Popular Posts

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Orphan Care

After having taken a short break, I am resuming this series.  Singer-songwriter John Lennon wrote a song decades ago asking people to imagine a world with no religion as though it would automatically lead to peace and harmony among people.  Through this series I have been exploring the contributions of Christianity to Western culture, some of which have become such "givens" that many do not realize that they came to us thanks to people properly living out their religion.
Freerange stock photo

   It may be surprising to most people that the word “religion” is hardly ever used in the Christian Bible.  One place it is used is in the highly practical letter of James.  Here we find these words:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
In this post, I will focus on the way Christians from the beginning were people who looked after orphans in their distress.
   Jesus Christ and his first followers lived in the context of the Roman Empire.  However, they lived within a Jewish enclave of that empire, where many laws, traditions and ways of living continued to be practiced even if they were not universally shared.  When the first followers were dispersed throughout various pockets of the Roman Empire, they may have found a Jewish synagogue or a small worshipping community of Jews by a river side (see Acts 16:13), but Greco-Roman patterns and ethics dominated all of society.
   Greco-Roman attitudes regarding the value and status of women, children and slaves affected their everyday interactions with each other and colored their sense of justice as well.  Because infants and children were not valued, it was common for them to be abandoned at birth if the parents did not want to raise them.  Such children either died of cold or hunger or were seized by slave traders who would exploit them. Christians began to rescue and embrace these infants, raising them with “the aid of the community fund.” [1] 
   Apostolic Constitutions (eight treatises dated from 375 to 380 (Book IV) Section 1. On Helping the Poor refer to the practice within the church for members to adopt and raise any Christian child whose parents had lost their lives whether by martyrdom or natural causes.  Orphanages as an institution began to be opened in the East at the same time as St. Basil was founding hospitals in the early fourth century. 
   A prominent Christian who cared for children in orphanages was George Muller, a German-born missionary who came to London to evangelize Jews.  Eventually he settled in Bristol at a time when a cholera epidemic was decimating the population.  So many children were left without parents that Muller took action and started Orphan Homes.  Eventually there were five of them, without any fundraising or asking for money.  Muller strongly believed that the Lord would provide financially without his approaching any individuals or groups. In all over 10,000 children were cared for in Muller’s homes. [2]
   Christian missions overseas have also often focused on the need to provide care for vulnerable orphans.  This has taken various forms, including adoption (for example, the cases of missionaries Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward in India and China, respectively), establishing orphanages, and more recently by organizing and supporting foster care within the child’s own community (such as is done by Visionledd in African nations ravaged by AIDS). 
   As I was researching orphan care, one of the things that popped up in my browser search was a news story about “the first atheist orphanage.”  A group of humanists announced in the February 2015 article that they would open the first atheist orphanage and would rely on crowd funding.  I suppose this really is newsworthy because it admits that faith has motivated the vast majority of homes for orphans.  Furthermore, it shows that through all the years of human history it has taken thousands of years before someone of no religion felt inclined to launch such an initiative.

[1] Will Durant, Caesar and Christ (1944), p. 598; also E. Gibbon, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1900), p. 480.
[2] See www.Muller.org

No comments:

Post a Comment