Christian Faith and Technical Assistance

by Margaret Mead

As an outstanding anthropologist, Margaret Mead has lectured widely and has written numerous books, the latest being New Lives for Old. Dr. Mead in 1957 was Associate Curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History and was Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis January 1955. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis. Used by permission. This text was prepared by John R. Bushell.


The revolution that has taken place in the last decade in our capacity to speed up technological change has confronted the Christian churches with an ethical dilemma of no small proportions.

The revolution that has taken place in the last decade in our capacity to speed up technological change has confronted the Christian churches with an ethical dilemma of no small proportions. Throughout the last two thousand years, Christianity and Judaism have provided the religious ethic which gave meaning and purpose to the attempts to ease the misery and lighten the darkness of the slave, the serf, the peasant, the heathen, and the aboriginal inhabitants of the newly discovered continents and islands beyond the sea.

In the Judaic ethic, to heal, to teach, and to feed the poor were good deeds, benefiting the giver, in fact benefiting the giver to such a degree that the recipient was hardly expected to reciprocate with more than formal deference. Similarly, in traditional Christianity the care of the sick, teaching the ignorant, and feeding the hungry were all works through which individuals, acting in Christian compassion and charity, walked more closely in the ways of the Lord.

This position was congruent with the state of technology during the first nineteen hundred years of the Christian Era. Christian compassion for suffering loomed far larger than Christian ability to cure disease; Christian charity might succor and help the needy, but the Great Famines and the Black Death raged across Europe; Christian piety and devotion might reproduce manuscripts by hand, but universal literacy waited upon printing, mass production of books, and the audio-visual methods of the twentieth century. From the kitchens of monasteries and colleges there might be distributions to the poor at Christmas of lumps of meat the "size of a child's head," and within convents the children, left after plague and famine swept the land, might be lovingly reared. Against plague, famine, and ignorance, these were slender bulwarks indeed. Religion counseled resignation to the will of God, and tempered the bitterness and rebellion of those whose children died one by one in infancy, or remained the sole survivors of some plague. As compassion was the appropriate active Christian virtue for those who ministered to the unfortunate, so resignation was the equally appropriate virtue in those who must how their heads before a series of misfortunes which we would today account as preventable.

Meanwhile, both compassionate service and gentle resignation were reinforced by an other-worldliness which despised material things, even while distributing bread to the starving, or bathing the terrible sores on the feet of those who had no shoes in winter. This other-worldliness could survive even while using as good symbols those tools by which men gained their bread and journeyed over the seas to obtain new foods -- the plough, the sickle, the ship -- these were symbols which could be combined with the deepest religious devotion. Then came the machine, the substitution of fuel for men and women walking treadmills, the substitution of mechanical processes for the weariness of human hands. At first the machine seemed to be enslaving the human spirit rather than releasing it. As men and women entered the mines and factories, it seemed clear that the machine was Moloch devouring the souls and bodies of newly urbanized, lost, exploited human beings. The plough, the sickle, and the sail remained symbols of simple Christian goodness, of the yielding earth, of the good grain reaped in the fields, and of the traveler for whom one prayed, but the machine which was to increase the yield of the land and make the journeying traveler safe became identified with Mammon. The machine and all its works were evil -- set against the vision of a New Jerusalem that might instead be built in England's green and Pleasant lands. As the products of the machine grew, men came to live in cities which became more identified with godlessness. Materialism, industrialism, and urbanism became a trilogy of the works of the devil-an emphasis which was not lessened by the emphasis of Bolshevik propaganda upon godlessness coupled with the new deification of the machine.

So today we find ourselves in a parlous state. Since World War II the new technology, combined with the upsurge of aspiration and hope among all the peoples of the world, means that we confront a possibility of preventing hunger and premature death and of opening up the opportunities of literacy and experience beyond the wildest dreams of only a few decades ago. We confront this prospect not with the full vigor of religious dedication, but with divided hearts and minds, with a doubt whether anything born of the machine can be good, with a fear that it is materialistic to plan, to import tractors, or to set up assembly lines, to wear mass produced goods, buy paper books, or even-for some recently Christianized primitive peoples-to want shoes. A religious ethic attuned to compassion and resignation in a world of suffering and poverty is confused and stumbling in the face of a possible world where no one need go hungry, or die for want of a known remedy, or go ignorant and illiterate through life.

