Nicholas Wolterstorff pinpoints what he thinks is Christianity’s greatest historical legacy.
What has been the most important contribution of Christianity to the common good, especially when we’ve got our eye on poverty?
I suppose just the fact that, from the very beginnings of Christianity … as I was saying, the historical evidence tells us, from the very beginnings of Christianity there was a certain kind of egalitarianism. The old Roman system was extremely hierarchical. In the early Christian writings, we get this wonderful saying in a writing attributed to Peter: honour everyone, slaves as well as emperor. In the letter attributed to James, James talks about seating arrangements in church – everybody should be seated equally, nobody should be on an elevated chair and other people sitting at his feet. So there’s radical egalitarianism. Everybody treated equally. And I think over the long haul then that clearly gave rise, in the early church, to the bishops being responsible for the care of the poor and establishing orphanages and so forth.
So what I think Christianity has contributed is this deep sense – often violated, but still there – this deep sense that every human being has a dignity that if we’re going to duly respect it, we have to see to it that they have adequate means of sustenance, they have food and water, clothing, shelter, and so forth. So the concern for the poor which, you know, is present in large swathes of contemporary society, I think historically anyway has its origins not in Graeco-Roman antiquity, but in Christianity. So the historical legacy of Christianity is to be seen in that, it seems to me.