John Smith Christmas homily: faith and welfare in action

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Much can be achieved in cooperation with friends who don't necessarily share the same faith or any faith at all. If you're homeless, who cares whether an atheist, a Christian or a Buddhist provides shelter?

There can be no discriminatory franchise over who does good. Certainly, there can be no discrimination in the delivery of care. The unconscious, battered body confronting the Priest, the Levite and the Samaritan was their brother or sister made in the image of God. Every person is sacred. Christian agencies must protect, nurture and foster all in need, irrespective of belief, class, sex, race or behavioural history.

There are some distinctly Christian traditions, based on the life and teaching of Jesus that Christians are obliged, evenly sacredly compelled to uphold, to emulate, and even to propagate in their daily works. Here are some significant marks of a faith-based, holistic program of communication and caring organisation, as expressed in the Bible in Mark 6:7-13.

'He sent them off with these instructions: "Don't think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple"' (6:7-10).

The Christian tradition calls for personal commitment, personal restraint in lifestyle, resistance to exploitation, integrity in professional dealings with others, and the recognition that it is the people rather than the programs that are the greatest agent for care and transformation. Dedicated, trustworthy, compassionate staff even outweigh technical professionalism.

Salvation Army founder William Booth built a global empire of carers from the transformed converts of the streets, rather than from the professionals in the seminaries. While scholarship and qualification are a bonus, it is the integrity, faith, love and dedication of each other that are a key to effective communication and welfare.

'He gave them authority and power to deal with the evil opposition ... right and left they sent the demons packing ...' (6:8,13).

Unfortunately, there are forces of greed, exploitation, violence and marginalisation in our world, producing human tragedy and suffering. Christians' task must include conflict with political and social structures on behalf of people who in Bible terms 'cannot speak for themselves' — not because they lack ability but because systems, circumstances and structures restrict their opportunity.

Bullies, dictators, corrupt officials, abusive husbands, drug pushers, ill-informed policy makers, politicians, and religious leaders require censure! Most social reforms in Western history (abolition of slavery, prevention of cruelty to animals, the Trade Union Movement, racial desegregation) were initiated by people of faith. A sense of divine love empowers courage to confront tyrannies.

'Then they were on the road. They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different ...' (6:12).

It matters what we believe. What we believe we live. Our beliefs are greatly shaped by what we hear. As Paul asked, how will they hear without a preacher sent to tell?

'They brought wellness to the sick, anointing their bodies, healing their spirits' (6:13).

Speaking a message of hope and love is not enough. Without loving, caring, practical demonstration of care, faith statements are dead and lack validation. Jesus said to the Pharisees that religion without justice, mercy and love is hypocrisy. In the afterlife, our feeding the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the destitute, visiting the imprisoned will outweigh pious words of religiosity.

John says, if we do not love our people, expressed in practical compassion by providing material possessions for the needy, we don't even know God.

But it is the liberating message that life should and can be different that marks faith-based human services at a strategic time when much good, caring welfare has conceded defeat, settling only for harm minimisation. Something is terribly wrong when free, prosperous societies are marked by pandemic depression and social injustice. There has got to be a better way.

Eminent biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann states:

'If consumerism is destroying the human spirit among us and crushing the values of family and community, and if consumerism produces a pathology of abused persons in inadequate relations, then there is no remedy within that system. Remedy requires breaking with that system for the sake of a different set of relations ... requires a deep intentional break ... in order to be healed. There is no cheap, easy healing, but there is healing.'

Jesus combined healing with declaration of a new way of living that he called the kingdom of God. He began his ministry by a public, spoken declaration of the causes and consequences of humanity's ills. Preaching, teaching and public proclamation are not tax-relief activities in Australia. It is therefore easier to obtain support for welfare than for the spreading of the message.

This is an edited preview of the John Smith Quarterly Essay. Read the expanded essay here. To subscribe to the John Smith Quarterly Essay email reception@concernaustralia.org.au


John SmithJohn Smith is a leading advocate for the urban poor and marginalised and founder of God's Squad Christian Motorcycle Club and Concern Australia. With a PhD in Cultural Anthropology, John is a social commentator, author and lecturer.

Topic tags: John Smith, Quarterly Essay, faith-based, welfare agencies

 

 

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What an uplifting read! I began thinking I would take a cursory look at the first paragraph. But before I realised, I had gone through every word of the whole article and truly enjoyed it. Thanks for sending. It is hard to skip such good stuff!
Joseph Pulinthanath sdb | 11 December 2009


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