What Kind of Bread for a Hungry World?
“CHRISTIANS are plundering Christians” is the title of a speech by Helder Câmara, the Catholic archbishop of Recife in Brazil.
Very similarly, German theologian Helmut Gollwitzer in the book The Rich Christians and the Poor Lazarus writes that “baptized ones are plundering unbaptized ones.”
What do these churchmen mean?
English Methodist minister Colin Morris explains his view of the matter in this way: “The Church bears unlimited responsibility [toward the world’s poor], for has she not for centuries trumpeted her guardianship of the little people of the earth?” Referring to “the small white Christian and Western minority” as the rich 20 percent of the world’s population, while the remaining 80 percent are subject to famine and poverty, he writes:
“Compared with those hungry millions, the Church is as rich as Croesus and as money-conscious as Midas. We are a rich Church in a hungry world. That is why our message rings hollow and our influence declines.”*
Have you personally heard churchmen voice such criticism? More and more persons today have. They are hearing sermons saying that ‘it is time the churches stop debating and start to act.’ “It is deeds that are wanted,” says minister Morris; the poor and hungry ‘cannot eat our words,’ so give them bread. Yes, more and more churchmen are saying that this is the primary way ‘to follow Jesus in our day.’
Is it? What would you say? Surely you long to see poverty and hunger erased from the earth, do you not? But could there be a better, more effective way to help the world’s poor and hungry than the way these churchmen urge?
If you want to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, you need to know. What can you do, what should you do as a real Christian? Consider first some of the methods that those calling themselves “revolutionary theologians” or “secular theologians” are advocating today.
METHODS OF MODERN THEOLOGIANS
Often they refer to German theologian Bonhoeffer, who, before he was executed by the Nazis in 1945, suggested “that the first step is for the Church to dispose of all its property for the benefit of those in dire need.” Ordinary church charity, called “caritas,” will not do anymore, they say. “Caritas in the traditional sense, that is, relief of distress by means of charity, is not sufficient . . . because the distress is far too big.”—The Rich Christians and the Poor Lazarus.
Is that all? No, something else is needed, they say, and that is political effort. Writes Catholic Archbishop Helder Câmara: “If we Latin-American Christians would accept our responsibility for the underdevelopment in this continent, then we can and must work to promote radical change everywhere in the community, especially in politics and education.” At the conference of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala, Sweden, in July 1968, the same signal was heard.
The aim is to change the unjust society. Archbishop Câmara prefers nonviolent actions, such as those of the movement for racial integration of which Martin Luther King was a leader. Other ministers and theologians, however, say violent revolution may be necessary. German theologian Gollwitzer writes in his book that “the normal and most obvious attitude for the Christian is absolute pacifism.” But as a secondary alternative he states: “Out of responsible love to those that suffer, he will in a given situation decide to use revolutionary violence.”
How do they try to support such methods as being Christian? By asserting that Jesus Christ was a revolutionary! Methodist clergyman Morris states that the Church is ‘on the wrong side of the barricade in the revolution of our time,’ by not taking a stand for the underprivileged classes. He claims that ‘Jesus is on the opposite side of that barricade, there can be no doubt about it, for he is a revolutionary.’
Are these conclusions and the methods based on them sound? Or is it a case of mixing truth with error? The Bible shows that Christians must love, not just with words, but “in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18) But what kind of deeds? Changing an unjust society by political action or even by “revolutionary violence”? Was Jesus a ‘revolutionary’ principally concerned with providing material food for people or did he do an even more vital work with a nobler purpose? What are the facts?
SEPARATING TRUTH FROM ERROR
That “plundering” has been done and that Christendom’s churches bear a responsibility cannot honestly be denied. History shows that in many lands Christendom’s churches and church leaders leagued with and favored the wealthy over the poor. It shows that often the churches themselves became very wealthy. In Mexico, for example, the Catholic Church at one time owned by far the majority of the land in the entire country. Perhaps you have read in the newspapers reports on the great wealth of certain church organizations in your own land. Now some churchmen are confessing the responsibility that lies at the door of their churches and on the shoulders of their church members for much of the world’s poverty. They feel guilty and rightly so.
But, even though such plunderers can be counted among the “baptized,” are these churchmen right in calling them “Christians”? Do genuine Christians share their guilt? And is the distribution of ‘bread instead of words’ what will correct the ‘hollowness of the churches’ message’ and the worldwide ‘decline of their influence’ that these churchmen are so worried about? Is that the example Christ Jesus set?
A WRONG INTERPRETATION
It is only by drastically twisting the content of many Biblical passages that these theologians can give this impression of Jesus’ purpose and example. For instance, they often (as at the world conference in Uppsala), refer to Jesus’ words at Matthew 25:40: “To the extent that you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
They interpret those words to mean that the ‘least of Jesus’ brothers’ are all the people in the world who suffer distress. And so, they believe, the Christian is obligated to give them food, drink, clothes, medical help and so forth. The best way to do this, some believe, is through a political effort, through help to the developing countries and the like. They say Jesus is to be identified with every needy person that one might happen to meet, even if such a distressed person is “prone to say and do what by any Biblical standard is plain evil.”*
But who does Jesus say his brothers are? At Matthew 12:50 he says: “Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, the same is my brother.” Jesus’ “brothers,” including even the “least” ones, are, of course, his disciples; consequently they are the Christian congregation.