Communism and its adherents experience no such confusions. However much their methods may compromise their ends so that they are unattainable, they are clear in the congruence between health, education, and welfare, on the one hand, and the Communist ethic on the other, and young Soviet delegates to international congresses are moved to genuine tears by stories of land reclamation in some valley of starving peasants. The full vigor of their belief that food, health, and education are the most worthwhile ideals to pursue, for themselves and for other men, can go out to meet the awakened hopes of the hungry, ignorant, disease-ridden peoples of the jungles and deserts of the undeveloped countries of the earth. Meanwhile, the minds of Christian missionaries abroad and Christian people at home are divided; in their insistence that men do not live by bread alone, they are unwilling to let their hearts be kindled by the possibility that all men may have bread. All too often the enthusiasts who are dedicating themselves to the cause of technical assistance, fighting for more appropriations, seeking to develop ways and means of harnessing the skills of part of the modern world to the service of the rest of the world, must work with only their own secular zeal to sustain them, without benefit or backing from the churches. "The mission told us the Truth, but they did not show us the way," say the awakening peoples of the Pacific Islands, rebelling against teaching which told them "the Truth about the beginning of the world," but did not "tell us how to keep our babies from dying or our people from dying as young men."

The failure of the Christian churches to pick up this unprecedented hope for the peoples of the earth and to carry it as a sacred trust as part of their task of cherishing and protecting "the lives of men and the life of the world," is paralleled by another ethical dilemma -- the desire to exploit technical assistance, to make feeding and teaching and curing people into a bribe, to keep the peoples of other countries on our side against communism. Over and over again, one hears the argument that technical assistance is good policy, the only way to hold back the march of communism. This is an appropriate argument in the mouths of those who believe that other men will do good deeds only for their own ends and is of a piece with setting up school lunch programs, not to feed children but to dispose of surplus agricultural products. Surely, holding back the tide of communism -- or, put in religious terms, fighting the Devil -- is a lesser good than cherishing God’s children. How can we pause in a discussion of how, if we will, we can bring relief from hunger and pain and ignorance to millions, to suggest that it is also sound national policy? The invocation of this lesser good somehow dims and detracts from the shining purpose with which the vision of what can be done today should be able to infuse the imagination of contemporary Christians. Christ said, "Feed my lambs," and today there is the possibility of food enough to feed all his lambs; he said, "Heal the sick," and with aureomycin and sulfa, malarial control, immunization and vaccines, "they can be healed." Instead of this vision of a Christian ethic of the brotherhood of man which is realizable here on earth now, we have "technical assistance as a useful adjunct of national policy," suitably combined in small proportions with bilateral agreements involving the instruments of warfare. This produces an ethical misalliance between defensive warfare -- which can never be defined by religious people as anything but an evil which may nevertheless be absolutely necessary if the conditions which are necessary for religion are not to disappear from the earth -- and sharing life and hope between the technically advanced and the technically unadvanced peoples of the world. When technical assistance is thus reduced, either to an instrument of anticommunism or to an instrument of purely national policy, it no longer can completely command the religious imaginations of men.

In discussions of Point Four, it is customary and relevant to point out that many of the issues involved are already familiar to Americans who have given willingly of their substance and their lives to bring the gospel and to bring medicine and education and food to the peoples of other countries. However, they have not done this as Americans, but as American Christians, as particular groups of Christians, Methodists, or members of the Society of Friends, Episcopalians, or Baptists. Even in secular activities of sending food and clothing abroad, Americans have traditionally been extremely generous as individuals or as members of voluntary organizations, but grudging and stipulating when it came to Congressional action for the same ends.

European observers have often been confused by the apparent paradox of Americans who, in response to an appeal for voluntary abstention from essential foods, responded so magnificently in World War I and who in World War II expressed continuous anxiety for fear we would "starve to death" if we tried to feed the world. Yet the difference is quite explicable. I remember discussing this with a high official abroad during the war who said, "Any. way, you Americans are not going to export the food that is needed. You are going to eat it up yourselves." When I objected vigorously that the American people had shown over and over again their generosity, their willingness to give up butter and sugar that others might not starve, that because in this war it was government planned, people had not understood the need, he said, "Go home, and find a religious leader who will be willing to make the people understand." But there was no such religious leader ready; the groups who tried to make Americans realize that a decision not to ration soap would be translated into nutritional deprivation for millions of children were led by left wing groups with suspect motivations. The actual enormous contribution—which should still have been much greater—that the United States Government made to feeding the world was virtually without benefit of clergy and loomed in the minds of the American people, not as too little -- which they would have considered it had they acted privately and voluntarily, as Christians rather than as federal tax payers -- but as too much.

