David McLoughlin looks at the biblical basis for volunteering and how such work builds the common good that is at the heart of the kingdom of God on earth.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
…And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Genesis 1:24-31 (ESV)
In 2020-2021 more than 16.3 million people in the UK volunteered through a group, club or organisation. In the same year, 54% of the population (29.4 million) volunteered informally at least once a year and 33% (17.9 million) did so at least once a month. Informal volunteering is less visible than formal volunteering and includes a wider range of activities e.g. unpaid help for someone who is not a relative (such as shopping, transport, housework, and childcare).
During the Covid-19 pandemic, volunteering patterns changed dramatically. The fact that all but essential workers were sent home during the Covid crisis, whether to work from home, be furloughed or laid off, meant that millions of employees were suddenly faced with situations of instability, inevitable lack of resources and sudden loneliness. While on the other hand, a smaller cohort of people saved money from not travelling to work and other associated costs, and gained more time and choice to shape their daily lives. For many the pandemic exposed new gaps at the heart of previously ordered and purposeful lives, fracturing and frightening, especially the old, single and vulnerable. They, without access to the support of family and friends, were even more isolated. For others, freely offering their energy and skills became a way to maintain their wellbeing and connectedness with the rest of the world.
In the Genesis accounts of creation, the naming of man and woman and all the different types of creatures, the seasons and the separation between heaven and earth, aren’t the only aspects of God’s design that are significant. Throughout the two accounts we are acutely aware of the relationship between each of these elements – they are not individual inventions but a network of being and purpose. The natural world continuously demonstrates this inter-connectedness to us. Early on in Scripture we see the damaging consequences of humanity trying to divide these elements and break this network. Yet every time humanity tries to control creation for its own gain, creation answers back.
Covid-19 has reminded us of nature’s power. The increased volunteering during the pandemic reawakened a memory from Genesis’ mandate – to recover this inter-connectedness and to care for each other at all levels of our existence. Befriending our neighbours after years of living next door, collecting prescriptions, food and other essentials for the housebound, walking people’s dogs and helping at food banks all became essential. Government-backed schemes, such as NHS Volunteer Responders enabled volunteers to sign up and manage their shifts online. Due to the strict rules on social distancing, virtual volunteering became a life-saving form of support for millions of people of all ages including for schools and education, mental health, legal and medical advice, and a raft of diverse training and skills provision. As the main way to interact ‘socially’ and to connect with other people creatively was through technology, people adapted with incredibly inspiring initiatives.
This global emergency brought us back to our own inter-dependence as recorded in the first book of the Bible. It forced many of us to face our own fragility and that of the natural world anew. Just as the Tree of Life brought with it choices and consequences, our everyday sense of being in control was seen as an illusion. Our lives were all too transient, the structures we depended upon were not secure, the science and medicines we created had to be re-designed. Volunteering, while predominantly motivated out of compassion, also emerged from a sense of duty to support frontline workers by participating in the collective struggle for survival.
Just like the early Israelite communities, we were thrown back on our own and our community’s resources and some were found inadequate. The Tower of Babel is a classic lesson in building a society the wrong way around, with its stark warnings echoed in the empty skyscrapers that dominated our cities during lockdowns. Yet very quickly, networks of voluntary workers formed and coalesced around their kitchen tables, some facilitated by social media and TV appeals from national and local charities. In so doing, we rediscovered our neighbourhoods, the range and diversity of our communities and their needs, and we discovered the importance of solidarity throughout a renewed work/life balance.
Many of us had allowed ourselves to be defined by our “work”, or what our work used to be. When we were without formal work or work in the previous mode, no longer part of a familiar shared pattern of reality – what did this make us? As our sense of mutuality re-emerged, we discovered millions who had always worked voluntarily every day. As they care for aged and sick parents, children, neighbours, for the natural world around them, clearing litter, protecting wildlife, caring for shared spaces – their unpaid and freely-given contributions to the world were now highlighted across the world.
