I’m sure you’ve been enjoying your recent subscription to the 24-hour Ice Bucket Challenge Network formerly known as Facebook. It’s quite a phenomenon – one that demonstrates the power of social media, the power of peer influence, the power of ultimatums, a powerful national desire to help others, and a host of other pretty fascinating human behavioral habits.
This isn’t the Harlem Shake. This isn’t planking. It shares some similarities from a viral standpoint. But this is young America’s first real, significant attempt to use the overwhelming accessibility of social media for good.
I’m not quite ready to do the full trispectival analysis on this yet, in part, because I don’t know that it’s fair or accurate to suggest that certain positions line up with religion/irreligion, etc. But we’re going to do something similar here by pointing out how Christians might process the good, the bad, and the important questions surrounding the occasion.
There’s been lots written on both sides of this thus far (points and counterpoints), I’ll try to just link & summarize for what’s already been said, and expound on the viewpoints I haven’t yet seen addressed.
1) People moving to help others
Look what we’re capable of! For all of the new avenues for slander and the self-indulgent “look at me” proclivities of Facebook, Twitter, and the like, it’s as though we’re finally starting to see in tangible ways the tremendous reasons why God would allow something like social media to exist.
As of August 22nd, the NY Times was reporting that well over $40 million has already been donated to ALS research. While the motives of the philanthropy are debatable (which I’ll get to), there’s no denying this is more “other focused” than most of what we see. That’s a beautiful thing. For the cynics of contemporary culture who are convinced that altruism is non-existent, this at least gives pause.
2) Christians seeking to provide physical aid
Ever since F.D.R.’s New Deal, there has been a shift in American mentality – that physical and emotional aid comes through the government, not the church. Consequently, churches have lost this God-intended tangible expression of love, which I believe is a major reason why people are skeptical that churches can provide genuine spiritual aid as well. God designed for these things to go together. The recent lack of connection between physical and spiritual, I think, has likely contributed to the mass exodus from local congregations in the late twentieth century.
Historian Rodney Stark describes how social concern by Christians for physical well-being led to interest in the Christian faith in the early years of Christianity…
“alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another.” (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pg. 86)
As several plagues struck the Roman Empire in the early centuries after Christ, Christians contemplated what Christ himself would do in such situations. While the pagans fled the town where plagues existed, leaving sick friends, relatives, and strangers to die, Christians reasoned that Christ himself sacrificed time, energy, resources, even his life to help the sick. Furthermore, they used belief in the gospel truth of eternal life through a Risen Savior as a resource for courage. They knew that when they died they were heaven-bound, which gave them a greater willingness to sacrifice for others than their pagan counterparts, who believed this life was it. Church fathers like Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysius, and Eusebius were all consistent on this. Furthermore, this life-jeopardizing mercy wasn’t some marketing ploy to attract new followers. They did this because they believed they were honoring Jesus in the process (Matt. 25:35-40). The early father Tertullian claimed:
“It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!'” (Apology 39, 1989 ed.)
In short, Christians who aren’t seeking to provide any sort of physical relief to the ailing have lost something that is printed in the DNA of the Christian Church. So, in its own way, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as carried out by Christians, is at least demonstrating a public acknowledgment that we really do care about the physical welfare of humans. While every other religion proposes a fleeing from this present body, in the doctrine of resurrection, Jesus taught (and gave his life for) a redemption of that very body, not just the soul. Followers of Jesus care about the health of bodies as well as the souls within them.
So how much does pouring a bucket of ice water (or wasting valuable water, if you’re a cynic) do to help the cause of ALS research anyways? What is the net gain of “raising awareness”?
Now, the critics of the critics, i.e. the people who are saying, “Why can’t you just let people do this fun thing and raise awareness in the process? Why can’t you just let this be?” while kind and gentle in spirit, aren’t recognizing some important details that do deserve careful consideration.
There are a number of arguments against the challenge. Some, like the charitable funding cannibalism argument, I personally find to be less compelling arguments. So, I’ll keep it to the two that concern me the most.
1) Coercion Motivation
I know MANY people whom I believe would take the Ice Bucket Challenge simply because they’re terrified of how it’d make them look OR how they’d feel about themselves if they didn’t.
From a Christian perspective, an action typically isn’t just a good or bad action, it’s dependent, to some extent at least, upon motives. The classic example of this is Cain and Abel, an account that proves God is not merely seeking obedience to laws, but rather a certain type of obedience – obedience that is motivated by a recognition of God’s grace.
