A couple posts back in this series, I wrote how the character of Jesus himself is a major reason why I choose Christianity. Closely related to this reality, I find myself attracted to Christianity because of what it is capable of producing in people. Note carefully, I said “capable of producing,” not “produces.” I am the first to admit that an awful lot of people who bear the “Christian” label are not people I want to associate with, let alone emulate. I’ve even been known to say that if all I knew of Christianity were Christians, I quite likely would not be one.
Nevertheless, when it comes to evaluating a philosophy or faith or tradition, I honestly don’t think it’s fair to judge it solely (or even mostly) by its poor application among those who bear the label. I mean this for any system of belief, not just Christianity. If I want to know something about Islam I look to those Muslims who are trying to make peace, not to Osama Bin Laden and his crew. For Buddhism, I find the Dalai Lama to be a better and much more attractive source than the extremists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Gandhi tells me more about Hinduism than the factions in India who’ve been attacking both Christians and Muslims in that country. I am not kidding when I say that there is good to be found, and good people produced, by many (and maybe most) of the great religions of the earth, and among atheists and nonreligious folks as well. Though there is plenty of evil in these groups too (Christians most definitely included), credible cases can be made and have been made by adherents of all of them, that what their faith actually teaches is incompatible with violence and should motivate people toward good. I tend to believe the peacemaker of any faith, who tells me s/he came to a position of peacemaking through their faith, and who repudiates violence committed in the name of that faith by other practitioners.
Charity is an important practice in most major religions. Islam teaches it; giving alms is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Judaism has the wonderful concept of Jubilee, though I have yet to encounter any evidence that it’s ever been practised. For an unbiased overview of the basis for giving in several major religions, have a look at this article on Harvard University’s website. I affirm the impulse to give, regardless whence it comes.
Having said this, it appears to me that there is something particularly distinctive about the way of Jesus that really is different from all the other philosophies and religions that motivate good in some people. The self-giving way of the cross … sacrificing one’s own well-being for the good of another who might not even be family/friend/fellow-citizen, seems to be a particularly Christian teaching. Not, to be sure, that most Christians live that way, or that nobody else does; but that at its best, Jesus seems to motivate–even demand–an other-directed focus that I do not see replicated anywhere else. With all its faults, the church seems to have at least partially gotten the message too. I’ve not traveled nearly as much of the world as I’d like, but in the places I’ve gone, I’ve seen more relief, development, and human aid ministry being done by Christians than by any other group. The hospitals, water projects, AIDS treatment facilities, orphanages, etc. that I’ve seen are more likely to be run by Christian agencies, or Christians serving in secular agencies, than by other groups…at least the ones I’m aware of (and I admit that may be sampling bias, though I don’t think so). Disaster relief, while done in significant measure by government agencies, has a heavy proportion of Christian agencies as can be seen in this listing of respondents to the earthquake in Haiti.
It’s no scientific survey, but the nonsectarian charity website GuideStar’s Directory of Charities and Nonprofit Organizations, in it’s “Religious” subcategory, lists over 84,000 Christian charities, 4,400 Jewish ones, and less than 2,000 each for Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist groups. Now this directory is of agencies registered with the American Internal Revenue Service, so it stands to reason that there would be more Christian charities in the US, proportionally speaking, than in a country such as India or China. I wish this table at the World Bank included religious affiliation so I could do a count, but they don’t and I don’t have the inclination to visit every website listed. A quick scan though, turns up what appears to me a preponderance of Christian organizations as opposed to those of other faiths. I would welcome evidence to the contrary, but it seems that Christianity spawns faith-based organizations that do charity and not just proselytizing, at a rate not replicated by other faiths or philosophies.
This is not a contest. I’m not trying to sell anybody else on why one faith is “better” than another, and the last thing on my mind would be to denigrate the compassionate work of any faith but my own. There’s plenty of need in the world, and far too few people meeting it for me to quibble over whether the hungry are being fed by a Buddhist, a Muslim, an atheist, or a Christian. I’m quite certain the empty belly appreciates food equally no matter what sort of blessing–if any–was said over it and by whom.
Still, to me, it seems that the way of Jesus at its best, invites its followers to a level of altruism and others-directedness deeper and more comprehensive than that on offer anywhere else I’ve looked. Most of us never rise to the challenge … that remains indisputable. But we could, and some do. And those that do have made and continue to make their mark. I find that attractive.