Of Crosses both Roman and Red

Weighing the Social and Spiritual Gospels

I did an internship at Engineering Ministries International (EMI) in the summer of 2006, living in Colorado for 3 months while I worked at their office. The organization primarily does engineering design work for Christian ministries that provide some form of assistance to the poor overseas. During one meeting I made a comment to my supervisor, Craig, asking him what he thought about the integration of the social and spiritual gospels. He drew a cartoon ghost and a cartoon body on the white board, and turned to the rest of the group for their thoughts. A moment of silence followed.

Christians in general do a great deal of humanitarian and social aid work. They also do a great deal of preaching. These are sometimes denoted as the “social” and “spiritual” gospels, respectively. But there is a denominational and traditional bias in these activities—some groups do much more of one than the other. Perhaps the reader wonders: how do these two things fit together?

Doing humanitarian work brings religious and secular people into close contact. Despite their differing perspectives, there seems to be an understanding that helping those in need is a positive act. Where does this understanding come from? Although the inclination to help others comes naturally to many of us, many such inclinations are not actualized, and even our most natural inclinations undergo justification. This justification—the impetus for our actions—is at the core of this issue. Christians have a seemingly dual mandate to love others, and to share their faith. Additionally, the question of why this is done may be raised: is it “true altruism,” [1] or is it solely the belief that behaving appropriately leads to heaven?

Though there is no additional cost to evangelize, but it can be seen as a barbaric and condescending act that can even diminish the effect of a good deed. Critics have scrutinized acts of charity accompanied by evangelism, portraying the deed as little more than bait on a hook. In one case, the inclusion of one small tract with an otherwise (here unnamed) completely selfless act had critics “questioning the altruism” of the work. Does preaching really negate the altruism of an act it accompanies? And just a moment–if the senders of tracts really believe what they do, why do they invest effort in helping people physically? The obvious solution is also a complex one—answers to these questions depend on our interpretation of the meaning of life, and the foundational assumptions we make about what has value.

Let’s not beat around the bush. It makes a difference if you believe that this life is (or isn’t) the end of all things. A Christian ultimately cannot value the temporal above the spiritual. Nonetheless, the efforts and effects of such a person can still exceed those of one who believes that existence ends with this life, and who values it higher. This may seem paradoxical, but it is not. It derives entirely from a holistic mindset—one which, when grasped, yields dramatic results. It’s a mindset in which expressing faith and helping others are an expression of the same principle.

The struggle to integrate the two is familiar to anyone who has tried it:

What is the point of me believing these things if someone who denies them can do the same deeds as I? What is the point of doing these deeds if what I believe is not clearly expressed in doing so? What is the true objective value of doing good deeds?

Some Christians have responded by leaning entirely towards the social gospel. The effects are immediate, and favour with secular efforts of the same type is easier to come by. Some emphasize only the spiritual, ultimately deciding that nothing temporary can be prioritized: we cannot “save” a life; we can only extend it. Pain can be reduced, but never eliminated. Pleasure can be amplified, but never perfected.

The answer is not in a middle ground that lies halfway between the two, but in a faith that is expressed across the entire spectrum. The Christian does not attempt to earn God’s favour by works, but evidences faith by works. Both humanitarian effort and evangelism are altruistic acts in tandem—an expression of love for others. Evangelism can be criticized as misguided or false, but there is no personal gain to be had, and its altruism cannot be denied [2].

The relationship of humanitarian work with evangelism is twofold. Firstly, those who preach the gospel cannot be believed unless they are accompanied by the raw, tangible compassion that they preach (note James 2:14-17). Secondly, Christians helping others cannot be expected to do so while showing no expression of the faith that has motivated their work. Critics need to understand that the situation is not that of a salesman slipping his advertisements in with a free sandwich. It is one person explaining where he found the food that he is presently sharing with another. There is no secular equivalent. [3]

This is not to say that Christians cannot serve others without thumping them with a Bible–many individuals and organizations make very little show of this, and are even able to get more done by avoiding the controversy that can follow from it.

There is a reason why Christians are able to perform well in this area, and it is not founded entirely upon zeal or adrenaline (though some are decidedly influenced by this). The doing of these works is enabled by faith, as it provides a reason for committing ourselves to the work that our conscience inclines us towards. Our natural desire to help others is coupled with a natural greed, and desire for self gratification. The beliefs we have allow us to give up material wealth; they reduce our tendency to clutch our comforts as tightly as we otherwise might have.

One of my best friends said of his faith that it “allows [him] to do” what he would otherwise feel was right. C.S. Lewis remarked that we might say “what we believe is useful,” perhaps adding under our breath, “If not true.”

After the moment of silence in that meeting at EMI, Craig recounted a story in which women were being auctioned as slaves in a particular country. There were people working with EMI who bought and freed them. He then said that a gospel of atonement resonates much more strongly with someone who knows first hand the experience of having their freedom bought—and that makes a good deal of sense.

To those involved in secular humanitarian efforts, this religious business may induce any number of responses. Some may say that anything goes, so long as the needy are helped. Some may say that religion is as poisonous as the ailments it seeks to cure. I do not claim to know the philosophy behind secular philanthropy, and I imagine it varies widely. But I believe that while our ultimate values may differ, Christians can still work well with atheists, agnostics and people of other faiths to help others in a tangible way.

This is not because we are putting aside our differences to address what we all believe is most important. That may still differ. It is because this value—however we may conceive of it—is a value that we all share.


[1] The nature and existence of said altruism constitutes a separate, future post.

[2] Some people admittedly do get a raw sense of self-satisfaction for being the best preachers and do-gooders. I cannot apologize for these people; they are responsible for their own motivations. It is my personal opinion, however, that this illusion cannot be sustained. A difference in mindset inevitably translates into a difference in behaviour.

There are also objections to con artist evangelists, who rake in obscene sums of money, but these cases have nothing to do with the situations described here, and that topic deserves its own essay.

[3] When you find me the charities that are helping people precisely because of their disbelief in God, I will concede this point. Moreover, I will be quite surprised if they aren’t excitedly explaining it to the people they help.

(Even if there were a charity labeled “Atheists for Orphans,” it would not necessarily be a case of this. Atheism may be a rallying point or commonality, but I’d find it strange if it were the direct cause of the effort.)

Note: The title of this entry is not meant to suggest that the Red Cross has Christian ties (it is secular). I was simply setting up a dichotomy.


One Response to “Of Crosses both Roman and Red”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Something I’d never thought of before: “I cannot apologize for these people; they are responsible for their own motivations.” That’ll be a good attitude for me to work on. Other than that, solid contemplation… a little generalized, but has some good synthesis.

    Oh, let me know if the regular commenting on old posts annoys you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: