Feeling defensive about being Christian?
Have you ever felt intimidated by professors or fellow students who are outspoken about their dislike for Christianity in college or university? For many of us, to be a Christian is to be associated with being sexist, racist, anti-scientific, patriarchal, oppressive, and a host of other non-progressive labels.
Moreover, the recent happenings with immigration in the USA has many thinking that Christians are also anti-humanitarian as well. Needless to say, we are not looking so great in the eyes of many, and especially at the university.
I am not denying that there have been some detestable things done by those who call themselves Christians or in the name of Christianity. But does this mean Christianity is entirely bad as some that are antagonistic suggest? Are there no good contributions to reference or point to? Why such strong bias against it? Am I to listen to them as the authority on the issue?
Some very influential thinkers have even gone as far as to say that Christianity has done nothing good for humanity. They summarize Christianity as an unnecessary evil that should be suppressed or entirely eradicated. I thought I would take their assessment as a challenge. Is there any evidence out there that Christians have indeed done anything good for humanity?
Now, this is a complicated issue and there are many angles to consider; however, when it comes to the Christian track record of humanitarian work, I sense few of us know of the many significant historical wins that Christians have brought about in the world.
The historical truth is that Christians were and are VERY much still are involved in humanitarian work. Now, most agree that the reason for their efforts are theologically rooted.
At the core of Christian theology are central ideas – and ideas are powerful things! – which are unique when compared to other religions. Before we take a look back at history, let’s take some time to look at what really makes Christianity special.
Christianity’s opposition to evil
Ultimately, Christianity makes claims about the nature of God, our fallen sinful nature, the world in which we live, and our relationship to it all (how we should live with God, ourselves, and others while in it).
First, the Christian faith holds that neither good nor evil are just constructs; rather, they are real. So, whereas some other religions instruct people on how to either escape the world or how to become totally detached from it, Christians are not called to either of these things. Instead, the Christian faith actually demands of us that we not only resist evil but oppose it, in whatever forms it takes, when we find it.
Consider this, in order to do a decent job of opposing evil, we have to live life relationally. This means living in community well and deliberately cultivating empathy with others. Indeed, it might not be far off to say that relating rightly with God means that we will be rightly relating to others.
Ultimately, as Iain Provan asserts in his brilliant work Seriously Dangerous Religion,
“Those who embrace biblical faith are compelled, then, to reject the popular idea in modern Western thinking that religion is a private matter.”
Be assured, don’t get defensive
To this end, let’s look at the lives of four Christian individuals whose lives evidenced the Christian imperative of combating evil and leaving this world better than they found it. These women and men were agents of meaningful change and are reminders that Christianity, as it is meant to be, demands a heart devoted to humanitarianism. How else are we to take the words of Jesus that we are to love each other as ourselves?
Lord Shaftsbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) 1801-1885
(Labour laws, education for the poor, and mental hospital reform in Britain)
Though he was born into the aristocracy, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, who would become the 7th Earl of Shaftsbury, is especially remembered for his humanitarian work among the poor. If you have read much of Charles Dickens, you might especially remember his vivid descriptions of England’s child labour, and the horrid working conditions they had to endure.
Though it wasn’t just the children who suffered. Working conditions in general were treacherous, and living conditions in poor areas were crowded, unhealthy and miserable. To make it a bit worse still, there was little to no educational opportunities for the children of the poorest classes.
Always considering himself an evangelical, Shaftsbury believed it was his duty to use his position of power to make meaningful changes. And he did it too. Only, as it is with many good causes, these things take time.
Shaftsbury, after getting elected to the house of commons at age 25, began first to implement changes in the mental hospitals (they were called lunatic asylums). Similar to the American system, the individuals were treated terribly – worse than abused animals in many cases. Shaftsbury’s very first speech in the House of Commons was devoted to establishing more humane conditions.
Change took time and effort. Despite the struggle, he continued working on his reforms for the 17 years it took to implement. In total, he continued to serve in this field for 57 years. During that time, he made regular inspections of mental institutions in question. Additionally, Shaftsbury was part of a commission to promote more humanitarian administration in India.
