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The history of compassion

Compassion | Self-hating evangelicals miss how much good their religion has done

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

I'm glad to be of Jewish ancestry. I'm generally supportive of Israel and am still surprised to encounter left-wing Jews who ally with anti-Israeli Muslims. There's a name for such folks: Self-hating Jews. Why did Jewish comedienne Roseanne Barr call Israel "a Nazi state"? Emory University professor Sander Gilman, author of Jewish Self-Hatred (1986), notes that "one of the most recent forms of Jewish self-hatred is the virulent opposition to the existence of the State of Israel."

Michael Horowitz has called evangelicals "the new Jews" in terms of facing discrimination and even loathing in some academic and other circles. If so, I'd like to suggest-after reading Rob Bell and others-that we should start referring to evangelical self-hatred. Among the self-haters are those who display virulent opposition to the existence of churches that are not emergent, or don't meet in a house, or are not radically redistributionist, or something other than standard.

Bell's best-seller, Love Wins, bashes the church straw men he creates. Bell repeatedly claims that many churches declare, "Only a select few go to heaven." Maybe he's thinking of Jehovah's Witnesses, but I've been in more than 100 churches and have repeatedly heard the offer of the gospel to all and the hopeful expectation that heaven contains many mansions-that will be filled.

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Bell quotes the most outlandish things as if they're typical. He quotes one woman saying, "My father raped me while reciting the Lord's Prayer." Is that what evangelicals do? Why bring up, in the first chapter, such a profane rarity? I suppose evangelical self-hatred sells books, but more than money is involved: It seems to stem from how some evangelicals were brought up. Maybe I'm immune to it because I didn't become a Christian until I was 26-so I'm even fond of Christmas carols.

Do cures for evangelical self-hatred exist? Strong church worship and preaching is key. Solid reading about what evangelically-minded folks have contributed to the world, and increased reporting of what evangelicals are doing now, can help as well. We're trying to do that in WORLD.

Reading: For some self-hating evangelicals, the story of the past 2,000 years is: "Christ came, Christians have pillaged, we're sorry"-but three books (along with many others) tell an accurate story. Alvin Schmidt's How Christianity Changed the World, Jonathan Hill's What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us?, and Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success all show Christians for centuries setting up hospitals and other humane institutions. Ancient documents show how pagans abandoned cities when plagues erupted but Christians remained, taking care of the sick in the belief that this was their God-given duty.

Many centuries later, the anti-slavery movement developed on the same Christ-following basis. The story of William Wilberforce's persistence two centuries ago is now well-known-Eric Metaxas, John Piper, William Hague, Kevin Belmonte, and others have written biographies-but the breadth of Wilberforce's movement has sometimes been overlooked. For example, in Great Britain 95 percent of adult Wesleyan Methodists signed petitions calling for the end of slavery. This consensus among Christians shows that Wilberforce's character was great but the character of the God in whom he believed was even more significant.

Some historians profile Christian missionaries who did more harm than good, but many others in British colonies ended some forms of forced labor, pursued the rule of law in British colonies, fought the opium trade, and built schools because they wanted people to read the Bible in their own language. In the United States, evangelicals in the 19th century not only built schools and hospitals but effectively fought poverty and abortion. This is the compassionate heritage of the evangelical church, and it's one to be proud of.

Reporting: There's much to be proud of in the present as well. Self-hating evangelicals sometimes talk as if churches only now are emerging from a cocoon in which they separated themselves from neighbors, but over the past 20 years I've seen hundreds of ministries that loved their neighbors through the practice of effective compassion. And this month we are introducing the first regional winner in WORLD's sixth annual Effective Compassion contest.

For those new to our magazine: In January I asked readers to nominate local ministries that offer challenging, personal, and spiritual help to those in need. We looked at the nominees' websites and other materials, telephoned some of them, chose the finalists for each region-South, Midwest, Northeast, and West-and then sent out a reporter to eyeball the most promising ones. We'll roll out regional winners over the next two months, with a story in WORLD and a video plus other photos on our website.

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