Almost everyone feels empathy when they see pictures of a hungry child. This is not a uniquely Christian emotion. However, the response to such empathy-producing situations should be what sets us apart: we act. This action space is where I see the difference between faith-based responses and non-faith based responses.
In my limited experience of what I shall call development work, I have found that more often than not, it is the religiously-affiliated organizations that provide the most enduring and direct services to people who need them. This is not to say that Christians “save” those who are poor; rather we (should!) try to provide the means and access to resources for people to help themselves and maintain their dignity. We walk with our brothers and sisters. Most other development agencies are either top heavy and out of touch with the people they are trying to serve or run inefficiently by idealists who a) have little experience and b) suffer burnout early on. There are, of course, many exceptions but I would like to ask the question as to why these faith-based groups seem to endure and act much more effectively.
My own thoughts are that we, as Christians, are directed by more than just empathy, more than just our feelings and emotions. We have a real sense of right and wrong, just and unjust. Though we may have varying opinions about the particularities of what is right, we look outside of ourselves for the definition and for guidance on how to live out the definition. By turning to God, meditating on Christ’s life and resurrection, and reflecting on our scriptures and our traditions, we are able to situate ourselves in world much bigger than ourselves. When we see the world beyond our reaction to it, that is as something more than the empathy we feel seeing a hungry child, we start to see others as autonomous children of God and as such, deserving of relationship. From this foundation, I believe, Christians are able to sustain mission work and outreach. We see that it is truly God’s work, not our own, that is done through our hands.
Emmi Gordon is in the second year of her M.Div. program at the University of Chicago. Prior to her studies she lived for several years in South Africa and noticed the effectiveness of Christian aid programs and wondered why Christian programs in particular were so successful. She will be posting a series of reflections on this topic in the coming weeks. Your own thoughts and reflections, as always, are welcome.