Now, read for yourself Jesus’ words at Matthew 25:31-46. Who are the ones gathered in front of the throne of the king, to be separated into two flocks, the “goats” and the “sheep”? Yes, who are those being judged according to the help they gave Christ’s brothers? Not Christ’s congregation but the nations of the earth, persons outside the Christian congregation, who are judged by the way they act toward the congregation, formed of Christ’s brothers.
That this is the correct understanding of Jesus’ words is very clearly shown by what he said on another occasion, as related at Matthew 10:40-42: “He that receives you receives me also, and he that receives me receives him also that sent me forth. . . . whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water to drink because he is a disciple, I tell you truly, he will by no means lose his reward.” So, it is not simply a matter of helping a poor person because he is poor, but is one of helping a Christian disciple “because he is a disciple.” It is, then, a matter of recognizing the disciple for what he is, accepting his message, taking sides with him by also becoming Christ’s disciple.
So rather than describe the Christians as “the rich” who are to help the poor people in the world in a material way, Jesus’ words at Matthew 25, on the contrary, show it is the people in the world who have an opportunity to help Christ’s spiritual brothers who are in need. In this way these non-Christians can show they are on the side of the true Christian message.
People who are not Christ’s spiritual brothers, then, can, in other words, help these Christian witnesses in a quite literal way with food, drink, clothes, and medical aid and by visiting them in prisons. For true Christians will very often be in situations where such help is highly welcome, especially in countries where they are persecuted and imprisoned. Jesus’ words cannot be used to prove that the Christian ministry should aim primarily at supplying the material needs of the poor people of the world.
WRONG VIEW OF CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION
Why do the theologians interpret these words of Jesus incorrectly? Is it not because they assume that “the small white . . . and Western minority” made up of the rich in the world are the true Christian congregation? Is the error not that they believe that the churches of Christendom and all their members are true Christians? Some of these theologians can see that there has been a turning away from true Christianity, but apparently they do not draw the full consequence of this knowledge.
One of them, Methodist Colin Morris, understands that such turning away possibly took place back in history when “whole communities [could] be baptized into the name of Jesus.” Then the Church became “a powerful institution, instead of remaining a small minority of personal witnesses in whom word and act were perfectly joined.” But he does not accept the consequence of this train of thought, namely: that the churches of Christendom are not identical with the Christian congregation.
The attempt by these theologians to renew and awaken the churches of Christendom thus rests on a wrong foundation. The large passive laity they are trying to activate are not true Christians. So the job is not merely one of making them active. It is to make them real Christians.
NOT WITH BREAD
Previously, the churches of Christendom made entire nations “Christian” by political means. But they did not make the individuals true Christians, for real Bible knowledge and genuine appreciation of what Christianity really means was usually missing. These people became Christians only in name. Many people today are church members because they have been christened as babies and not because they have taken a personal stand for the teachings of the Bible. They are Christians in name only. Some have become church members because of the social advantages connected with it. They too are Christians only in name.
When the efforts of Christendom’s missionaries consisted of giving medical help, distributing food and giving advice with regard to agriculture, their converts often became “rice Christians,” that is, people who have pretended interest in Christianity in order to get rice or other help. A well-known religious weekly, The Christian Century, wrote in 1960: “New Roman Catholic churches which were built in places [in Formosa (Taiwan)] where there was no Catholic population were equipped for storage and distribution of relief supplies. . . . Priests used the U.S. surplus commodities that came to them so cheaply as come-ons for converts and stay-ons for the come-ons.”
The same religious weekly wrote on February 20, 1960, that there were, at that time, no more “rice Christians” on the Chinese mainland. Judging from this information, you can conclude that since it is now Mao Tse-tung who gives people rice, they now believe in him. “Rice Christians” are not real Christians. These or similar methods do not produce true Christians.
Only by following Jesus’ example can Christians help others to become true Christians. Jesus was primarily a preacher and a teacher. He said: “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.” (John 18:37) His miracles, his healing the sick, his feeding the hungry and resurrecting dead ones, were to serve as signs that he was the Messiah, the One who was sent by God and whose words people should listen to. The miracles were at the same time evidence of what he as King in God’s kingdom in due time will do, to the everlasting good of mankind.
But apart from his offering his life as a ransom, the most important part of Jesus’ ministry nineteen hundred years ago was what he said, the words he spoke. He spoke life-giving words that he had heard from God, words, which, if heeded, could lead one, not simply to bread for a meal or two, but to the greatest of goals—everlasting life. To some, to whom he had miraculously given bread on the previous day, Jesus said: “Work, not for the food that perishes, but for the food that remains for life everlasting.”—John 6:27.
When Jesus sent out his disciples, he did not send them out with material bread but with spiritual food, the word of life. He said: “The sayings that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” (John 6:63) It would become known that they were the true Christian congregation because they followed Jesus’ example. Jesus’ congregation of true disciples still exists and still consists of “a minority of personal witnesses.” As regards the world of mankind, its task, its assignment, is this: “In all the nations the good news has to be preached first,” and “make disciples of people of all the nations . . . teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.”—Mark 13:10; Matt. 28:19, 20.
Only this congregation can make genuine Christians out of people, and only it can make them active in the true Christian ministry. Only in cooperation with this congregation will the individual be able to do proper acts of love, in harmony with God’s will and to the eternal good of the needy of the world. The most important thing for each individual is to find the true Christian congregation, to take a personal stand for true Christianity and to associate with this congregation.
Include Me Out!, Confessions of an Ecclesiastical Coward, by Colin Morris (London; 1968), pp. 57, 67, 89, 90.
Include Me Out!, p. 81.