Where did our way of life in the west come from?
Current day writers and speakers seem to be giving an increasingly distorted picture of history that the benefits of our society are something which ‘just happened’ through our self-invented technology, work, culture and democracy. It seems increasingly taken for granted that the values we prize are simply accidents of history with little or no reference to the Christian beliefs and important historical figures who were motivated by their faith. Christians have not been without our faults in history as we remain imperfect humans this side of heaven!, however, whilst institutions and people have got things wrong at times, Christianity and Christian people have been foundational in much of what we now benefit from.
How does this thought relate to Lent? Well, Lent it is a time to reflect on the Christian faith and the Christian life to decide for the first time, or resolve again, whether it is worth living in the Christian way following Jesus. The 6 weeks of Lent can be seen as an end in itself, however, it is of course a journey to pray and reflect and to then go after Easter with a resolve to live well in the world as God is calling us to.
So, what might be a good thing to do in Lent? This Lent I have decided to read and reflect on some of the great Christian lives that have been lived and the amazing things that Christian faith has brought about in our society, and from their example work out how I might help do my little part in keeping these things in the centre of our family life, community and church. I am going to read through a few books on my book shelf that have been sitting there saying ‘please read me’! If you are wondering what to do in Lent, why not read them with me too?:
For Grown Ups: 70 Great Christian Changing the World – Geoffrey Hanks; Great Christian you should Know – W Wiersbe
For Grown Ups and Children: 10 Boys who changed the World; 10 Boys who made History; 10 Girls who changed the World; 10 Girls who made History – Irene Howat
What kind of things have Christians and Christianity brought to our society and have helped form it as we know it? Well if you might not have time to read books on the subject, I have put below some themes and people to reflect on:
Consider human rights: The idea that every individual has rights and freedoms. It is most famously expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, which reads: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ If we hold to the biblical belief that everybody is in God’s image and has value, it is no coincidence that Amnesty International, the leading human rights group, was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a Christian.
Consider children: In the ancient world, as in parts of the modern, children were treated as being inferior to adults and of little value. In many cultures, infanticide was common. However, following the example of Jesus (Matthew 19:14), Christianity values children. That high evaluation was worked out in the creation of orphanages by Christians such as Thomas Barnardo, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and George Müller, and in the labours of the tireless Lord Shaftesbury in creating laws to restrict the use of children in factories and mines.
Consider education: Today we believe in universal education, but it was not always so. History tells of the important role of Christians in promoting education not just for an elite but for all. So, while some have mocked the idea of Sunday schools, by 1830 they were bringing literacy to over a million children in Britain. At a very different level, the importance of Christianity in education is seen in the way that so many Oxford and Cambridge colleges bear the names of saints and men and women from the Bible.
Consider the economic systems: These underlie modern Western society and that have allowed health and prosperity to so many. The Christian attitude to labour and wealth, widely but simplistically termed ‘the Protestant work ethic’, was fundamental. Its attitude to wealth was summed up in John Wesley’s words: ‘gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can’. Possibly even more significant was the condemnation of those scourges of every economic system: dishonesty, corruption and laziness.
Take politics: look at the extraordinary correlation between stable, functional democracies and those cultures based on ‘biblical values’. Christianity elevated the value of the individual while simultaneously demanding that, because human nature is fallen, there must be checks and balances to the abuse of power.
Compassion for people: who stopped the abominable slaughter of the amphitheatres and the trade in gladiators? Christians. The largest aid organisation working with the homeless, the Salvation Army started by William and Catherine Booth, proclaims its Christian ethos in its very name. The Red Cross was started by Henry Dunant, a Christian. Alcoholics Anonymous was started by Christians and has been influenced by Christian thinking. The modern hospice movement was founded by Cicely Saunders, a Christian. The Samaritans, with their invaluable ministry to the suicidal and desperate, was founded by the Reverend Chad Varah. The YMCA was originally the Young Men’s Christian Association.
Care for animals: The RSPCA was founded by the Reverend Arthur Broome with that champion against slavery William Wilberforce. They considered the society ‘a specifically Christian enterprise based on Christian principles’.
Science: a biblical Christianity encouraged research. It declared that because the world was made by a law-making God there were laws to be investigated. It upheld the pre-eminence of truth over wrong beliefs. By elevating humility, it encouraged scientists to make that most fundamental of statements: ‘I’m prepared to be wrong.’
The list could go on, but I hope you can see that to be and live as a Christian helps lives be the best that they can be.
And so, my prayer for Lent is that I and you might find a moment to reflect on what sort of person God is calling us to be and discover his purposes for us that will make a difference in the world.
Revd James – Rector St Peter’s, Bishops Waltham and Blessed Mary, Upham
(Some of the ideas and thoughts in my article were written by the Rev Canon J John)
28th February 2019