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Has Christianity ever done any good for humanity?

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

(Prison reform)

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 col