Sunday’s paper had a complimentary article about Richard Stearns, head of the Christian World Vision organization, known for tackling issues of worldwide poverty. It described Mr. Stearns’ transformation as a young man from agnosticism to committed Christianity and how his religious principles spurred him to leave a successful corporate position and use his skills for non-profit charity work.
Why then did I feel insulted after reading this article? Quite frankly, I felt that my Christian friends, quite a few of whom work for and support World Vision, were being given a back-handed compliment.
In the months following 9/11, the New York Times ran obituaries for every victim of the World Trade Center destruction. In the usual style of obituaries, they accentuated how loved the person was and in what ways he or she contributed to the world.
One of those obituaries was so bigoted and foolish that I read it a few times to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding. Unfortunately I didn’t cut it out so I can’t quote it exactly, but the insulting message that was conveyed was that John Doe was a charitable, generous man despite the fact that he was an active Republican.
Perhaps if I hadn’t seen that obituary or a continual stream over the years of subtler but incredibly smug assertions that conservative Christian or Republican equals mean-spirited, I wouldn’t have had any reaction other than finding this Sunday’s article interesting. But experience has left me with sensitized antennae.
So, it was disturbing to me that after paraphrasing Mr. Stearns’ book as saying that Christians have focused overly much on personal salvation and judging others rather than caring for the poor (and his book certainly might say this – though I do wonder if the emphasis is that of the article’s author rather than the book’s – I would have given more credence to a direct quote) the author of the Sunday piece quotes “the Rev. Jim Wallis, a liberal evangelical leader” as saying for years that a change like that was coming. A quote later in the article from James Wellman, associate professor of American religion at the University of Washington says “younger evangelicals, in particular, are more internationally savvy and less addicted to the culture wars of previous generations.”
The message I heard? There are those “good Christians” who give charity and fight world hunger and then there are those “bad Christians” who are sticklers for theology and have a pesky habit of refusing to adjust their values to the latest liberal moral agenda. Richard Stearns is one of the “good Christians” though to be fair, the article does mention that World Vision employees (perhaps, the reader might be led to ask by the tone of the article, over Mr. Stearns’ objections?) sign an article of faith that includes a code of conduct that disallows both adulterous and homosexual behavior.
I don’t know Mr. Stearns nor have I read his book. But, as I said, I know many of his employees. They are charitable, humanitarian people. Their charitable spirit and adamantly conservative social views stem from one and the same place – their belief in God and His Bible. I know that they would not rank Rev. Wallis as a pastor they are comfortable having speak for them.
I have the unusual experience for an observant Jew of having spent time with men like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson as well as thousands of less well known Christians. It may not fit into the prejudiced stereotypes of liberal America, but these people give their money, time and effort helping human beings of all colors and nationalities around the world. They also attend pro-life rallies and vote their values. They spend their vacations going on missions providing dental and medical care or sweat equity building homes in South America and Asia. They also oppose homosexual marriage. This is not an either/or situation. My guess is that many, and perhaps overwhelming numbers, of the kindhearted and generous folk who cause organizations like World Vision to flourish are those whom a biased media frequently denigrates without ever bothering to actually get to know them. That “bad Christian” group might possibly even include Mr. Stearns himself.