Shalom Makers: Development in the Way of Christ – A More Human(e) Way Part III
II. Is it More Human(e) to Separate Humanitarian Aid from Faith?
Philosophical Reasons for Separation
Christopher Hitchens is a secular humanist who posits that faith in God and holy texts (religion) is the poison we must banish from all discourse. More than anything else, he believes we need a renewed enlightenment, primarily based on science and reason. By looking at the major religious texts and recounting his own “dangerous” encounters with “religion,” he argues against the soundness of religious faith.
He quotes Heinrich Heine saying, “In dark ages, people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides” (Hitchens 2007:43).
While it is unlikely that Christians would buy into Hitchens’ arguments against faith, it is possible for Christians to privatize their faith in their approach to development (and justice) to such a degree that their story better reflects the story of the enlightenment rather than the story of God. Hiebert reminds us that enlightenment thinking based on Platonic dualism, and science based on materialist naturalism, resulted in the privatization of faith and a focus on other-worldly problems. This same modern worldview resulted in science and reason becoming public truth, with a focus on this-worldly problems (Hiebert 1999:89).
The story of the enlightenment seems to have shaped the church’s understanding of her mission in the last century. Newbigin says, part of the church saw her mission primarily in terms of personal conversion at the congregation level and the other part saw her mission primarily in terms of God’s justice embodied in social programs outside the local congregation.
The danger he saw in this was that: “each is robbed of its character by its separation from the other. Christian programs for justice and compassion are severed from their proper roots in the liturgical and sacramental life of the congregation, and so lose their character as signs of the presence of Christ and risk becoming mere crusades fueled by moralism that can become self-righteous. And the life of the worshipping congregation, severed from its proper expression in compassionate service to the secular community around it, risks becoming a self-centered existence serving only the needs and desires of its members. Thus both sides of the dichotomy find good reasons for caricaturing each other, and mutual distrust deepens” (Newbigin 1995:10,11).
Jayakumar Christian, in his desire to learn from the history of the church, talks about the practical ramifications of distancing development work from the church. “These … assumptions suggest that God, church and conversion have practically nothing to do with the day-to-day economic good of the people. Poverty is an earthly issue for which God, the church and conversion are not the solutions” (Christian 1999:100).
Yet Jesus came to bring Good News to the poor, not just the poor in Spirit. So if our gospel isn’t good news for the poor, it is not the same good news that Jesus came to proclaim. When we separate the church from her mission, its impact on the church is negative.
Christians who approach development in a way that keeps their faith private still witness to something, though the question then becomes to what or whom they are witnessing (Myers 1999:207). While we need to recognize that sharing our story requires great sensitivity, wisdom and care, Myers reminds us that “the bottom line is that we need to be concerned about who gets worshipped at the end of the development program.” Myers continues to say, “Jayakumar Christian reminds us that whatever we put at the center of the program during its lifetime will tend to be what the community worships in the end” (Myers 1999:207,8).
The next post in this series deals with ethical reasons of why some contend for separating faith from humanitarian aid.