Though his advancements in mental health reform were remarkable, he is better remembered for championing the regulation of child labour laws. At that time in England, children could be worked for 16 hours a day in horrifically unsafe working conditions – at ages as young as four.
Shaftsbury found this deeply disturbing, and was responsible for creating the 1833 Factory Act. While this act didn’t implement all of the changes which Shaftsbury wanted, indeed it wasn’t until 1874 that all his desired changes would be made, it did make some meaningful changes within England.
For instance, it became illegal for children under the age of 9 to be in the more dangerous workplaces (textiles factories, for instance). And children between 9-13 were not to be employed for more than 8 hours a day (Shaftsbury’s wanted that age to be 18). Nine years later he had another Act implemented which banned underground coal mining to be done by any child under the age of 10 (previously those as young as four could be found working in the mine shafts).
In addition to the improvements he made for institutionalized individuals and children, he was also passionate about education; Shaftsbury had a tender spot towards those who had a near impossible time accessing an education.
Toward this end he joined his energies with other likeminded individuals (John Pound developed the idea in 1818) to increase the number of “ragged schools.” This was an appropriate name since such school would accept children no matter how ragged and poor they were.
In 1844 Shaftsbury formed the Ragged school Union, and after eight years there were 200 such ragged schools established in Britain. Thankfully, in 1870 the government introduced national compulsory education; until that time the ragged schools during Shaftsbury’s years helped to provide education to approximately 300,000 children.
Dorothea Dix 1802-1887
(Prison and Asylum reform in North America)
Dix began her career as a teacher and remained in that profession for 24 years. It was only after age 39 that she changed roles and became a nurse. Compelled by her worldview that every person has dignity and is a loved child of God, she was a strong advocate for patients in both prison and mental institutions.
Before she called for changes, Dix traveled extensively throughout the USA as well as Europe to visit prisons, mental institutions, and poorhouses where she recorded and documented everything she saw. Through her use of vivid descriptions, she was able to shame political leaders into taking action. Dix was able to use her vivid and upsetting descriptions to powerful effect, damning the existence of abuses, and shaming political leaders into doing something about it.
For instance, during her lifetime it was common for the mentally ill to be put in prison. While there, it was not uncommon for them to be left without clothes, and left to live in horrid conditions. Dix was shocked, but believed things could and should change – thus her detailed reporting. And it paid off too.
During the next 40 years it was Dix who largely inspired both American and even Canadian legislators to establish state hospitals specifically designed for the mentally ill. Her tireless work resulted in 32 new more humane institutions.
Furthermore, during the years which she spent advocating for the mentally ill (1843-1887), there was a ten-fold increase of mental hospitals, from 13 to 123. In addition to pushing for more facilities, she also advocated for better staff training, which included the concept that the mentally ill could actually recover. It should be noted that this was a novel idea at the time.
In addition to her legacy in mental health reform, she was also responsible for improvements in prison systems as well, including petitioning for the education of prisoners. Underlying her push for humanitarian work was her conviction that all people should be treated with dignity. Why? Because she believed that our conduct in both “social and civil relations” should include “a devout and religious spirit, nourished by Christian truth.”
Elizabeth Fry 1780-1845
Similar to Wilberforce (see below) – and he was proud to call her friend –Elizabeth Fry’s faith-fueled contribution to social justice is remarkable. During her lifetime Fry promoted prison reform, better training for nurses (Florence Nightingale, for instance, was influenced by Fry’s nursing school), and education and housing programs for the poor.
Born into a wealthy banking family, Elizabeth could have easily avoided entirely the majority of people she would come to help in a meaningful and lasting way. She didn’t. Instead, she purposefully committed to getting her hands dirty right in the local community.
Moreover, she initiated a number of reforms at the national level too – and always in the name of Christ. Actually, by the time she had died nearly the entirety of European prison organization had been changed for the better.
In the years leading up to Fry’s time in England, the prison system had been going through a number of changes that led to an increase in prison population, which in turn, resulted in overcrowding and worsening living conditions.
