Thursday, December 06, 2007

When Is A Question Not A Question?

Each week, the Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" on-line forum asks "a question" and elicits answers from a panel of "religious experts" (which include, for some inexplicable reason, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas). The following is the question for this week:
Rick Warren's Saddleback Church just hosted its third "Global Summit on AIDS and the Church." Do you think the world's biggest social problems -- poverty, disease, homelessness -- can be cured by well-intentioned religious believers?

It's certainly a humdinger of a question, isn't it? Yet, does anyone think it is an actual question?

One of the things one learns from graduate and post-graduate education is to consider the questions one asks. The best questions are those that are worded carefully, with a serious consideration of the meaning and placement of each and every word. It is often the case that what appears, at first blush, to be an honest question full of meaning, turns out to be full of problems. I believe we have a classic example of that kind of question here.

First, there is the relevance of the mention of Rick Warren's "summit". Warren is a popular religious figure, selling millions of copies of his The Purpose Driven Life. He also is a popular speaker on matters of the emerging new evangelical consensus on any number of issues, from AIDS and poverty to global warming. His church is active in any number of spheres. Hosting a conference such as this seems both natural and a good step forward, as evangelicals move away from captivity to anti-gay rhetoric toward a more compassionate response to the AIDS pandemic.

What, however, does any of this have to do with the relative impact of religious institutions and non-religious institutions on the problems of health, poverty, and other issues? Religious institutions have worked hard in any number of these areas, whether it is the local food bank or soup kitchen to entire networks of church-owned hospitals, such as Adventist, Methodist, and OSF hospitals. The United Methodist Church's General Committee on Relief is often in place in troubled areas before the Red Cross/Crescent and other relief agencies, and stays in place once the headlines have receded from view. They do not seek publicity, so this often goes unmentioned, but it is a reality.

The biggest red flag in this question is the modifier "well intentioned" describing religious believers who seek to address issues of social ills. The implication would be, it seems to me, that while their hearts are in the right place, they are neither experts in the issue areas they are attempting to address, nor are they (as a result of lacking such expertise) able to address the problems in a systemic way that non-sectarian agencies might. Such a slam misses the point that many church-run agencies that deal with problems, whether poverty, health and well-being, or disaster relief are usually staffed by persons trained to deal with them. They are not modeled on 19th century mission programs. Rather, based upon the book of James, they do not see the relevance of saying to someone who does not have a coat, "Be of good cheer!" without offering that person a coat. There is nothing Christian about telling hungry people God loves them, then moving on without feeding them. There is nothing Christian about telling someone with AIDS they are a child of God without relieving their suffering. There is nothing Christian about telling someone made homeless by Katrina, "Have faith!" and not building them a new house.

Church run relief agencies are no better or worse than secular agencies, and occasionally they achieve far more because they have a more broader financial base, and a mandate to continue operating once the initial crisis evaporates from the minds of the public at large. There are still United Methodist teams in southern Mississippi and Louisiana, helping victims of Hurricane Katriana. There are United Methodist doctors and nurses in Africa, as well as Adventists and Roman Catholics, helping with the AIDS pandemic. They are not putting their faith before their obligation to help people in need; rather their faith informs their understanding of their work, pushing them to assist those most in need.

The systemic changes necessary to alleviate suffering in the worst cases are also addressed by churches. These efforts are always hampered by the reticence of non-sectarian groups and individuals who see such faith-based activism through the prism of experience wrought by the religious Right in the United States. That criticism is justifiable, and understandable. The pursuit of justice, however, which includes systemic changes that would prevent social ills from arising and creating a need for crisis management, is also part of the Gospel message, and is not to be neglected. It should be pursued with humility and an understanding of the limitations inherent in such work.

By modifying the question in this way, we are already on the way to seeing this question as not quite the question it seems to be. Upon further examination, taking the question as a whole, the simple answer should be, "Obviously not." No one group, "well intentioned" or not, will ever "solve" our social ills. Yet, religious and church-based institutions and programs are an important part of the network of relief and crisis management that is necessary to alleviate the stresses and human pain in any place and time where people are suffering. They should not relinquish their role because some might view them as only well-intentioned. Their work is part of the general call to discipleship all Christians receive at their baptism.

And not just the work of Christian Church-based agencies. Jewish and Muslim agencies are also hard at work around the world, as are, I am sure, groups from other religious faiths. Along with other agencies, they are part of the human impulse to relieve the suffering of fellow human beings. I see nothing either well-intentioned or wrong with this. All those who seek to end our endemic problems should be congratulated, and encouraged to continue.

In my opinion, this question is about as silly and irrelevant as can be imagined.

Virtual Tin Cup

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