Will Kindness Win the World? Insights from the Early Church…March 20, 2018
Recently I had the priviledge of opening the “Insight” conference for Grace Christian School in Bunbury. This is a slight rework of some of the main points I made on the day…
By pretty much anyone’s calculations, 2017 was a tough year for the church – or certainly that is true for the church in Australia.
There was the release of the findings of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It makes sobering reading – no, more than sobering – it is heartbreaking, heart wrenching stuff. Perhaps the most damning comment comes in Vol 16.3 on page 265:
One of the most irreconcilable aspects of our inquiry is that both the occurrence of child sexual abuse within religious institutions and the poor response of religious institutions to child sexual abuse are fundamentally at odds with the stated philosophies, values and beliefs of the religious institutions we examined. Also irreconcilable is that religious institutions that espouse caring for the vulnerable as a fundamental mission should have done so much harm.
When it comes to the language of a Royal Commission, it doesn’t get much more condemnatory than that.
Then there was the plebiscite into same sex marriage. Though the issue is complex, and Christians certainly didn’t all speak with one voice or hold one view, the image conveyed in the media was that those who oppose same sex marriage are homophobic, intolerant, unloving, inflexible and hopelessly out of touch with reality. Those people who opposed were almost always portrayed as doing so as a consequence of their religious beliefs, within the unstated implication that religious faith makes you homophobic, intolerant, unloving, inflexible and hopelessly out of touch with reality. When the result of the plebiscite was announced (with a little over 60% being in favour of the change) the University campus across the road from where I work was covered with posters proclaiming “Love Wins”. Love wins… it says it all. For all too many people this was seen to be a campaign of love and justice lining up to wage war against the reactionary and oppressive forces of religious faith – and because in Australia it isn’t really proper to seriously criticise any faith other than Christianity, it was Christians who were especially portrayed as the enemy – an enemy to the cause of love and justice.
Has it hurt the church and its witness in Australia? Actually, yes it has… Why? Because it has made it so very hard to get the average Australian to listen to the claims of Christianity with anything that even vaguely approaches an open mind.
Confirming that the church has been losing ground, the 2016 census results were released in 2017 and reported that 52.1% of Australians now claim some form of allegiance to the Christian faith, whereas in the 2011 census 61.1% were happy with this classification and in 2006 it was 63.9%. Even the statistically challenged will realise that this is a bad news story. It seems likely that by the 2021 census Christianity will no longer be the faith of the majority of Australians.
For those who are on the inside of church life (and I classify myself as one of them), this is bewildering. We see the many (many) good things that the church does, and the incredibly positive influence that the Christian faith has on so many (many) people. Dig a little more deeply, and you quickly realise that if the church were to withdraw itself from the social fabric of society, the welfare system in Australia would probably collapse, while the educational system would face significant strain. There is a good news story of what the church is doing which is simply not being communicated – and it needs to be.
Having said that, some have asked if the church is not facing a similar situation to that of the early church, where Christians faced serious opposition to their faith, and were often persecuted for it. That persecution could range from a relatively modest shunning in society, to more vigorous forms of persecution which led to many Christians fleeing as refugees and some facing horrific forms of torture and execution, including being set alight, attacked by wild beasts and crucifixion.
When we compare the situation of the church in Australia to that of the early church, realistically this is pretty insulting to the early church. We are not being thrown to lions, crucified upside down, or exiled on remote islands – so we should not over dramatize our position. But it is true that we are increasingly being spoken about poorly.
It is worth asking why the early church faced opposition. By and large Rome was a tolerant conqueror, and the Roman Empire held together because after the iron fist of conquest, Rome allowed moderate forms of freedom to its newly integrated colonies. This usually included religious freedom, the only real proviso being that in addition to the worship of local gods, all parts of the Empire affirmed Caesar as Lord – the latter affirmation serving as a form of social glue – a loyalty and belief all Romans had in common.