First, there were less hangings. Some say that up to 95 percent of those initially given a hanging sentence were pardoned. Second, the practice of sending criminals to other colonies was becoming prohibitive due to both the expense and places like Australia – understandably – becoming increasingly unwilling to receive convicts.
So, for example, in Newgate prison it was common practice for criminals of every type of conviction to be housed together in wretched conditions: the violent and dangerous offenders right alongside the petty and weaker ones. There were no windows, no privacy, no place to wash, and for women who were about to give birth, well, it had to happen in the prison.
Women ate, defecated, and slept in the same confined area, as did their children. The first time that Fry saw the conditions as a teenager, she asked “If this is the world, where is God?” Later she would state, with reason,
‘When thee builds a prison, thee had better build with the thought ever in thy mind that thee and thy children may occupy the cells.”
After having a particularly moving experience at church when she was in her late teens, she decided her calling was to help those in need, especially women. Beginning in her own community first, she started by initiating small changes. She organized for the collection of clothes and bedding to be brought in for the prisoners.
Then, she organized some rudimentary education. To her satisfaction – and the surprise of the warden – the prisoners showed great interest in being taught. Fry then began to question the tenet of the prison system which, up until then, had existed to merely punish the criminals. She pushed against this, and insisted that the prison system include reform, rehabilitation, and reintegration as well.
For Fry, the importance of showing compassion – real compassion – was a fundamental part of change. It’s important to note that this was a novel idea at the time. With reintegration in mind, she convinced the prison authorities to introduce the teaching of useful trades so that once inmates served their time in prison, they could at least support themselves and their children.
During her lifetime, Fry was not only able to introduce the idea of rehabilitation, the education of inmates, and better prison conditions throughout Britain, but also in France, Holland, Germany, Prussia, Belgium, Switzerland, and elsewhere.
She not only organised societies of women which would actually go into the prisons to assist in practical ways (many still exist today) but also was greatly responsible for initiating changes in law which affected how prisons were run.
Such implementations included the separation of male and female prisoners, regular exercise, inmates getting paid for their work, female guards for female prisoners, and the housing of criminals based on crime instead of being all put together. These were truly revolutionary for the time.
A good deal of success was due to her continuously inviting the authorities to see how much better prisons were which had implanted her reforms. She also, like Dorothea Dix, published her findings widely in order to expose the conditions as much as possible. In all her work Elizabeth Fry boldly ascribed the success of her ideas to Christian love.
William Wilberforce 1759-1833 (Helped to end slavery)
Born into a wealthy merchant family, and an only child, the name Wilberforce could have easily fallen into obscurity. Some have argued that had Wilberforce not become involved to the degree he did, the slave trade would have likely continued for a good deal longer.
While Wilberforce certainly was not a single feature in the fight against slavery, his unique giftings, particular friendships, and expansive energy were invaluable and timely. Unlike some of the less known social reforms which have taken place through the centuries, the halting of the age-old practice of slavery holds a prominent place in our memories.
Perhaps this vivid memory is due to the dramatic shift in attitude and end to slavery, in stark contrast to how slavery was previously so entrenched in nearly every culture. When the most powerful nation in the world banned its practice, the effect was nothing less than historical. Wilberforce happened to be the most visible figurehead of the movement.
How this happened is an interesting story, especially since in his youth he seemed to be on an entirely different course. Indeed, the younger Wilberforce who became independently wealthy at a young age due to inheritance, lived it up to a good degree.
However, at age 24 a change took place. He read the book “The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul” by Philip Doddridge. He then met people like John Newton (think of the hymn “Amazing Grace”). As Wilberforce continued in his faith journey, he began to seriously consider stepping out of politics.
Politics was of the secular world and he wanted to live a holy life. Most providentially his wise counselors suggested that the best way he could be salt to the world was for him to remain in politics and not become a preacher. The rest is history.
Historians agree that much of Wilberforce’s success was due to the great deal of support that his fellow Christians provided him. He was certainly not a lone wolf. Another important aspect of his success was incrementalism. In order to make a meaningful societal change concerning slavery, Wilberforce and his supporters knew they would have to change the collective public perception of slavery.
