October 20, 2005

Serving Christ for Real

1543 story2 cap HAVE SEEN TRAGIC, BROKEN LIVES IN various forms: Poor, landless workers terribly exploited by wealthy landowners; children engaged in heavy manual labor for less than $l a day; girls as young as 12 taken from remote rural villages and pressed into the sex industry; people, young and old, suffering slow and agonizing deaths from AIDS; nomadic herders who have seen their livelihoods shrivel during years of relentless drought. But I never witnessed the evil, unyielding hand of starvation slowly strangling the life away from infants less than 6 months old. Not until this day, and, unfortunately, many days since.

These children lived in a damp, cold, colorless institution. They had no mothers, no family; except for the dozens of other children in the guardianship of frighteningly few caregivers. Desperate families unable to feed their children had delivered them to the orphanage, but often they had arrived too late. Chronic undernutrition had made their young bodies susceptible to a range of illnesses such as pneumonia. And often, even with the best care, they had no hope. Survival for the lucky few meant a lifetime struggle against illness and reduced mental capacity. For many, there was only a torturous, inevitable wait for the end of a very short life.

Too Little, Too Late
Of course, timely intervention would save these lives. But in countries where such tragedies occur, health care is not always accessible. It may be too distant or ill-equipped. Essential medicines may be in short supply. Some countries, gripped by poverty, cannot afford the necessary public investments.

I first witnessed starvation in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea), but it is a story repeated again and again around the world, particularly in the poorest countries of Africa.

1543 story2In some villages in Malawi there are very few men or women of working age. One could sensibly conclude that they are away working, perhaps in the fields or in the city. But they are dead--not from war, but AIDS, one of the most insidious diseases affecting the world today. Around the world 8,000 people will die from it today. The economic ramifications on countries ravaged by AIDS are enormous, but the consequences on the family are dire. Children with no parents are taken in by grandparents. Some of them care for five, 10, even 15 orphaned children. Few are left to the tireless work of tending crops planted in depleted and marginal soils characterized by years of unsustainable management owing to a shortage of energy or tradable resources.

Health care is a half day's walk away, and often there are no medicines available once you get there. AIDS is bad enough, but now children suffer from malaria. Thousands die from it each day. There is no reason for this, as it is completely manageable at very low cost. The margins of survival are extraordinarily narrow.

Across the globe 20,000 people will die today from illnesses that are utterly treatable. This does not include people dying from war, accidents, or other complicated or incurable illnesses. These are just the ones who will die simply because they are too poor to live. And we can stop it. For the first time in history, our generation has the means to rid the world of this human tragedy. But do we have the will?

As Christians the answer to this question should be simple. We must have the will. In fact, those who claim to be followers of Christ have a responsibility to aid the poor and suffering around us.

God of Shining Lights
When God delivered the Israelites to the Promised Land, after delivering them from slavery in Egypt, He had a unique and unprecedented opportunity to structure a society that would act in complete accordance to His will. In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy God outlined the rules upon which His people were to organize their society. In a period of history that was characterized by war, autocratic leadership, and a daily struggle for survival, God's directives to the Israelites to take special care of the poor must have come as somewhat of a surprise. Given the struggles to settle a foreign land with enemies surrounding them, certainly they could have seen issues of poverty and social justice as a lesser priority. But a careful look at Leviticus 25 shows an amazingly detailed account of how absolute poverty, the kind that kills, was to be avoided in Israelite society.

Land, said the directives, belonged to God. Land transactions should be treated differently between rural and urban areas, and rural lands must be returned to their original owners every 50 years. The market value for land was based on the proximity of the transaction to the next jubilee year. Interest could not be charged to the poor. Labor transactions could occur if a person fell into poverty, but the person could not be made a slave--they had to be paid a fair salary, and their property had to be returned in the jubilee year. In short, these rules served as a safety net to ensure that the poor would not be in danger of falling into absolute poverty and could not be exploited by the wealthy. God commanded it.

In Leviticus 19:9, 10 God directed the Israelites to leave a portion behind in their fields when harvesting in order that the poor could also gather food. In Deuteronomy 15:11 God directed His people to be openhanded toward the poor and needy.

The message was repeated consistently throughout the Old Testament. In Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah God continued to remind the Israelites of the special place He has in His heart for the poor. His people were expected to act toward them with justice and mercy. In fact, the Bible talks as much about care for the poor as it does about the Sabbath, avoiding the worship of idols, and other key theological points.

Let's return to the issue of praise and worship. We all know that God endorses worship very highly. But take a look at Isaiah 58.* Here God tells Isaiah to "shout it aloud. . . . Declare to my people their rebellion. . . . For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God" (verses 1, 2). The passage goes on to describe them as people eager for God to come near them, who have humbled themselves in their worship, but God appears to have neglected them. God answers their calls with a description of their sins and gives the reason they cannot expect their voices to be heard on high (verse 4). They have been exploiting their workers, quarreling, and fighting. They bow their heads on their day of fasting, and make themselves look humble and pious. But that's not what God wanted.

