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Tuesday, January 25 2005 19:00
What were the most important stories concerned with religion in the year 2004? That’s a matter of opinion, of course.

In their annual survey, members of the Religion Newswriters Association have made their choices. To them, the most significant was not a single story but two. They are the faith issues connected with the election of George W. Bush to a second term, and the discussion of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ.

Had the survey been taken at the end of December rather than part way through that month, I suspect the results would have been different. Then these writers might well have chosen the worldwide response to the dreadful tsunami that shattered so many lives along the coasts of the Indian Ocean.

Surely, the response of nations, private relief agencies, and people throughout the world would have justly been chosen the most important story of the year. On an unprecedented scale, governments, relief agencies, and individuals reached out with money and other forms of aid to people reeling from the storm’s impact.

Among the reasons why the relief effort has proven so important, at least two  spiritually significant ones stand out. First, those who have responded with help have done so regardless of the religion professed by those in need. That the greater number of them has been Muslim has not proven a barrier to generous giving.

Nor has the United States─or any other country, it seems─acted merely for political advantage. Instead, people the world over have responded spontaneously out of compassion for fellow humans who have suffered so much.

Secondly, very few religious figures appear to have interpreted the disaster as a sign of God’s displeasure with human beings. Fortunately, the great majority of leaders have seen this massive death and destruction as a natural disaster that does not at all express the judgment of God on the actions of people. In fact, most seem to have respected the mystery of evil rather than attribute vengeful motivation to the deity.

The generous actions of citizens and nations give reason for hope that such sharing of resources will continue in this new year. Perhaps the biggest story of this 2005 will prove to be wealthy countries doing more on an annual basis to help nations that are saddled with dire poverty.

Already underway, the Millennium Project is an effort by the United Nations to cut in half the extreme poverty of the world, and to do so by the year 2015. The United States and all the other rich countries have already agreed on this plan but have not yet put up the money.

To provide enough money for improving health and education for the world’s poor, these nations will be expected to increase development aid to about 50 cents of every 100 dollars of their national income.

Currently, our federal government gives only 15 cents, an amount far lower than most Americans think. When asked, most of us estimate an amount twenty or thirty times greater than the reality.

Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, has been leading the Millennium Project. He stands convinced that, spent wisely, the money could make an immediate difference in the countries where people are suffering extreme deprivation.

Professor Sachs proposes concrete examples:  “We could save more than one million children per year that are dying of malaria by helping to distribute on a mass basis, like we do with immunizations, bed nets to protect the children against malaria.”

This project is no shallow “do-goodism,” but an effort that would help overcome the instability that threatens the whole world, including us. For Sachs, the ultimate goal is to see poor nations stand on their own rather than continuing their dependence on others.

You may wonder why a column on spirituality deals with economic aid to other countries. The answer, on my part, comes from the heart. Long ago, I discovered how the inner life must include active compassion for all other people.

Not only that, but political and economic concerns became part of my spiritual vision. Reading the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the words of Jesus in the Gospels, the writings of Gandhi and Thomas Merton among others, helped me realize that it was wrong for me to craft a spirituality detached from the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world.

Richard Griffin