The early church found itself the victim of multiple misunderstandings. For those outside the church, they were pretty alarming. Misunderstanding one was that they were cannibals, this rumour circulating after it was reported that when they gathered they ate the body of their god and followed this up by drinking the blood of their god. No one carefully queried what was taking place when they celebrated the Eucharist, and this sensational report was enough to ensure that Christians were placed into the “seriously weird” category. It was not helped by the news that when they gathered they greeted each other with a “holy kiss”. It is unlikely that Paul ever contemplated the trouble that his instruction in Roman 16:16 (Greet one another with a holy kiss) would cause, and if he had, he might well have scrapped it. Sexually depraved though the Roman Empire was, it had no idea what a “holy kiss” involved, and assumed the worst. Presumably this was a fresh low in decadence, and Christians were accused of new forms of sexual immorality. And then there was their refusal to affirm Caesar as Lord, for they believed that only Jesus is Lord. As a result, they were considered traitors.
Put yourself in the position of an ordinary member of Roman society, hearing about this newly founded faith, Christianity. Its adherent, so you would have been told, were sexual depraved cannibals, and traitors to the Empire. What about that claim is winsome? Would you have felt inclined to convert?
But here’s the thing. The early church did grow – and grew both rapidly and consistently – a reputable estimate putting the growth at around 40% per decade until the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312. (If you want an in depth study of this, see the book by Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity).
They grew because they were different in a way that was genuinely winsome. We need to understand how different they were from their peers…
Pause for a while and consider the enormity of the challenge faced by the early church. By and large its members were ordinary people of little or no social standing in the broader society. It was persecuted for a sustained period of time – a period spanning not one generation, but almost ten (not far short of 300 years). You would not have expected it to survive, but it did.
While various answers are given, an important key was the quality of life amongst the early Christians. They genuinely cared for their widows and orphans, and for the sick and frail in their midst. They shared that care with those outside of their immediate circle. We might think that there is nothing remarkable about this, but that is because we live in a world that has been shaped by the pre suppositions of Christianity, where love for the neighbour is commanded, and even taken for granted. No such world existed before the advent of Christianity. Genuine care, especially for those outside of your immediate circle, was virtually unheard of. It proved to be attractive, and impacted the ancient world, leading to the growth of Christianity.
The early church also took a stance against adultery, abortion and infanticide. It was not uncommon for Christians to rescue babies that been abandoned at birth, and to raise them as their own. A watching world was bemused, perhaps even confused, but over time was convinced that this was a religion of love. They had seen nothing like it before.
We so take the parable of the Good Samaritan for granted that we have forgotten that its teaching was not self-evident in its time, and even less so in the broader context of the Greco-Roman world that dominated the wider landscape of Jesus’ world. Helping others in need, especially those who were not part of your family or clan, was a genuinely novel idea. The early Christians practiced what we would call caritas, in other words giving to relieve the plight of another without any expectation of the gift being returned. By contrast, the Romans practiced liberalitas – gift giving to the privileged to please them, in the hope that they would later bestow a favour on the giver. There was no instinctive drive to help the needy. Plato (427-347BCE) advised that a poor man no longer able to work should be left to die. The Roman philosopher Plautus (254-184 BCE) wrote: “You do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for more misery” (Schmidt, 129). Reflecting upon this Schmidt writes, “When modern secularists show compassion today upon seeing or hearing of some human tragedy… they show that they have unknowingly internalized Christianity’s concept of compassion…[if they had not] grown up under the two-thousand-year-old umbrella of Christianity’s compassionate influence, they would probably be without much compassion, similar to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and others’ (Schmidt 131).
So here is the take away. The early church convinced and converted a cynical and sneering world through their courage (shown in the face of persecution) and kindness. It was one act of unexpected kindness after another. And in the end, those acts of courage and kindness mounted up and won the day. For when someone started to deride the early church as being made up of immoral traitors and cannibals, a growing sea of voices rose in protest, “Actually, that has not been our experience of them. We have experienced them as people of rare kindness and compassion. In fact, we am starting to wonder if the loving God they speak of, might actually be true…”
Is it too much to hope that in our day a chastened church would renounce the wagging finger of accusation and adopt a listening and loving stance to the world God loves, and for whom Jesus died? And even if “the church” doesn’t, why not you and I? It could be wonderfully subversive, and make a genuine difference. Oh – and regardless of the outcome, it’s also the right thing to do…