In the wake of a disaster, church groups often show up to help. They run soup kitchens, help clean up debris, and provide shelter for the homeless. When unfamiliar diseases hit, many Christians rush to care for the afflicted, setting up clinics and sitting at the bedsides of the ill. If we look at history, we see that Christians built hospitals, founded universities, and often took the lead in confronting a variety of social ills.
However, while some Christians care for the poor, others have denounced them as parasites. Some prominent clergy, particularly those active in politics, cast blame instead of offering help. They declare that a tornado hit a community because it had legalized gambling, or that the Twin Towers fell because prayer was taken out of schools. They claim that the latest plague is a just punishment for the victims’ sinful ways of life.
Is it possible that the same religion could inspire people to behave so differently? It sometimes seems as though there were two churches under one label.
Many people argue that religion is fine in small doses but becomes dangerous when it is taken too seriously — when societies overdo the “religious stuff,” they become intolerant; when individuals spend too much time with the Bible, they become unbalanced. The claim is that you can have "too much of a good thing" with religion. But if we look at evidence from psychology and history, we see that this theory has it backwards. Intolerance and cruelty don’t come from Christian teachings, but rather from secular culture. So-called “bad religion” is actually weak religion, the result of a faith that can’t stand up to worldly prejudices.
When, for instance, we look closely at the mistreatment of New World natives by Europeans, we see that Christians advocated for better treatment of all people — for example, Las Casas realized the error of his ways and became an early advocate for human rights. Worldly settlers, however, tried to censor such Christian voices. When we look at slavery, we see that opponents of the institution cited the Bible to support their views often, while slavery’s defenders usually made “pragmatic” arguments. When we look at mental health, we see research that suggests that people actively involved in their faith are happier and even physically healthier than those who are uninvolved or who are only superficially religious. When discussing Christianity, it is important to determine the difference between nominal Christians and those who are dedicated to the faith.
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