I think many might be surprised by the headline “An Atheist Defends Religion” but that is the title of an unusual book by author Bruce Sheiman. While more militant atheism is stridently vocal in its refusal to recognise that religion might make any positive contribution to advancing the welfare of humanity, Sheiman suggests that it was Jesus of Nazareth paved the way for a brand new view of humanity and that, apart from Jesus, the world would have looked very different.
Before Christianity Sheiman says that ‘a commitment to human dignity, personal liberty, and individual equality did not previously appear in any other culture.’ It was a distinctly Christian view of humanity that led to a radical acceptance of the place and need of others. ‘Once we see ourselves as free individuals, and to the extent that we understand that we are all creatures of one God, we understand that freedom and dignity are the right of all people.’
In other words Jesus’ followers were - and are - committed to seeing the world differently and especially how they chose to view and treat others, especially those in need. Not least the call to compassion, to feel and do something for those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Jesus saw people as no-one had ever seen them. The great Victorian preacher C.H. Spurgeon said ‘If you would sum up the whole character of Christ in reference to ourselves, it might be gathered into this one sentence, “He was moved with compassion.” And the first Bishop of Liverpool J.C. Ryle observed ‘It is a curious and striking fact, that of all the feelings experienced by our Lord when upon the earth, there is none so often mentioned as “compassion”.
Think of the compassion Jesus showed an ostracized leper: He not only healed him but first he touched the man no one else would come near (Mark 1:40-42). Think of his decision to delay his entrance into Jerusalem because of the cry of two blind men (Matt. 20:29-34). Or think Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11:32-36). There never was a heart like his with such concern and sympathy.
However, Bruce Sheiman isn’t the first to see something unique in the kind of love shown by Jesus and his followers. Emperor Julian (332-363 AD) was the last Roman Ruler to persecute Christians yet even he could not fail to recognise that a love shaped by the cross of Christ is radical. He wrote of how the cause of Christianity ‘has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.’
What prompts this? Without doubt it is a deep reflection on the message of Christ that produces and promotes such compassion within us. To the degree that the message of Jesus shapes our self-image, we will identify with those in need because once I consider that Jesus was moved to meet my need I begin to see that others share my neediness and I can choose to cultivate compassion wherever I see need.
So what motivates you?
with every blessing, Philip de Grey-Warter, Vicar
(The idea for this letter came from Neil Powell - thanks to him)