Something of this magnitude is never done overnight. For Wilberforce it would take over 30 years. During that time Wilberforce refused to allow the issues he was fighting against to be labeled “religious” or “morally subjective”. Even then, the idea that there is a moral relativity was employed against social justice issues.
After all, slavery was legal, socially acceptable, and culturally ingrained. But he eliminated the option for slavery to be wrong at a mere religious or moral level. He helped engender the idea that it was fundamentally wrong. Furthermore, to make his arguments less like personal attacks, he included himself in the criticism.
“I mean not accuse anyone, but to take shame upon myself, in common indeed, with the whole … of Britain, for having suffered this horrible trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought to plead guilty, and not exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others.”
The other methodology Wilberforce employed was the power of incremental progress. He was culturally informed enough to realize that immediate emancipation was sadly neither practical nor possible. (Although this is a distasteful idea, I think it reaches to many areas of social justice Christians are concerned about.)
Thus, for Wilberforce, the power of the slippery slope could be utilized in a positive way. He introduced small laws—and introduced ways of thinking about human rights that worked to reverse slavery—but they took many years to take effect, but eventually progressed towards the abolitionists’ final endgame.
Such laws, in fact, angered many abolitionist supporters and other anti-slavery church people of the time. Why? Because they wanted immediacy. They saw a wrong being committed and wanted it to be stopped now. Laws that didn’t outright end slavery were seen as accepting slavery as an institution. (Yes, be annoyed; I was floored at the lack of foresight. And alas, this attitude still exists today in other areas. It’s the all or nothing binary, and it’s, well, dumb.)
After unsuccessfully trying to ban slavery outright in the 1790s, Wilberforce turned to incrementalization. He introduced legislation that decreased the number of slaves that could be transported; next, regulations on sales and the introduction of slave registration were following steps.
Also passed were laws on the treatment of the enslaved (e.g., banning whipping). This ultimately proved successful. In fact, historians generally agree that these incremental steps—over time—were responsible for the ultimate procuring of freedom for slaves.
Six lessons we can learn from successful cultural changers:
1. We aren’t required to be a preacher to be spiritually useful
Once upon a time it was assumed that the only ways to be really holy and spiritual were to become a preacher or pastor or evangelist. “Sacrifice your dreams for Jesus,” and other such catch phrases were thrown around to the young and impressionable.
Increasingly though, more and more people are beginning to explode this harmful and damaging ideology. Are evangelists needed? Absolutely. And thank God for them, but what would have happened if Wilberforce would have become a pastor? It’s a devastatingly serious question.
Jesus might indeed be calling you to be a preacher, if that’s your calling (and callings are something that we can feel free to enjoy), but if your calling is to be a businesswoman to the glory of God, you would be WASTING your God-given talents to go into something different.
The bible tells us plainly that we are the body of Christ. And bodies have various parts and particular purposes. If you really enjoy and are proficient at accounting, or medical services, or the theatre, quite probably that is what Jesus wants you to get into professionally.
The bible says that we are to be the salt of world. How then are we to get salt into the sciences, for instance, without some of us actually being scientists? How are we to get salt into the fields of education and criminology if we are all aiming to be pastors?
If we are seriously intent on bringing light and salt to the world around us – which will bring meaningful change – we must stop with the dangerous idea that the only way to be especially holy is to “get into the ministry.” Could anyone say that Elizabeth Fry didn’t have a ministry? Of course not.
C.S Lewis once said,
“What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.”
When Lewis says latent, what he means is having a thorough Christianity, but that Christianity not being overt.
Instead it’s, in a way, undercover so as to be more easily accepted. I believe we can alter Lewis’ instruction just a little for the message at hand: “What we want is not more Christians getting into the ministry, but more Christians who have a heart for ministry to get involved in all spheres of society – with their Christianity latent.”
2. We are to live in the world
One of the beautiful traits that all four of our previous heroines and heroes shared were that they were fully planted in the world in which they lived, so whether that meant it was politics or social justice they went where their calling was.
