Christianity and aid work

What connection is there between Christianity and aid work?

At the onset of major crises like the recent hurricane in Burma or earthquake in China, armies of aid workers magically appear ready and able to provide assistance with desperately needed fresh water, food parcels, medicine, shelter and clothing. These high profile events can at times obscure the longer-term projects carried out by the same groups dedicated to broad development such as child sponsorship, micro enterprise development, health care, education and community-building enterprises. It is a mixed bag of government and private agencies – some more effective than others. Many, but by no means all, emerge from a strong base of religious belief. I work for World Vision Australia, which is an aid and development NGO with an explicit Christian ‘faith base’ to its mission and values. The role of religion and in development is thus one that we wrestle with every day.

My question is ‘does the religious (in our case, Christian) connotation of an NGO make any difference? Should it make a difference to the way things are done and the projects that are undertaken? The short answer, in my view, is a definite ‘Yes’. But how and why does it make a difference?  

Most people in Australia are familiar with the work of World Vision.  But the Christian ‘faith base’ is less well known. The organisation was founded in the early 1950s by American pastor, Bob Pierce.  During the 1960s, World Vision expanded its activities in response to the needs of refugees from Indochina and those affected by natural disasters in Bangladesh and several African countries. As part of this expansion, World Vision Australia was established in 1966.  World Vision Australia (WVA) today is part of the global World Vision partnership, which works in about 100 countries (with a physical presence in about 80 of these).1   

All offices share a common vision: 

  Our vision for every child, life in all its fullness. Our prayer for every heart, the will to make it so.  

The first part of the statement ‘ … life in all its fullness …’ references one of the central claims that Jesus made about his own mission – that He came ‘that they may have life, and have it to the full’.2 Immediately you can see from this that the work of WVA is about more than just social or economic development. As a faith based NGO, we assert that there is a spiritual element to development; that people are more than just matter and mind, but that they have heart and soul needs as well.

we assert that there is a spiritual element to development; that people are more than just matter and mind, but that they have heart and soul needs as well

The second part of our vision statement reflects our core commitment to changing the hearts and minds of those with power, influence and resources. The change we seek is reflected in the prayer of our founder Bob Pierce – ‘Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God’.3  WVA seeks a ‘heart change’ in others to bring about a fundamental change of perspective. This entails seeing the world as it really is – with its pain and promise, and seeking to be part of what Christians understand as God’s plan for its renewal.

You can see in both the vision statement and Pierce’s prayer the roots of our philosophy of development – what we call ‘transformational development’. The aim is to see transformation in the people we work with, the people who support us in the work, and indeed ourselves. This understanding of what development means influences both the method we take to bring about development and how we view ‘success’.

Wrapping around the whole vision statement is the motivator for our work – our Christian commitment. This Christian commitment is in turn lived out through love. Many other Christian aid organisations have similar aims and motivations to ours. Jesus, when asked which was the most important of the Ten Commandments, took the opportunity to restate the entire law into two principles:

  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.4    

This love of God and love of neighbour – this intimacy with God and involvement with others – is to underlie all Christian action.5  And as the story of the Good Samaritan makes clear, our neighbour is not simply the person who lives next door, but is anyone who needs love and compassion.6 This includes not just family, or friends or even fellow countrymen, but encompasses our enemies too.

our neighbour is not simply the person who lives next door, but is anyone who needs love and compassion

The early Christians took this very seriously.7 By AD350, the Christian community was so well known for their welfare activities that the fourth century (non-Christian) Emperor Julian (AD 331-362) complained to one of his officials:

  For when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galileans [Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained the ascendancy in the worst of their deeds through the credit they win for such practices.8  

He went on (in AD362) to demand that his priests institute a welfare system like the one established by the Christian church, including prison visitation, hospitals, hostels, orphanages and food distribution.  

Rodney Stark, Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at University of Washington for over thirty years, and now at Baylor University in Texas, (and not a Christian), argues that the Christian teaching ‘that mercy is one of the primary virtues’ was ‘revolutionary stuff’.He concludes:

  … a major way that Christianity served as a revitalisation movement within the [Roman] empire was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity. All were welcome without need to dispense with ethnic ties … Christianity also prompted liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family … [and] greatly modulated class differences – more than rhetoric was involved when slave and noble greeted one another as brothers in Christ.  … 10  

This is not to say that Christianity has the sole claim among religions to justice or indeed love. Aspects of the morality, values and compassion of ‘love for neighbour’ language can be seen in many religious and moral codes from Jewish Hebrew scriptures to Buddhist texts and even in some Roman laws, as well as in non-religious moral and ethical arguments.11
What we can say though is that the Christian connotation of an NGO does make a difference – certainly at World Vision Australia that is true. It goes to the question of motivation, and therefore to both the method and the outcome of the action. Love is the primary motivator, as is made clear by the famous (and little understood) passage in 1 Corinthians 13. The Apostle Paul says (and I paraphrase for effect) no matter how smart or sophisticated or generous I am, if I do not have love for God and my neighbour – if I don’t have intimacy and involvement – ‘I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal … I am nothing …’.

Indeed, for a Christian NGO, it is impossible to separate Christian action from Christian belief 

Christians also assert that understanding and living this life of love points to a deeper reality – that God is still active in the world and working for its renewal. Christians believe their actions have significance beyond their immediate effect, as a small part of this. The Christian claim is that God is the God of the whole world, not just of the private, personal sphere. This could be termed a ‘universal’ claim – an assertion of the universal relevance of Christianity. A Christian aid and development organisation does therefore not limit its sphere of influence to the ‘religious’ or to the ‘Christian’. As history shows, Christians have lived out their ‘love’ motivation in all countries and with all faiths.  

Indeed, for a Christian NGO, it is impossible to separate Christian action from Christian belief – the two are indivisible. This powerful motivator is at the core of Christian action through history – without it there would be no William Wilberforce, no Mother Theresa, no Martin Luther King, no Bob Pierce, no World Vision!  
Fiona McLeay is a CPX Fellow and is General Counsel at World Vision Australia. She lives in Melbourne.

1. Despite our size and geographic presence, it should be noted that World Vision, and WVA, is in many ways a small player on the aid and development stage.  As campaigns such as Make Poverty History and One make clear, fairer global trade rules, targeted debt relief and increases in government overseas direct assistance (ODA) have the potential for far greater impact on global poverty than 10 or 100 World Visions.
2. John 10:10 – “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
3. This is a plea echoed by U2’s Bono – in his song When I Look at the World he sings:
“So I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
But without you it's no use
I can't see what you see
When I look at the world. “
“When I Look at the World”, from U2 album All that You Can’t Leave Behind  Island Records 1998
4. Luke 10:27 “He answered:  'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'”
5. I am indebted to Steve Chalke for the “intimacy and involvement” characterisation.
6. Luke 10:25 – 37   It is also important to note that Christianity shares the ethic of “loving” those beyond one’s tribe with many other major world religions, including Judaism (see Leviticus 19:33-34).   
7. The first Christians in Jerusalem also set up a large daily food roster for the poor among them and the apostle Paul conducted his own decade long lobbying campaign on behalf of Palestinians affected by the famine of 46-48AD, asking Gentile churches to contribute support for the poor in Jerusalem. See Acts 6:1-7.
8. Quoted in Dickson, J Promoting the Gospel page 89 published by Blue Bottle Books, 2005
9. Stark has studied what he calls the “revitalising” impact of the early Christian church on the Roman Empire of the first three centuries.  
10. Dickson, J op cit at 91
11. See Ishay, M The History of Human Rights at page 7