The Quality of Mercy

Part of the aftershocks of September 11 was a new round of aspersions cast on the role of religion in American life. A representative from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, for example, called the attacks a "faith-based endeavor," a not-too-subtle reference to the President's Faith-Based Initiative. Viewing faith as dangerous isn't limited to the village atheists. You hear similar arguments against the role of religion in American public life coming from the academy. A recent book called THE MIND OF GOD, advocates "eliminating religion as a factor in public life" because it "legitimizes violence." Well, admittedly some people have done terrible things in the name of religion, but sustaining this kind of argument requires a willful disregard of history. As a new book, CHRISTIANITY ON TRIAL, reminds us, the world has been changed for the better precisely because Christians weren't willing to treat their faith as a purely private matter. In no area has this been more true than in Christianity's championing of the weak, the poor, the sick, and the defenseless. In their chapter on charity, authors Dave Shiflett and Vincent Carroll, remind us how revolutionary the Christian doctrine of mercy has been. They quote historian John McManners, who noted that the classical world into which Christianity was born "regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions -- defects of character to be avoided by all rational men." But Christians had a different view. They knew that God's grace and mercy were unearned and so they were unable to withhold mercy from others. They also knew that their Savior had instructed them to see his face in the face of the poor and desperate. Jesus' words still ring through history: "As you have done these things to the least of my brethren, you have done them unto me." (Matthew 25:40) The Church has never regarded this command as optional. And Christians through the ages have served Christ by serving the poor in many world-changing ways. Just war theory developed, beginning with Augustine, as an expression of Christian mercy even in war. During the nineteenth century, hundreds of volunteer associations were born to fight every social ill from drunkenness to prostitution to child labor. Christians have founded thousands of orphanages, schools, clinics, and hospitals. These and countless other public expressions of Christian faith in the form of mercy literally have changed the world -- and the world still needs that kind of changing. Fortunately, Christians still have the vision. Love and Action ministers to people with AIDS. International Justice Mission circles the globe prosecuting law cases for the needy who are denied justice. The Salvation Army takes the money from those Christmas kettles and uses it to care for the down and out. And Prison Fellowship extends mercy to prisoners, their families, and their communities. We can and must defend our faith against those who want to forget the blessings that Christianity has brought to the world. When the naysayers denounce us as little different than fanatical terrorists, we can counter with calm, rational facts. Christianity on Trial is a book that will get you started. It will help you and your neighbors understand what they ought to find very frightening: not too much Christianity, but a world where Christianity isn't a factor in public life. For more information: Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial (Encounter Books 2001). P. C. W. Davies, The Mind of God. Touchstone Books (March 1993). Love and Action: International Justice Mission: The Salvation Army: Prison Fellowship:


Chuck Colson



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