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Monday, January 31, 2005

Christian Tsunami Relief: good works with good news...bad?

I came across this article today by Seema Sirohi and published in Outlook India (28 January 2005) that set me thinking more seriously about the wisdom of mixing religion with relief work. Can the two never go together? and if they can, in what way?

Right from the get-go, the title suggested much about the tenor of the article: "Counting Sheep? The proselytizing zeal of American missionaries knows no slack even in tsunami aid." To say the least, a charge seems to be implied here about the utter impropriety of leveraging on the vulnerability of tragedy victims, and the sheer insensitivity of not knowing that.

As a Christian who "takes her faith very seriously" (--and what is a Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Jew, supposed to be, except one who is serious about their faith? this has always struck me as a tautology often arising from lack of thought and simple bias against the religious), I must admit I felt a little personally targeted by the tone set by the title. More than that, I felt that something had to be wrong: this picture of 'underhanded' Christians and an insensitive Christianity does not square with what I know to be true according to what the Bible says.

Sirohi's main thesis is that the zeal of American religious organisations and missionaries in mixing religion and relief work has manifested itself in ways that exacerbate religious tensions. She cites, and rightly suggests as crass, the comments of Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) that "If we are going to depend on Muslims to go in and help Muslims, well, they aren't coming."

Reading her criticism of the actions of certain Christian groups and individuals is saddening, as some of her criticisms--assuming the facts are accurate--are to my mind well-warranted and consistent with biblical principles. For instance, "some Christian missionaries [in Samanthapettai, a fishing village in Tamil Nadu] reportedly refused to distribute biscuits and water unless the Hindu recipients agreed to change their faith. When TV reporters approached the nuns, they refused to comment and left."

Firstly, the Bible never teaches that we should refuse compassion and aid to non-believers. If anything, Jesus Himself repeatedly taught that the love of God is to be shown precisely by loving our neighbours in word and deed, be they Samaritan or Jew (e.g. Luke 10:27-37). The apostle James exhorts believers to show their faith by their works--for example, by not showing partiality to the rich, in giving food to the hungry, and in clothing the poor. Peter challenges believers to keep their behaviour excellent among non-believers so that they will observe the good deeds and glorify God (1 Peter 2:12). Secondly, Christians are to be people of integrity, striving to live in a way which is above reproach, "always being ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence, and keep a good conscience so that the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ will be put to shame." (1 Peter 3:15) The context in this verse is slightly different, but the principle of integrity and transparency remains relevant. If the nuns did in fact deliberately evade the reporters as if they were aware of some impropriety, then they are rightly rebuked and we can pray that they will come to walk in a way more worthy of the risen Christ.

Sirohi also highlights the seemingly less-than-honest promotional tactics of World Help in its quest to gain more supporters, making its provision of Bhojpuri bibles sound more momentous than it really is. I quote:
World Help has printed 1,00,000 Bibles in Bhojpuri, a language it glibly assumes was hidden from evangelists. "Imagine a group of 90 million people who have never been able to read God's Word in their own language until just recently. What an incredible opportunity God is giving us to provide Bibles for the Bhojpuri for the very first time!" declares its mission statement. (Not quite an accurate claim: Bible work in Bhojpuri is nearly a century old in India, even older if you count work targeted at the diaspora.)

Again, if she is correct that World Help has deliberately sought to manipulate the truth for more effective sales rhetoric, her criticism is a fair one. Without further knowledge of World Help, though, one may reserve harsher judgement and generously take it that they were just mistaken in their belief about the recent realisation of a Bible in the Bhojpuri language. In any case, her case is made where it applies to a larger point: that of honesty, again, a virtue the biblical God takes very seriously. Consider passages verses like: "Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being..." (Psalm 51:6a) and "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight," Proverbs 11:1--not forgetting the commandment against lying: "Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness." (Exodus 23:1)

I also agree with Sirohi when she writes that by "lacing help with questions of faith, however delicately," and by "charity with an ambiguous agenda," evangelical groups--especially American ones--can deepen religious faultlines at a time when talk of civilisational wars rages in e-chat rooms." That is why I believe that Christians can and should help in the relief effort not so much by advertising that they are there as missionaries, or by making the distribution of Bibles a focus, but by doing what they have pledged to the local governments as their mission: simply, to offer humanitarian aid. There should be no ambiguity in the agenda.

By all means, be open and honest about the mission statement of your organisation (that's what's rankling many people, Sirohi included, I think). But clearly distinguish that outright evangelistic mission (by which I mean the holding of evangelistic meetings, constantly encouraging people to attend church services, and the like) from the humanitarian one, even though there is, and ought to be, a vital relationship between the two--in that we love because God first loved us, and we can show His love to others by our love for them. In a time when religious sensitivities run high, and where the American is rightly or wrongly particularly suspect, it is only to be expected that presenting too closely the good news with good works will make one stand accused of taking advantage of a bad situation. And such practice in one extreme form--the Portia-type mercy to Shylock (i.e., your faith for your bread)--has reared one of its ugliest and most harmful heads in this whole issue. "This kind of proselytisation," says Ashutosh Varshney, political science professor at Michigan University, "demeans the idea of religious conversion, for it uses helplessness to spread a religion." Amen to that. But I would like you to be clear about what I am saying.

I am not saying that Christians should not desire to reach out to the lost through the gospel. They should, and it is a command that they do. Jesus said, "Go ye therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20) I am also not suggesting that relief work and (the more vital) salvation work can never go together, or that they ought not to. The Holy Spirit can and does touch and convert hearts at any time, and in any place--tsunami-devastated or not. If His people pray fervently for opportunities to share the good news with the unsaved, He will provide them. There is no need to sneak in the gospel with the food, or force it down people's throats. The execution of Jesus' command was not meant to, and does not, work that way. As Ashutosh Varshney continues, a "genuine change in conviction remains the best basis for religious conversion and should not be stopped." To that I would say, the only basis for genuine conversion.

Where there are true Christians doing God's work of compassion in the right way, Christ's light and love will be manifest. As the Preacher says, "To everything there is a season..." (Ecclesiastes 3:1) Though Christians are enjoined to preach the Word, in season, out of season, there are legitimate contexts in which the cause of the Kingdom is served not by the enthusiastic distribution of Bibles or preaching from the rooftops even before one has spent time with the locals and shown that one does care. Often times, the gospel is advanced because people, seeing the excellent testimony of Christians doing good works, came forward on their own accord to ask for an account of the hope that is in us.
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and appearing of our great God and Saviour Jeus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds." (Emphasis mine, Titus 2:11-15)
"Our people must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful." (Titus 3:14)

Compelled by God's love and His truth, countless numbers of Christians have already gone out into the mission field to offer help to the needy and to win the lost. (All people need the Lord! As offensive as this may sound, there is no apology for the message that salvation comes by Jesus alone. Some offence is inevitable.) Much good has been done through the ages. Christian humanitarian work, like that of many other faith-based and secular organisations, is nothing new. I shall be praying that God will be glorified indeed, and many sheep brought into the Shepherd's fold, by Christian work done in a Christian way in which God will be pleased to bless.


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