Theological Reflections on the Christian Humanitarian Response

There are a number of theological themes that must be kept in mind as we explore the Christian response to humanitarian crises.

While the Christian response to uprooted people is biblically demanded, the imperative rests on something deeper than Old Testament law. The demand to love God with all one's heart and mind and to love one's neighbor as oneself is made clear in Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25. All the nations will be gathered and separated according to their giving to the “least of these” in food, water, clothes, medical care and hospitality.

One of Kosuke Koyama's endearing contributions to missiology is what he calls “neighborology.”1 Koyama reminds us that people need good neighbors more than good theology or emergency relief and that inviting people into our homes is vital. Hospitality is a missiological response.

Pope Paul VI underscored the same idea in Popularum Progessio, an encyclical written two years after the Second Vatican Council: “We cannot insist too much on the duty of giving foreigners a hospitable reception. It is a duty imposed by human solidarity and by Christian charity.”2 The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees reminds us that progress in terms of living peacefully together is “closely linked to the growth in the mentality of hospitality.”3 Hospitality is more than caring for or reaching out, it is getting close and personal. It's like Jesus sharing a meal with lepers and outcasts. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

Charity and Solidarity
We must also acknowledge the responsibility of the rich. While no one is too poor to give, the Bible suggests that those who have much are obligated to share. In Acts we are told that no one in the community of faith was in need (Acts 4:34) and this was made possible by sharing. Failure to welcome the refugee, displaced person or migrant worker constitutes a moral failure, not simply an economic choice. The expectations of welcoming goes far beyond provision of material needs. In Popularum Progressio, three moral duties of rich nations are named: 1) mutual solidarity in the form of the aid that rich nations should give developing nations; 2) social justice in the form of rectifying trade relations between strong and weak nations; and 3) universal charity—the effort to build a more humane community in which all give and receive.4 This echoes Old Testament commandments. Sharing (loving the alien) must be accompanied by creating a fairer playing field (not oppressing the alien) and restoring just and peaceful relationships among peoples (giving the alien an inheritance). Where does the passion for charity and solidarity come from?

Faith and Love
We now must consider the relationship between our faith and our capacity to love our uprooted neighbor. The test of our faith is our ability to love. If we cannot welcome the stranger, our faith is suspect. Either we don't truly believe, our gospel is too narrow or there are idols distracting us from our responsibilities.

But, more importantly, faith is the precursor to being able to truly love. Our faith in the Lord of grace and the sanctifying Holy Spirit is what holds the promise that we can love unselfishly. David Bloesch sums: “Faith alone justifies; love attests that faith is alive. Faith is personal; love is social. Faith is the foundation; love is the goal. Faith is the root; peace, joy and love are the fruits.”5 Our Christian faith and its vitality and sustenance are the foundation of our humanitarian response.

True Humanitarianism
Finally, we must clarify our theology of humanitarianism. Bloesch warns of the temptation to reduce a truly Christian understanding of humanitarianism to its modern secular form:

“The object of humanitarianism (in its secular sense) is not to identify with the world in its shame and affliction (James 1:27), nor to permeate the world with the leaven of the gospel, but to remold the world in the image of enlightened humanity. Humanitarianism is a liberal form of religion emphasizing service to humanity above all other concerns….The goal is the greater happiness of man, not the glory of God.”6

The danger of reduced understanding of humanitarianism is not only how it affects our actions, but how it affects our thought life: “When concern for social improvement pre-empts the hope for the righteousness of the Kingdom, we are in the humanitarian [Western liberal democratic] rather than the biblical thought-world.”7

The antidote to a false humanitarianism is to be sure that our anthropology is theologically sound. The truth is that God created human beings as free beings and that we are made in God's image and are here for a purpose. We are to first glorify God and then we are to make the earth productive. This is the foundation of our humanitarianism as Christians and the test of our humanitarian response. Are we affirming the truth about God and the truth about humankind?

Populorum Progressio reminds us that a truly Christian humanism “points the way to God” and that “Man is not the ultimate measure of man. Man becomes truly man only by passing beyond himself.”8 We have not reached high enough unless the goal of humanitarianism is to encourage people to find God. In this, they will discover that they become most truly themselves when they also care for others. Bloesch says it well: “Although Good Samaritan service sometimes has chronological priority over evangelism, the mission of the church is not fulfilled until we declare the message of reconciliation and redemption.”9 He also reminds us that:

“the great saints of the church have revolutionized society because they have given the world a new metaphysical vision, a world and life view anchored in the transcendent. They have provided not simply programs of social change, but a sense of meaning and purpose to existence.”10

As we stand on the shoulders of Christians who fought for issues relating to the slave trade, child labor, piracy, liquor trafficking, poverty and refugee movements, we need to take care that we are practicing a truly Christian humanitarianism.

1. Koyama, Kosuke. “Extending Hospitality to Strangers: A Missiology of Theoligia Crucis.” International Review of Mission, p. 82. No. 321, Oct. 1993.

2. Paul VI. Populorum Progression. p. 67, 1967.

3. Etchegaray, Roger Cardinal and Chelli, Archbishop Giovanni. “Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity,” a paper presented for Pastoral Care of Refugees at the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrant and Itinerant People. p. 4, 1983.

4. Paul VI. Populorum Progression. Paragraph 44, 1967.

5. Bloesch, Donald. “Humanitarianism.” Faith and Counterfeits. Intervarsity Press. p. 51, 1980.

6. ibid, p. 47-48. 7 ibid, p. 47. 8 Paul VI. Populorum Progression. paragraph 42, 1967. 9 Bloesch, p. 58. 10 ibid, p. 52.

Bryant Myers is vice president for Development and Food Resources at World Vision International.