Virtuous networks of generous care rose up to reflect something of the ancient story of Genesis in its account of the sixth day of creation (Genesis 1: 24-31). God creates land, animals, and humans, showing that we are necessarily linked together in our origins and our shared needs for food and sustenance. We are not independent of one another as and when we want to be. It became clearer that modern notions of individual, purely personal, liberty are rather reduced forms of freedom with often quite negative consequences. It is solidarity that binds us and sustains us as healthy societies in harmony with the natural world.
The first human, Adam shares a name with adamah the rich red earth of the Nile Delta, which is the source of so many strands of life. Then God says the humans – male and female, will image God in their filling the earth and having dominion over other creatures. The translation of the Hebrew as dominion has had a complex and negative effect on subsequent human-centred views of creation and reality. As though humans were in overall control of the earth. Whereas the Genesis picture is clear. Our lives are embodied within the rest of creation and when we forget this, things fall apart.
We’re told: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” The account focuses on the potential in human lives for solidarity with the created order. Our arrogant neglect to seriously engage with all the creatures of the earth for their mutual flourishing rather than simply ours, has created a long history of human self-absorption vying with our Earth that cannot cope with our destruction of its fauna and flora. The UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (set up in 1988) in its sixth Assessment Report (2022) reflects, in very non-biblical language, a planet where the integrated vision of humanity, in the midst of a mutually inter-dependent order of nature, has fragmented, with little sign of governments taking the climate promises they made so publicly in Paris in 2015 seriously.
However, the generous free response of so many people to the needs of those most vulnerable during COVID, the recent spontaneous welcoming of thousands of economic and social migrants by others across the world, the willingness to help the millions displaced by increasing natural disasters across our planet; all point to another dynamic. A dynamic of millions of ordinary men, women and children realising through voluntary work, something of the fruitful solidarity of early human imaging of the divine.
Solidarity has no national boundaries or age limitations. It stands across the generations, not as a superficial act of compassion for a fleeting moment, but as a faithful and persevering determination to commit oneself to the good of all. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI said that through volunteering, “we also become visible instruments of his love in a world that still profoundly yearns for that love amid the poverty, loneliness, marginalization and ignorance that we see all around us.”
In such work we image the freedom of the Creator who works to liberate the oppressed workers of Egypt. We engage in the same self-emptying that God reveals in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In this volunteering, we discover something of our own deepest identity and our own free creativity. Such work builds the common good that is at the heart of the kingdom of God on earth. It might still be an unfinished project but, however threatened, still remains “very good”.
For us, voluntary work is not just an expression of good will. It is based on our personal experience and reflection of Christ, through whom God gave himself to us out of pure love and invited us to share that life and love.
1. Compare these two statements from Pope Francis in his video message in December 2022.
“Being a volunteer who helps others is a choice that makes us free; it opens us to other people’s needs — to the demands of justice, to the defence of the poor, to the care of creation. It means being artisans of mercy: with our hands, with our eyes, with an attentive ear, with our closeness.”
“The world needs volunteers and organizations committed to seeking the common good. Yes, this is a word that many today would like to erase: “commitment.” And the world needs volunteers who commit to the common good,” he said. “And being a volunteer means working with the people you serve. Not just for the people, but with the people. Working with the people.”
2. How does this quotation from Pope Benedict XV1 show you the relationship between volunteering and the Eucharist?
God is love, to quote a phrase from the First Letter of Saint John (4:8) which I employed as the title of my first Encyclical Letter. The experience of God’s generous love challenges us and liberates us to adopt the same attitude towards our brothers and sisters: “You received without paying, give without pay” (Matthew 10:8). We experience this especially in the Eucharist when the Son of God, in the breaking of bread, brings together the vertical dimension of his divine gift with the horizontal dimension of our service to our brothers and sisters.
