The soft powers of Christianity

August 15, 2011

Hitler despised Christianity because it was a ‘weak’ religion. Germany’s  misfortune, he believed, was to have inherited a religion that preached love for one’s enemies. In the real world, 'only the fittest and the strongest survived'. Yet he, like many others throughout history, underestimated the strength of the way of Jesus.
For one lesson to be learned from the story of faithful minorities through the centuries is that love conquers and truth prevails. These are the ‘soft powers’, if you like, of the Christian faith.
Last week this lesson was underscored to me in several ways. My wife and I were guests of the International Teams mission at their European conference in Beatenberg in Switzerland.
Among other ministries, IT workers assist refugees in basic needs of food, shelter and clothing, as well as providing moral, spiritual and counselling support for the men, women and children scarred by the traumas of leaving home, of dangerous and uncertain journeys, and of harrassment, rejection, misunderstanding and cultural disorientation on arrival in Europe. Closely linked is ministry to victims of human trafficking offered by IT workers in many locations.
In our sessions together we reflected on the role of Christian compassion in shaping Europe’s past. Birthed from the specifically Christian concept of agape (unconditional love), seven ‘works of mercy’ shaped the society that emerged from the ruins of the Roman Empire into the Middle Ages.
Six of the works of mercy are drawn from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: 31-46, a sobering passage for those of us brought up with warnings about the ‘social gospel’. Here the criteria by which Jesus separates the ‘sheep’ from the ‘goats’ are whether or not we have fed the hungry, satisfied the thirsty, clothed the naked, sheltered the stranger, cared for the sick and visited the prisoner.
A seventh ‘work’ of burying the dead officially recognised by the Church in the Middle Ages derived from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit. These works are depicted, for example, on the bronze doors of the Dom Church in Utrecht (see photo).

Such mercy works were the staple diet especially for monks, nuns and beguines, leading to the establishment of hospitals, hospices and hostels all over Europe, as well as a culture of Christian solidarity. Even before the medieval period, it was this kind of selfless love, coupled with the preaching of uncompromising truth, which had won over the ‘hard-power’-based empire of Rome to Christianity.
Early evangelicals, such as the Methodists, fully embraced this dimension of the gospel, leading to widespread social reforms including workers‘ rights, trade unions, prison reform, the nursing profession and the abolition of slavery. 
What a tragedy that the evangelical movement lost sight of its roots for much of the past century! Confronted by Jesus’ uncomfortable statement that “I was hungry and you didn’t feed me”, many of us still would be tempted to say, “but surely, Lord, that’s the government’s job!”
Yet such demonstration of love has led to the discovery of truth for countless people in history–including many of those ministered to by IT and other missionaries who follow in a long tradition of orders and movements fleshing out God’s love.
A stopover with friends in the Jura Mountains of the border to Switzerland and France brought us into contact with descendents of Mennonites who sought refuge from persecution in mountain valleys 1000 metres above sea level. Despite inhuman treatment by both Reformed and Catholic authorities, these honest, hard-working believers refused to respond in kind, believing that love would conquer and truth would prevail.
A last stop on our trip home through France was in Scy-Chazelles, near Metz, to visit Robert Schuman’s home of 22 years, now a museum on the life and work of this ‘Father of Europe’. His commitment to flesh out Christian love of one’s neighbour, including recent enemies, and his quest to rebuild Europe on Christian values of equality, solidarity, freedom and peace is clearly depicted in the exhibition.
Schuman would be saddened but not surprised at today’s European crisis. If ever the spiritual was separated from the material, he warned, our efforts to rebuild Europe would be in vain. Truth and love are the ‘soft powers’ essential for a sustainable society.

Till next week,
 Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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