Christianity tells us that we should help those in need, and it changes the world because it first changes us, as illustrated by Jesus and his disciples. Christianity also provides an explanation for many of the world’s problems (sin), motivation for addressing them (grace) and a vision for life as it should be (the Kingdom).
Jesus himself was a refugee during the first year of his life, fleeing to Egypt after his birth. In addition to speaking at length about money, giving and the poor, he spent time with the less fortunate and listened to them. He spoke of compassion, perhaps defined as the willingness to remain where people suffer. He did not run from the sick. He stayed with them. He healed them.
Paul writes that we have been made co-heirs with Christ, if we share in his sufferings (Romans 8:17). Jesus suffered for and with others, and sought to alleviate their suffering by both healing it and by standing with those in suffering. As the church in the west we rarely suffer physical danger, poverty or persecution. As one of the most privileged generations to live on this earth, that lack of suffering can be a challenge for us. It makes it easier to settle for what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” – grace without much sacrifice or cost. Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace” calls us to what the disciples came to know well, an unpredictable life of struggles and challenges, but lived with the promise of amazing grace. This grace comes at the price of a wound that will not heal, that reminds us that the promise of the Kingdom comes at the cost of a cross.
The disciples were asked to let go of life as they knew it, to go to people they had never heard of, using skills and resources they did not yet have. Where the learned priests of the time had turned hard towards the poor and weak, the disciples were asked to be soft-hearted and share in the struggles of the world. It was not smart or efficient (by worldly standards), but it changed the world, and their lives, forever. By modern standards the disciples would hardly have qualified for seminary, and yet they laid the foundation for our church today. They offered their brokenness to a broken world. Jesus did not stick to our modern preferences for high qualifications, quick wins and low-pain options, but called the unqualified, unwanted and insecure to express his Kingdom in the world. And they did, by taking the risks they were called to take, even when it didn’t look smart and came at a high cost. They came to realise that whilst grace is free, it will still cost you everything.
We should realise this too.
Jesus calls us to engage with the pain in the world so that we cannot remain indifferent to it or to the grace given to us by him. Jesus sought out those the world rejected; lived with them, cried with them and died with them. The early church stayed behind in cities infected with plague to care for the sick. Edmund Burke, another utilitarian, wrote that most evil in the world is committed by good men who do nothing. The west seems to tend towards believing what we can live good lives simply by not committing evil. But what about the good actions we are capable of but don’t do?
Sometimes I wonder if our sins of omission aren’t bigger than our sins of commission. How is it that whilst the world has never been wealthier than today, the richest 300 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion; we have 50m refugees and somehow there are still homeless children in London? 8 times more money has been spent on the recent World Cup ($15bn) than on humanitarian aid to South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic combined ($1.8bn).
There is no such thing as an easy life. Perhaps what’s keeping us from proactively getting involved with the problems of the world outside our immediate circles is that it means leaving our comparative comforts for seemingly hopeless complexity, confusion and despair. This may seem best left to some of those experts-on-how-to-save-world. If so, then we are letting our human weaknesses limit what God can do, and has done so many times, through normal people. The local church, domestic and international organisations offer us plenty of opportunities to learn and get involved. Our involvement and our support for them offer us the chance to turn despair into hope.
The young evangelist in China was Robert Pierce. The question changed his life, and his answer to it changed the lives of many others. He went back home and started to raise money and awareness to support children in need, by starting an organisation called World Vision. This organisation now has 45,000 staff in more than 100 countries, supporting children and their families in poverty, crisis and conflict. Countless other people like him have changed the world by responding to the needs around them.
His prayer during this time was: “May my heart be broken for what breaks the heart of God.”
In our respective worlds then, “what breaks the heart of God, and do we let it break ours too?”
And, “what are you going to do about it?”
Image: DRC IDPs11, by IRIN photos, used under CC