I recently read a modern day story about the true meaning of Christmas. Titled "Heart of the Slums", it was a compelling account of a Melbourne family, the Barkers, who have embedded themselves for the last 12 years in Bangkok 's largest slum, Klong Toey, to embody and make tangible the divine love that came into the world when Jesus was born in Bethlehem . Nothing exemplifies this love more than when servants of Christ respond to His invitation and follow His example by sacrificing material possessions and earthly comforts to attend to the pressing needs of some of the neediest people on the planet.
Three other examples of this self-sacrificial Christian love in action were portrayed in the last two episodes for the year of Compass on ABC1. The summary in The Age Green Guide read as follows: "The extraordinary stories of three missionaries who have dedicated their lives to working with people in some of the most challenging and dangerous corners on earth" -- namely South Sudan, Papua New Guinea , and the rainforests of Brazil . One of them, Father John Glynn, said the essence of Christianity is summed up in the words of Jesus: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve", and Christians are called to do likewise.
One of the reasons I'm glad such stories have been brought to light is that they have given me further ammunition for my dialogue by email with an atheist and public figure whom I shall call Tony. My main challenge to Tony has been to invite him to respond to the contrast between the fruits -- that is, the track record and the legacy -- of atheism, and the fruits of applied faith in the Christ of Christmas.
For instance, in one of my emails I asked Tony what the following organizations have in common: The Red Cross, Amnesty International, Opportunity International, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan's Purse, World Vision, Alcoholics Anonymous (and all subsequent 12-step programs), The Royal Flying Doctor Service, Dr.Barnardo's Homes, the Salvation Army, the Brotherhood of St.Laurence, St.Vincent de Paul, Melbourne CityMission, Not For Sale (an organization devoted to liberating modern-day slaves across the world), Prison Fellowship, and its female equivalent, Prison Network Ministries.
What these organizations have in common is that they all had Christian origins. The Red Cross was founded by Swiss Christian philanthropist Henri Dunant, while Amnesty International was founded by British lawyer Peter Benenson in 1961, three years after he became a Christian convert. Similarly, American Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity shortly after his conversion, just as Charles Colson (a former aide to Richard Nixon) was a new convert when he founded Prison Fellowship, which now operates in scores of countries around the world, including Australia .
So the question arises, where are the atheistic equivalents? The British journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge once said: "I know of dozens of Christian leprosy missions, but I've never heard of a single atheistic one." This is not to say there aren't any non-religious humanitarian organizations. Of course there are. They include UNESCO, Save the Children Fund, and the highly admirable Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). I was also going to mention AusAid, but then I remembered the Abbott Government has abolished it. (Please don't remind me that Mr.Abbott is a Catholic -- it doesn't help my argument one iota.)
But to expand Muggeridge's point about leprosy missions, it's not easy to call to mind many charitable enterprises that have been inspired by atheism, founded by sceptics, underwritten by unbelievers, run by rationalists, and staffed by devoted nihilistic volunteers. So far, my atheist correspondent Tony has been unable to nominate a single one.
As with organizations, so with individuals. Who have been the atheistic equivalents of a William Wilberforce or a William Booth? Or a Mother Teresa, a Graham Staines, a Helen Keller, a Moira Kelly, an Eva Burrows, a Jean Vanier, an Albert Schweitzer, an Eric Liddell (of Chariots of Fire fame), an Oscar Romero, a Dom Helder Camara, a Desmond Tutu or a Martin Luther King?
I believe it is legitimate to compare the contributions and the legacies of Christians such as these, with those of prominent atheists such as Nietzche, Rousseau, Voltaire, Russell, and in more recent times, Hitchens, Dawkins and Krauss. What notable charities have been founded by men such as these? What lasting contributions have they made to human well-being? According to one historian, Nietzche's writings have provided justificatory texts for nationalists and socialists in many countries including Nazi Germany; while some say the roots of fascism can be traced to the writings of Rousseau.
In stark contrast, the beneficial legacies of faithful Christians shine on to this day. The modern nursing movement owes its origins to a devout Christian named Florence Nightingale, while advances in palliative care can be attributed to the founder of the modern hospice movement, Dame Cicely Saunders, also a devout Christian. The scourge of modern day slavery is being tackled by the Not For Sale movement, led by American Christian David Batstone.
Next time you hear of the separated twins Krishna and Trishna, remember their saviour and adoptive mother Moira Kelly, founder of the Children First Foundation which now operates around the world. Next time you hear yet another wonderful story about a child or an adult being able to hear for the very first time, remember that the man who developed the bionic ear is Melbourne 's Professor Graeme Clark, a scientist and a Christian believer who sees faith and science not as incompatible but as complementary.
And finally, at this Christmas time, when you hear somebody say "Thank God for the Salvo's" (as many folk in need will be saying), spare a "thank-you" for the One born 2,000 years ago, without whose immeasurable legacy there would have been no Salvation Army in the first place, and none of the other Christian aid agencies and ground-breaking individuals mentioned above. In summary, there would be none of the innumerable benefits and blessings that have flowed and continue to flow from the vastly transformative influence of the Bethlehem baby, who grew up to change the course of human history in ways beyond counting.