For instance, Florence Nightingale, someone not mentioned, but hopefully still known about, was hugely instrumental in bringing in greater compassion, not to mention cleanliness, into the medical system.
And we haven’t even touched on Christians meaningfully involved in every other part of the spectrum from science and technology to education, to the arts and even good ol’ Tim Tebow! We need to live in the world. And the best way to know how to do that is to know what our giftings are and walk with God to use them for the betterment of our world.
3. We can learn to hunger and thirst for justice
One of the beatitudes we can probably all recite is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The Greek word for righteousness, dikaiosune, also includes the idea of justice. Author Ron Dart added some meaningful clarification for me when he said, Unfortunately, we have often translated the fourth Beatitude as, ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness’; and then, reduce the meaning of ‘righteousness’ to personal and private piety. The text will not grant us this sort of indulgence …. In this Beatitude, Jesus is calling us to be seekers of justice, of the common good, of that which is just for all of us. When the deeper vision of this beatitude is reduced to a merely private and personal way to live a life of holiness and integrity, we sanitize the text and mute its power and fullness. An interest in spirituality that lacks a hunger and thirst for justice is an opiate, a diversion.
I found this immensely helpful when it comes to thinking about how I am to act in the world. And doesn’t it relate well to our four individuals? They were “seekers of justice, of the common good, of that which is just.” In their own spheres they attempted to bring justice. And we can too – each of us in our own unique giftings.
4. We can learn to show and tell, but show first
The theologian Robert J Roth once aptly stated, “Christianity is not a narrow concern for personal salvation but a social ideal that will stir enthusiasm and gain our devotion. Christianity must not give a warning to set one’s face against the world, but a vision of worth and meaning of the work to be done in this life.”
St. Francis of Assisi reportedly said,
“Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words.”
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that the aforementioned individuals were seen as great examples of Christian love was due to their actions being seen much more than their words.
We all know the saying, “actions preach louder than words.” The beautiful thing is that all of us are gifted to DO something in the world. So whether that is in the arts or the sciences or wherever, our loving actions can demonstrate the fullness of a good God who wants to be expressed in the world.
5. We don’t need to be political to be agents of change
One of the noticeable aspects about the folks mentioned is that they got most of their work done by not being overtly political; for instance, Wilberforce, an MP in England for over forty years, was purposely independent of political party.
His main motive was to change the hearts of British people concerning the morality of slavery, not their politics. Elizabeth Fry, too, was of a similar mindset. Moreover, all the people mentioned considered themselves interdenominational and were quite happy to work with others who shared the goal of improving the lot of humanity in general.
The main thing for them, and us, is that we are, first and foremost, filled with love and wanting to express it meaningfully. Speaking of another hero, Martin Luther King, talking about agape love, once said that this form of love is
“not a private psychological experience but a form of communication that could not exist in isolation from community. It [finds] its highest expression in hospitality and service. …[T]o change the world we must become receptacles of God’s love, understanding and good will.”
6. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses
How does knowing these contributions strengthen your confidence as a Christian student in a secular academic setting? You never need be intimidated by those who only negatively portray the impact of Christianity. There is no shortage of historical evidence of many ordinary people, informed and acting by their Christian faith, in the little day by day life activities, that made significant changes in our world. These stories mentioned here highlight only a few.
Every day you have an opportunity to make an impact in the lives of people around you. Walking in God’s unconditional love you can make their life experience better, regardless of how they may respond. In your day there will be moments where you can care, listen, give generously, and make a lasting impression, perhaps giving those around you the dignity of human kindness and care as a person made in God’s image.
Learning to trust God and be faithful with the small opportunities that he presents us with can incrementally better our world. It is amazing that God allows us the opportunities to be a part of his redemptive plan to renew all things.
All of these incredible stories of transformation were the result of God’s work, in and through the persons highlighted, but also a community around them that banded together. I hope that you are inspired and encouraged by their work.
But I can also anticipate that you may feel somewhat intimidated by expectations that you too have to produce such scale of influence and impact. The main thing is that you grow incrementally into what God has called you to do in the capacity he has given you. Growing to be more fully who you are meant to be as part of the body.
Author, Matthew Steem