He wanted them "to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke," and "to share [their] food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter--when [they saw] the naked, to clothe him, and not turn away from [their] own flesh and blood" (verses 6, 7). God actually suggested that if they worshipped Him while behaving unjustly or without mercy, their prayers wouldn't even get off the ground! (See this passage in The Message.)

Isaiah 58:8-14 describes what would happen to His people--and to us--if they acted in accordance with His will by serving the poor and disenfranchised. What a powerful witness we could be today if we followed this simple formula and became known as "those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again" (verse 12, The Message).

One Poor God
The Old Testament, of course, is just the beginning of the story. Jesus spent much of His earthly ministry healing the sick and helping the poor. In an ultimate show of solidarity Jesus Himself chose the life of the poor man. Born in a stable, He owned nothing but the clothes on His back and the sandals on His feet. For His first hometown sermon, Jesus chose to read the following Old Testament passage: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18, 19). Why would Jesus choose this text, unless it best described His mission on earth?

Read the following verses in the Gospels: Matthew 8:20; Luke 12:15-21; Luke 14:13, 21; Luke 16:19-31; read Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:17-49). Reflect again on the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37); contrast the two stories of the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30) and Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10) and consider Jesus' reaction to each of these two individuals' responses to the needs of the poor. Many other stories in the Gospels speak of Jesus' love for and solidarity with the poor and suffering.

A Challenge Worthy of Our Generation
Matthew 25:31-46 records a conversation Jesus had with His disciples on the Mount of Olives, just two days prior to His death. He saved perhaps His most challenging story for last. His disciples had asked Him about the end of time, and Jesus described the following scene: The Son of Man returns sitting on His throne with His angels surrounding Him. All the nations are gathered before Him, and He passes judgment. Ellen White wrote about the scene: "When the nations are gathered before Him, there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering" (The Desire of Ages, p. 637). That's right; Jesus identified with the poor and suffering on this earth, and what we do for them will determine with which group we will stand at the end of time.

But is this not salvation by works? Actually, no, it isn't. This is no ambiguous parable with layered meanings. Jesus described Himself as being embodied in the poor and the suffering. The implications of this simple statement are colossal, and their link to salvation makes them impossible to ignore. We are saved by grace the moment we accept the gift offered to us. However, if Jesus is truly embodied within the poor, we cannot neglect the needs of the poor and suffering on earth now. We cannot maintain that we care about Jesus if we turn our backs on Him as He is embodied in the person of the poor and suffering. By grace we are saved, in His love we dwell, but our service to others witnesses to the world that we are saved.

The Golden Rule
"In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you," said Jesus (particularly if our situation and theirs were to be reversed), "for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 7:12). Of course, we all have different needs. Bill Gates has different needs than you and I. And we have different needs than the guy who lives under a cardboard box down near central station. But we must try to stand for a moment in the shoes of the poor, consider what they truly need, and give it or do it, as it's most appropriate, with an emphasis on anyone less favored than ourselves (and the less favored, safe, sanitary, and otherwise socially acceptable, the better!).

1543 story2When people take the name of Christ and call themselves Christians, but in their life they deny the character of the eternal Giver to those most in need, that brand of Christianity ceases to have any real power in today's world.

Recently I was talking to a friend about Christianity. He explained that Christian churches could never really embrace the central role of service in their missions at a corporate level, because this would require giving up their competitive advantage in winning new members.

I would counter by suggesting that in today's postmodern society, in which practical relevance must be demonstrated, not until we embrace our responsibilities to aid the poor as individual Christians and congregations will we have the power to fulfill the Great Commission that was witnessed during the times of the early church. Ellen White made this observation more than 100 years ago: "When those who profess the name of Christ shall practice the principles of the golden rule, the same power will attend the gospel as in apostolic times" (Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 137).

Wherever we are, whatever we do, we can exercise the golden rule toward those who have greater needs than our own. We needn't make it a profession or a career; we don't have to give up our lives in this cause. Even giving money is secondary to the core task God has given to us: active participation in individual and group action to aid the poor and needy. (Still, giving greatly assists those who have chosen service as their career, enabling them to have a greater impact with consolidated resources in parts of the world where the fortunate are few. The lessons they learn about the alleviation of poverty thus strengthen the broader, global community.)

My vision does not involve growing and evolving aid agencies to solve the needs of the world, because this is not possible without active solidarity from the wealthy and powerful. But the biblical call to action and intervention on behalf of the poor does not suggest that we can avoid our responsibilities through giving money, nor does it require guilt-ridden self-sacrifice to the point of creating our own poverty (even the story of the rich young ruler is, arguably, not actually about this). Rather, my vision is of Christians around the world, actively engaged in the cause for social justice toward those less favored in their own communities, towns, cities, and countries.

One of the Old Testament prophets asked rhetorically, "And what does the Lord require of you?" His answer: "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). God asks no more; and certainly no less.

By His grace I am saved, in His love I will dwell, and by my service I will bear witness to the fact that I am saved. Be challenged to get your church groups together and get out there to serve the Lord wherever He can be found! There is no greater cause.

*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the New International Version.


Brayden Howie was program and planning coordinator with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) of the Asia Regional Office in Bangkok when this article was written.