In 2002, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof proclaimed evangelicals the "new internationalists," lauding us for engaging such issues as sex trafficking, slavery, and HIV/AIDS. We actually became internationalists with the blossoming of the modern missions movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Wherever missionaries took the Good News, they contributed to development by expanding literacy, promoting public health through sanitation, diet, and medicine, and improving the lot of women, children, and orphans.
But nearly ever since, we have debated the wisdom of faith-driven development work. Some harbor a suspicion that development work will squeeze out gospel work, while others argue that gospel work is impossible without it. That discussion continues now that international justice and development concerns have been mainstreamed by popular Christian musicians, megachurch pastors, and the National Association of Evangelicals.
Pope Benedict XVI can help us think through the issues. In July, he released his encyclical on development, Caritas in Veritate. Many took it to be about global economics, since the Vatican released it the day before the G8 Summit was to begin just a short drive from Rome. But Benedict's letter dealt with much more than economic life, focusing instead on what people and societies are and are called to be.
As Baylor University's Francis Beckwith explained on Christianity Today's website, the encyclical is "a brief against secular materialism in its economic and metaphysical forms, and its harmful consequences on the human family's common good." Secular materialism is an ideology, and ideologies are reductionistic. Thus, they are lies—or at best, distortions of the truth. They treat societies and people as functions of just a few factors. And both Marxism and free-market economics often treat people and societies as determined almost solely by economic factors.
But society is more than economic systems and governments. "Doing the Truth in Love," evangelical leaders' response to the encyclical, says that active Christian love "demands space for myriad human communities and institutions, not just for the state and the market, but also families and the many relationships of civil society. It is primarily the internal resources of communities, such as those of neighborhood associations, municipal councils, trade unions, small business, and more, that facilitate the cultivation of local talents and resources" (doingthetruth.org).
Human beings are not just workers or citizens. We are parents and children. We are members of ethnic groups. We learn. We love. We play. We plan. We celebrate. We seek justice and fairness for all. We use imagination to create art and solve problems. Above all, we worship. These are markers of human flourishing.
This is the truth about human beings, and, says Benedict, you cannot properly love people unless you understand the truth about them. Thus, Benedict reflects on a long list of areas that affect human flourishing: education, social security systems, food security, infant mortality, demographic control (including forced abortions), euthanasia, religious freedom, unemployment, food and water, the integrity of the family, the natural environment, energy resources, and migration, among others. Integral development, he says, "has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man."
By using the word vocation 28 times in this encyclical, Benedict points to humanity's transcendent dimension. He quotes Pope Paul VI: "Progress, in its origin and essence, is first and foremost a vocation: 'in the design of God, every man is called upon to develop and fulfill himself, for every life is a vocation.' " He continues: "To regard development as a vocation is to recognize, on the one hand, that it derives from a transcendent call, and on the other hand that it is incapable, on its own, of supplying its ultimate meaning."
So development work is not only about the relief of suffering (countering a negative); it is fundamentally about helping people respond to God's transcendent call (empowering a positive).
This concept of vocation, God's call to all people, can provide the unifying force that holds development and gospel work together. Without a unifying force, Christians wander off the path, concentrating on compassionate work for those God loves while forgetting the scandalous Good News of the Cross. Or becoming so jealous for the glory of the Cross that they neglect the work of compassion and development.
But there need not be such conflict. As the Micah Network's Declaration on Integral Mission states: "Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing, and saying are at the heart of our integral task."
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Christianity Today's previous articles related to Catholicism include:
Why You Can't Just 'Love Your Neighbor' | According to Benedict XVI's new encyclical, trying to love people without knowing the truth about them leads to mere sentiment and will do them harm. (July 10, 2009)
Thinking Epistemologically about Obama and Notre Dame | Francis Beckwith explains why Notre Dame's invitation is so controversial, and what it says about higher education. (March 27, 2009)
The Promise of Benedict XVI | Evangelicals can be glad that the new pope is not likely to be a mere caretaker. (May 26, 2005)
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