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“By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.” [1]

Did that quote catch your attention? It did mine. It comes from the recently released Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2014 annual letter “3 Myths That Block Progress for the Poor.” In the letter Bill and Melinda Gates paint a surprisingly hopeful picture of the progress that has been made to provide education to people, bring about disease prevention, and reduce infant mortality rates worldwide. The letter goes on to dispel three commonly held myths that have been used to block foreign aid.

When I read this letter, I was filled with more hope than I have been in a long time. The media paints a dire picture of the world as a place that is on a constant, downward spiral. When we hear about joblessness, poverty, violence, and terrorism, it can be easy to think that the world is hopeless. Now, it is important to note that Bill and Melinda Gates are not claiming that poverty will be eradicated by 2035. Poverty will still exist in small pockets of the world. But, by this benchmark year, it is projected that most of the nations of the world will be self-sufficient, something that even 50 years ago would have been unimaginable.

This is good news, right? This is something we are hoping for, isn’t it? And then the backlash came. But, the backlash was not what I expected. I expected  people to disagree with the figures. I expected the pessimists to come out and say that things aren’t really getting better. I would not have been surprised by rebuttals and arguments pointing out the problems with the kind of aid the Gates Foundation seeks to provide. Instead, I heard Christians taking issue with giving assistance to other countries if that assistance isn’t being done in the name of Christ, as if, somehow, the assistance is less legitimate and good if it doesn’t have a Christian seal of approval on it.

We see the tremendous amount of good being done through the Gates Foundation, and we are startled – maybe even offended – but for all the wrong reasons. The way we react to these efforts is largely dependent upon our theology, namely our theology of creation care and our eschatology (theology of the last things/end times).

1. What is the purpose of humanity in creation? When God created human beings and charged them with having dominion over “every living thing that moves upon the earth,” what exactly did God mean? [2] For many people, the word “dominion” means we can dominate creation. We can use it as we see fit, even if that means exploiting resources, using more than our fair share, and living in ways that are not sustainable. The way we define dominion is critical as we establish a theology of the role God intended humanity to play on the earth.

If dominion means domination, we should feel no remorse as we exploit the world and its resources. After all, it would be our God-given right to do so. But, perhaps dominion means something else. Ellen Davis suggests that dominion means  “human beings are given the weighty honor of representing God’s benevolent dominion in the world, of standing up for God’s interests in the face of every threat.” [3] If God’s charge to humanity to have dominion over the earth means the latter, then it is imperative for us to move carefully, and act justly as we attempt to live as representatives of the reign of God on earth.

2. Not surprisingly, the way we understand the creation of the world and the role of human beings in it makes a difference in our eschatology, or the way we understand the end of things. If dominion means domination, and if the world is expendable, we may find ourselves gravitating toward a theology of the destruction of the world at the end of time.  I have actually heard people say proudly that they oppose conservation efforts and lending aid to the poor because, “The worse off our world becomes, and the more we help destroy things, the more quickly Jesus will have to come back.” This theology makes sense if we begin with a theology of creation that puts a select few in a position of reckless domination over creation.

But, what if creation is something we’re supposed to care for? What if dominion means behaving benevolently toward the world as though we are the very representatives of Christ? What if our wanton and reckless abuse of creation is not only wounding the world and the people in it, but is also giving off a horribly misshapen view of the relationship God desires to have with the world?

3.  So, what does this mean for the topic of foreign aid, especially aid that is not being done specifically in the name of Christ? Let’s consider the parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:29-37. A lawyer stands up, and we read that the lawyer intends to test Jesus. The lawyer asks Jesus to explain what is written in the law, and Jesus summarizes the law as loving God with all we are, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. The lawyer continues on, and asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Rather than answer the question directly, Jesus tells a parable.

A man falls into the hands of robbers, who beat him, strip him, and leave him half dead. Both a priest and a Levite see the injured man, and rather than help him, they pass by on the other side. But, when a Samaritan saw the injured man, he tended to his wounds, put him on his own animal, and spent his own money to make sure the injured man would be cared for. The people listening to Jesus would have viewed Samaritans as foreigners, and it would have been unsurprising to them had the Samaritan neglected the wounded man. Instead, Jesus turns expectations on their head. The religious, the pious, the institutional religious authorities neglect to show love and kindness. Those who are considered outcasts, not in the fold, not part of the chosen, are the ones going the extra mile to show love and compassion.

Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor of the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”

Not, “Go and be jealous.” Not, “Go and disparage the care of the Samaritan as less legitimate.” Go and do it. Do likewise. Follow his example. Be a vessel of love, mercy, and justice. Tend to the wounded. Offer a cup of water to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Visit those in prison. Feed the hungry. God desires the wholeness of the world, not the destruction of it. And God will use justice, mercy and love, even if the people doing those things are not Christians, or aren’t doing things overtly under the auspices of Christian faith.

Our response when we see the good work being done in the world should not be, “It’s not Christian, so it doesn’t count.” Instead, we are to go and do likewise. When we see efforts that care about what God cares about – the health and wholeness of all people – we should join in rather than be offended. When we read the lofty goals of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, rather than cast aspersions, we should give thanks that families with tremendous wealth are using it for humanitarian purposes rather than selfish and wasteful ones.

When organizations are finding ways to provide clean water to communities without it, go and do likewise.

When simple solutions are created to prevent the spread of disease and premature death, go and do likewise.

When justice, mercy, and love are being shared around the world, go and do likewise.

When we see others helping those in need, let’s go and do likewise.

I don’t believe in a God who created an expendable world. God intends for the world to be restored, and for peace and justice to reign. And, just as we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” [4] we are testifying that it is important for us to live as representatives of a new kingdom, a new order, and the heaven we long for, even here on earth. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

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[1] From the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/#section=home |  The downloadable PDF version of this letter can be found here: http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/~/media/Annual%20Letter%202014/PDFs/2014_GatesAnnualLetter_ENGLISH_1.pdf

[2] Genesis 1:28b, New Revised Standard Version

[3] Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (2001), p. 188. Davis also provides a compelling exposition of the words often translated “till” and “tend” in the creation narrative. She suggests that a better translation would be “work and watch.” These words connect strongly to worship and watching over something with faithful diligence.

[4] Matthew 6:10