From: Deus caritas est (December 25, 2005) | BENEDICT XVI (vatican.va)
3. How can these two statements shape your faith and your local community?
a) According to the United Nations’ Volunteers programme, one out of every nine people in the world volunteer, and that there are a total of 862.4 million volunteers across all continents.
b) “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State” (Caritas in veritate, 38)
Seven Works of Mercy – Master of Alkmaar. c. 1504, polyptych. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
This intricate polyptych by the anonymous Master of Alkmaar was commissioned for the Holy Spirit Almshouse in Alkmaar. We see a Dutch city as the context for how a Christian should help those in need according to specific actions and practices. It is based on Matthew’s Gospel 25:31-46 where Jesus gives a sermon on the Last Judgement. He compares people with sheep and goats who will be separated at the end time by how they cared for other people.
Jesus says: “… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
These merciful acts illustrated here are to be performed not just for the sake of penance and charity, but to deepen one’s faith by imitating Christ and his teachings. A believer could receive grace by performing them and would be reminded of their wider responsibilities to those in need. These acts also support the emphasis Jesus places on serving others rather than worshipping through sacrificial rituals as we read in Matthew 9:13 where we are told that God “… desires mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
The seven works of mercy are:
Some of these acts are also mentioned in the Book of Isaiah 58: 7-10 but the seventh act of burying the dead is found only in the Book of Tobit and not in Matthew’s gospel. It was added to the list during the Middle Ages.
Can you see which panel portrays which act of mercy?
In the centre, we have the act of burying the dead by priests. Christ sits on a rainbow in the sky flanked by Mary and John the Baptist on the Last Day. The other six panels show from left to right: feeding the hungry; tending to the thirsty; clothing the naked; welcoming the stranger and offering them a place to stay; looking after the sick, and visiting the prisoner. We notice that Christ appears among the crowds in all of the panels – it’s as if he is saying: ‘to see the poor is to see me’. Each panel portrays the merciful act in the foreground with a smaller version of the act repeated in the background.
This polyptych would have made the city of Alkmaar proud as it combines wealth depicted in the beautiful architecture, elaborate brickwork and richly dressed townspeople with the range of assistance they are providing to those in need. We can see disabled people, pilgrims, hungry children and adults, prisoners being whipped and chained as well as those with nowhere to live, all being offered help and respite in their fragile lives. It is a city that practices what it preaches: charity and solidarity in the name of Christ. However, Christ’s appearance in each panel would not only have challenged the wealthy to continue being generous with their money, but would have reminded the poor that they are blessed as Christ is present with them in their suffering.
Each panel includes members of the Confraternity of the Holy Ghost which was a lay group whose aim was to enrich the city and to care for the vulnerable. By being able to do both it ensured the city’s status and its continued trade and prosperity. It is an early example of social welfare and neighbourhood watch. The membership of this lay network consisted of upper-class men and women who ran the city’s hospitals, hostels, orphanages, older care facilities, and refuges for prostitutes and widows. They managed the distribution of food, medicine, alms and grants to the poor.
In Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Dives in Misericordia”, written in 1980, he states that: “Jesus Christ taught that man not only receives and experiences the mercy of God, but that he is also called ‘to practice mercy’ towards others.”
And in an address on the 2016 World Day of Prayer for Creation, Pope Francis invited the world to make “care for creation” a new work of mercy, describing it as a “complement” to the existing works of mercy. Pope Francis described this new work as having both corporal and spiritual components. Corporally, it involves “daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”. Spiritually, it involves contemplating each part of creation to find what God is teaching us through them. This pronouncement included many quotations from his encyclical on the environment Laudato si.
This painting, therefore, served as a teaching tool for the Catholics of the time.
For a close-up of each panel, go to: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-2815-1
Lord, Father of our human family,
you created all human beings equal in dignity:
pour forth into our hearts a fraternal spirit
and inspire in us a dream of renewed encounter,
dialogue, justice, and peace.
Move us to create healthier societies
and a more dignified world,
a world without hunger, poverty, violence and war.
May our hearts be open
to all the peoples and nations of the earth.
May we recognise the goodness and beauty
that you have sown in each of us,
and forge bonds of unity, common projects,
and shared dreams.