Pride, guilt, and fear are all incredibly powerful motivators that don’t lead to God-pleasing action. Granted, if they lead people to moral behavior, to some extent, I’m still happy they exist as motivators. Jonathan Edwards, in The Nature of True Virtue, talks about a “common virtue” that exists in humanity. He’s talking about the natural moral code and conscience that God implants into all mankind alike. Ultimately, he’s suggesting that if a potential killer doesn’t pull a trigger because of thankfulness for Christ’s goodness or because of fear of going to jail, either way, regardless of motivation, we’re happy he doesn’t pull the trigger. Nonetheless, from a Christian standpoint, motivation means everything when it comes to whether or not an act is God-pleasing. If a philanthropic act is done to make yourself look good, it’s totally counterintuitive to Peter’s guidance on good deeds – “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Pet. 2:12, also Matt. 5:16) In this case, the non-believers are acknowledging the “good” being done by believers, but notice whom they’re glorifying as a result – not the believer, but GOD. To safeguard against the pride that comes with doing good deeds to glorify self, Jesus encourages generosity and philanthropy to be done in private (Matt. 6:3-4), not on social media.
2) Funding Embryonic Stem Cell Research
There has been a ton written on why this type of research does not jive with biblical ethics as well as the evidence that ALS participates in this type of research. Look here. Or here. Or here. Or, straight from the horse’s mouth, here. Without retreading everything, I’ll briefly jot down some of the clearest Bible passages that would suggest life begins at conception. Consequently, ending such life would clearly be unethical from a Biblical standpoint.
“Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.” (Is. 49:1)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)
“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)
“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life.” (Ex. 21:22-23)
Bottom line, it makes zero sense to hurt life in the process of seeking to help life. Such a proposition suggests that one life is more valuable than another life, the same premise which fuels racism or genocide. Embryonic stem cell research, however, is arguably worse from the standpoint that an unborn child is entirely incapable of fighting back.
So here’s what scares me: how many lives are going to be saved by these ALS donations? And for how long? In contrast, how many lives will directly be taken specifically because of these $40 million plus in donations. Yes, I recognize that there is an option to specify that your donation does not go to embryonic stem cell research. I’m not convinced that this promotion is being carried out to the same level that the challenges are though. Furthermore, even if you can designate that your money is not going toward embryonic stem cell research, for Christians, the question remains about the ethics of knowingly funding an organization that is promoting embryonic stem cell research. And this isn’t exactly like shopping at Walmart or Target and finding out that some of their proceeds are going towards causes you wouldn’t personally support. Of course we cannot control how business owners spend their dollars. This is a little different – a direct funding of the unethical act itself, a proportionate line from your dollars to embryonic stem cell research.
I’m curious how the ALS fund gatherers would react if every single Christian, when they went to make their donation, would say, “I won’t give you $100 as long as you fund this kind of research. However, I’ll give you $200 if you stop funding embryonic stem cell research.”
The Important Questions Raised
I want to be careful not to be too dogmatic about much of this. To be perfectly honest, I’m personally not exactly sure how I feel about it. What I’m trying to do here is simply acknowledge that the ethics of this challenge are not cut and dry, despite what a passionate advocate for or against may say, no matter how loudly they may say it.
So here are the two things I can’t help but think about after reading several dozen articles…
1) End justifies means ethics. Is it okay to support an organization that is doing some good, while it is knowingly, willingly, and publicly also approving and sponsoring something that is not only biblically unethical, but logically counterintuitive – hurting life for the purpose of helping life.
2) Awareness disparity. Someone will call me insensitive here. That’s the risk I run. Why are so many Christians so passionate about raising awareness to help find a cure for a disease that, while tragic, cuts life on earth, and its quality, by several decades, but so slow to raise awareness about a KNOWN CURE for a disease (of sin) that threatens us eternally? Let’s say just 2/3 of the world (although I presume it’s significantly more), 5 billion or so people, are headed for a destruction much more debilitating than even ALS. Why don’t we witness more public, comfort-sacrificing, generosity-demonstrating gestures for the gospel? Maybe many are doing them. Maybe it’s in my head. I just don’t recall seeing many mainstream attempts by Christians.
In Luke 5, Jesus shows love and compassion for a paralyzed man. Perhaps this nameless man had ALS or a similar disease. Jesus doesn’t ignore the man’s tragic condition. He cares for the physical as well as the spiritual. Mercifully, Jesus cures the man so that he is once again able to walk. Interestingly, however, Jesus announces forgiveness for the man’s sins first. In the process, he appears to be pointing out a vital issue of prioritization – that in a dying world, a living faith trumps a healthy body. “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Luke 5:23-24) Jesus desires for this physically impaired man to have access to a resurrected body even more than a temporarily restored body. Again, for followers of Jesus, it’d only make sense that such predominance in priorities (spiritual ahead of physical) would also be reflected.
Again, I’m NOT saying I disagree with the challenge. I’m NOT saying Christians taking the challenge aren’t also emphatically sharing their faith. I’m merely suggesting that something about all of this seems VERY right, and yet something else seems a bit off.
Finally, I’d encourage Christians to not fall into the cliché visceral responses that much of the world does about such issues. Rather, consider these things carefully before you form your opinion. The world often declares something the best or the worst based merely on gut. And when two different people’s big guts collide, you have an ugly societal sumo match. Christians are to be more thoughtful. We don’t embrace or dismiss “because.” We weigh things carefully on a Scriptural scale and draw conclusions. So, participate or don’t participate, but do so thoughtfully, to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)