There are many values that the modern Western world prizes, yet increasingly these are assumed to have ‘just happened’ as accidents of history and have nothing to do with the beliefs that shaped them.The truth is that Christianity played a significant role in shaping what we call ‘the West’.
Consider human rights; the idea that every individual has rights and freedoms. It is the biblical belief that everybody is made in God’s image and as such has value that gave birth to the idea and it’s 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 and in many cultures, infanticide was common. However, following the example of Jesus (Matthew 19:14), Christianity values children. That high evaluation led to 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 Christians who promoted 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.
Consider the economic systems that 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.
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. 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. 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’.
In fact the Christian role in creating what we are today is everywhere. Now of course the record is not unblemished; history also yields the names of those who, despite naming the name of Christ, sadly perpetuated evil and ignorance. Nevertheless, the record of Christianity in creating much of what we value is overwhelming. Indeed, it’s a striking irony that those atheists who criticise Christians and Christianity prefer to do so from the freedom and protection provided by a culture whose very basis they despise.
Perhaps we should be wary of removing our foundations?
with every blessing, Philip de Grey-Warter, Vicar
(I am indebted to J.John for the material for this letter)