During Lent, the 46 days from Ash Wednesday to the day before Easter, many Christians focus on giving up or doing without something. Not eating a favorite food or drinking a preferred beverage is common. So is not participating in an enjoyable activity or avoiding a bad habit. Over the years, I’ve given up eating desserts, drinking Mountain Dew, and driving over the speed limit among other things. Millions of people have undertaken similar actions. Lent challenges us to focus on spiritual purification, prayer, and penance.
As valuable as these acts of personal sacrifice, spiritual development, and contrition are, Christianity also exhorts us to energetically work to help those in need. The Old Testament is filled with admonitions to care for widows, orphans, aliens, the homeless, the hungry, the disabled, the sick, and the vulnerable. Jesus commands us to aid the “least of these.” James declares that the “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows.” The Apostle Paul proclaims that “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
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Living in a world where the media continually reminds us that violence, conflict, hunger, and poverty are pervasive can produce both guilt that we are not doing enough to help and fear that our efforts will accomplish little. Today’s technology, argues historian Wilfrey McClay, gives us power, and “power entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt.” We read that more people today—65 million (1 in every 110 persons on earth)—have been displaced by war, violence, and persecution than at any time in recorded history. We hear about conflict in the DR Congo, South Sudan, and other troubled areas where many are being killed or raped or face starvation. We see a picture of a starving child in Sudan or a refugee child from Syria, and we feel that we need to be doing more.
“Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization,” McClay writes, “it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.”
This constant stream of tragic world events, coupled with political paralysis at home, makes the world’s problems seem huge and intractable. To feel helpless in the face of such calamity is a normal human reaction that social psychologists term “psychic numbing.” When tragedies are large and far away, most people are insensitive to them. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, argues that thinking small is the solution to psychic numbing. As fundraisers remind us, “one is greater than a million”; with regard to people in need, “one million is a statistic, while one is a human story.” Seeing the widely-displayed photograph of the 3-year-old Syrian refugee who washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015 had a greater impact on many people than reading that 500,000 Syrians had died in their country’s civil war.
The 1 > 1,000,000 axiom, Brooks argues, is a formula that can help us overcome our paralysis and act on our deepest commitment and values to help hurting individuals. We can all find ways to assist one vulnerable person and make a difference in her life.
Several factors inhibit us from acting: a “blaming the victim” mentality; recognizing that efforts to alleviate destitution require substantial time, energy, or sacrifice; belief that our resources are inadequate and that the impediments are too great; uncertainty about how best to proceed; and our self-interest and sinfulness. Many Christians do little to aid the indigent because they do not have enough facts, lack a good strategy, or consider the problems to be too massive to solve and poverty to be immutable.
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While Christians debate the best ways to reduce poverty, we can agree about three things: God cares deeply about the indigent, we have an obligation to help them, and destitution undermines human dignity. Poverty prevents billions of children around the globe from fulfilling their full potential as God’s image-bearers.
In our book “Suffer the Children: How We Can Help Improve the Lives of the World’s Impoverished Children,” my wife and I profile dozens of people who are working diligently to enrich the lives of indigent children. We discuss numerous organizations through which people can work to feed the hungry, supply clean water, eradicate disease, provide decent housing, improve parenting, schools, and child welfare systems, protect property rights, curb gangs, and reduce police corruption and human trafficking. We also examine what many congregations, parachurch and secular organizations, government programs, and businesses are doing to improve the quality of life for the world’s destitute children and explain how people can support these endeavors.
As Lent ends in 2017, may reflecting on the example of Jesus inspire us to do something to improve the lives of one or more of the world’s precious children.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Suffer the Children” (2017), “Religion in the Oval Office” (Oxford University Press, 2015), “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009), “Religion in the Oval Office” and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).