Our ambivalence, as Americans, about the role of the federal government, at home and abroad, is a compound of our dislike of the federal government’s getting into habits of playing Santa Claus and our dislike of anyone receiving hand-outs. The genius of the Point Four program was that it emphasized the role of Americans, acting through the federal government, in providing "know-how" rather than goods, in helping other peoples to help themselves. As such, there is much in the Point Four program which can catch the imagination and enlist the devotion of Americans -- as Americans, and as Christians. If there were no other way in which technical assistance could be brought to Iran or Indonesia, then Point Four would represent one of our highest possible aspirations, perhaps exceeding, in dramatic if not in real value, the activities of voluntary associations of Americans, because the United States Point Four program has to operate in a world where national states take on either the true aspects of the bellwether of the flock, or that of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

But Point Four operations are not our best invention because we have already conceived and designed an even better way, a way that is more compatible with the practice of the brotherhood of man. In giving technical assistance today and helping other peoples to overcome starvation, ignorance, and preventable disease, we have the choice of acting bilaterally, as members of a single, very rich, very prosperous, generous, but necessarily self-interested (for it is the function of national governments to protect their own people against all others) nation-state, or as members of an associated group of nations, in which we who wish to help and they who need help meet in an equality of interest and dignity. If Christian generosity and Christian giving are to be congruent with those democratic institutions which visions of the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God have done so much to foster, then any discrepancy between giver and receiver which can be wiped out must be wiped out. Simple sharing, not lordly benefaction, ennobles both giver and receiver while the least extra, unnecessary, in a sense technological discrepancy, begrimes and demeans such sharing.

Within the framework of the United Nations Technical Assistance program, all the members the United States, Venezuela, France, Indonesia, Norway, although some are larger and stronger, some highly developed technically, some beginners in the task of putting modern science at the service of their peoples -- act on a basis of equality within an organization which is their own. When the government of Venezuela or Greece asks help from the United Nations Technical Assistance program, it is one member of a group of brothers asking help from their own group, not the poor asking the rich, or the weak the strong, or the unskilled the technically trained. The United Nations may have to recruit all the technicians from the highly developed countries, but within international teams these men will work -- in dignified, guaranteed equal status -- with the representatives of the countries who have asked for assistance. As the richest country, the United States may foot the largest bill, not as a single benefactor of the mendicant peoples but as one among the peoples of the world.

Point Four, if stated as a way in which we, the fortunate, may help those less fortunate, has high ethical appeal in focusing the moral energy of Americans, as citizens, on the responsibility of the United States in the modern world. But, as Kipling emphasized long ago in his much misunderstood poem, "The White Man’s Burden," the task of the more technically developed country -- the country whose technology, or religion, or political institutions bear the marks of generations of high-level concerted felicitous effort -- is to make the recipients of help not into sycophants or dependents but into peers. Within the framework of the United Nations, all member peoples are peers, and it is the stated aim that the peoples of Trust Territories be helped to become full self-governing peoples also. Here there need be no confusion between Christian sharing and more limited national interest, no puffed-up pride of superior nation status. The people of any nation who proclaim themselves Christian have a role in regard to other nations in which no incompatible or partial aim need confuse the full involvement of their religious dedication.

But -- even granted the partial suitability of Point Four, the more complete suitability of United Nations Technical Assistance progress as the structural expression of the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God, where no brother should set himself up above another -- are still in difficulty. We still have with us Christian ambivalence about the fruits of the machine, Christians’ willingness to brand (as I have heard it branded by men in holy orders) the desire of mothers that their babies should not die as "materialism," Christians’ willingness to denounce the machine -- which as the successor of plough, sickle, and mortar, has made it possible for men to live more worthily of their humanity -- as the enemy of spirituality. Under an elaborate superstructure which sometimes also draws help from the specious argument that people’s cultures should be respected (an argument which got short enough shrift when it was a matter of giving other people the full details of our culture-laden religious ideas) too many Christians have drawn aside their skirts from the "materialism" of a program that will teach the hungry how to feed themselves. They thereby continue to support the Christian virtues of compassion and resignation, which were appropriate to the inevitable sufferings of man. But they do so in the context of the midtwentieth century, in which hunger and ignorance and epidemic disease are no longer inevitable, but definitely, immediately preventable.

The religiously gifted know, centuries early, what men pray for for other men, and in conclusion I should like to quote from an old Elizabethan prayer:

"They that are snared and entangled in the utter lack of things needful for the body cannot set their minds upon Thee as they ought to do; but when they are deprived of the things which they so greatly desire, their hearts are cast down and quail for grief. Have pity upon them, therefore, most merciful Father, and relieve their misery through Thy incredible riches, that, removing their urgent necessity, they may rise up to Thee in mind.

Thou, 0 Lord, providest enough for all men with Thy most bountiful hand….Give meat to the hungry and drink to the thirsty; comfort the sorrowful, cheer the dismayed and strengthen the weak; deliver the oppressed and give hope and courage to them that are out of heart.

Have mercy, 0 Lord, upon all forestallers, and upon all them that seek undue profits or unlawful gains. Turn Thou the hearts of them that live by cunning rather than by labour. Teach us that we stand daily and wholly in need of one another. And give us grace, in hand and mind, to add our proper share to the common stock; through Jesus Christ our Lord."