Christianity and Human Care

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Victoria Emily Jones:

"Christianity radically and attractively redefined the God-to-man and man-to-man relationships.

Christianity teaches that God is a God of universal and self-giving love, and that obligates us to love not just those who belong to our family, country, or religion, but all people, even if that means disadvantaging ourselves.

Something distinctive did come into the world with the development of Judeo-Christian thought: the linking of a highly social ethical code with religion. There was nothing new in the idea that the supernatural makes behavioral demands upon humans—the gods have always wanted sacrifices and worship. Nor was there anything new in the notion that the supernatural will respond to offerings—that the gods can be induced to exchange services for sacrifices. What was new was the notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural. The Christian teaching that God loves those who love him was alien to pagan beliefs. [Ramsay] MacMullen has noted [in his 1981 book Paganism in the Roman Empire] that from the pagan perspective “what mattered was . . . the service that the deity could provide, since a god (as Aristotle had long taught) could feel no love in response to that offered.” Equally alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another. Moreover, such responsibilities were to be extended beyond the bonds of family and tribe, indeed to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). These were revolutionary ideas. (86, emphasis added)

Such teachings provided a moral order based not on reason or self-interest, but on mutual obligation and sacrifice. The beauty of these virtues is in part what attracted new converts to the faith.

One implication of the above is that Christianity provided social services that the government did not.

At a time when welfare and social security and health care plans did not exist, the church was essential in providing such aid. They looked after not only their own, but those outside their community as well. The Roman emperors recognized, however reluctantly, that Christians filled a role that they were not effectively filling. And individuals were attracted to the security the church afforded and likely curious about what it was that inspired such generosity.

In the fourth century, the emperor Julian launched a campaign to institute pagan charities in an effort to match the Christians. Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362 that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their “moral character, even if pretended,” and by their “benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.” In a letter to another priest, Julian wrote, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” And he also wrote, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

Clearly, Julian loathed “the Galileans.” He even suspected that their benevolence had ulterior motives. But he recognized that his charities and that of organized paganism paled in comparison with Christian efforts that had created “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services” [Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity. New York: Atheneum, 1976: 75]. By Julian’s day in the fourth century it was too late to overtake this colossal result, the seeds for which had been planted in such teachings as “I am my brother’s keeper,” “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you,” and “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (83-84, emphasis added)

The church was also essential in providing nursing care to plague victims, oftentimes at the expense of their own lives. The bishop Dionysius wrote that this was a form of martyrdom. Whereas pagan elites and their priests simply fled the affected cities, some even leaving family members behind, Christian presbyters, deacons, and laymen stayed to provide food, water, and friendship to their neighbors. So after consecutive epidemics had swept through a city, a disproportionate number of those remaining would either have been Christians or pagans who had been ministered to by Christians."



The discussion is inspired by the reading of the book, The Rise of Christianity, by Rodney Stark.