“The Foolishness of Relief,” by Umphrey Lee
March 31, 1947

The Apostle Paul may have been sarcastic when he said, “We are fools for Christ’s sake”; but he undoubtedly knew that the Christian must often act as if he were a fool. This is perhaps one of the chief burdens of the modern follower of Christ. With our reverence for the scientific mind—another name for a certain kind of logical mentality—we abhor inconsistencies which cannot be reasonably explained. We may be ever so illogical in our actions, but when we become self-conscious about our religion we are distressed if our convictions lead us to appear as fools in the eyes of our contemporaries.

It may be some comfort to realize that in this kind of world we must often act as fools even when no question of religion is involved. What could be more foolish than to blow up half of Europe and the Far East and then give billions to repair the damage? What is more inconsistent than the killing of soldiers and civilians followed by superhuman efforts to save the lives of the survivors? To be sure, we can make out a case satisfactory to ourselves explaining that our entry into World War II was of a piece with our present desire to help suffering peoples among both friends and former enemies. But whether we shall ever appear wise to others is something else.

Indeed, we shall not convince our own people who believe that life has nothing but individual problems which can be solved by giving when we are asked and turning other people’s cheeks when they are attacked. As for men of evil mind whose only regret is that they did not win the war, there is nothing to hope from them except cynical amusement that we are such children and such fools. They were wise men and were methodically seeing to it that their enemies were liquidated. We, on the other hand, lost our sons in fighting the Axis, and now spend money trying to save the children of the men who fought us. To expect that we shall make friends of the sons of Thrasymachus by giving money to relief, is to misunderstand sadly the thinking of those who laugh at human dignity and worship power.

Unfortunately, we may not expect much more from many who ought to be our friends. When we went in after World War I and helped to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked, other peoples were impressed. Too many, however, explained our actions by assuming that we had discovered at last who our friends really were. We helped Germany, they said, because we had found out the treachery of England and the unreliability of France. But a second time we have allied ourselves with these nations, and so our charity appears now like the charity of England, which Europe long ago decided was a part of an imperialistic program. The only other explanation for multiplied thousands is that we are simply fools.

This is, I realize, an oversimplification. But something like this is true for many Europeans. What the Japanese think no one seems to know. Perhaps they are in the frame of mind that Germany was in after the first World War. Or perhaps they have accepted the arbitrament of power in a more naive way than is possible to Europe. At any rate, there is no use to expect that we shall influence people by our relief efforts. If we do, then we can only be thankful for unexpected blessings. But our motive for feeding starving peoples has to be something beside the expectation of reward. In fact, it must be strong enough to overcome the sneers of enemies and the smiles of our friends. To more people than we like to know about, we are simply fools, American fools.

Yet there is nothing else for us to do. Some of us will help, consciously, for Christ’s sake. All of us will be helping because a long time ago there entered into Western life a force which no modern man can escape. We may ignore it; we may deny it; but we cannot escape it. Something precious has taken its place in a people of many evils, and in spite of ourselves it makes us fools in the eyes of the evil and in the eyes of some who would be good. Perhaps it would be simpler for us to cease torturing our minds to rationalize our conduct, to cease explaining how we are building up international good will, how we are educating another generation, and simply say that from our viewpoint we can do nothing else. If that makes us fools, so be it.

Umphrey Lee (1893–1958) became a Methodist pastor after earning a BA from Trinity University, an MA from Southern Methodist University, and a PhD from Columbia University. He established the Wesley Bible Chair at the University of Texas, and in 1923 he became the pastor of Highland Park Methodist Church on the Southern Methodist University campus, where he taught homiletics. From 1937 to 1939, he was dean of the School of Religion at Vanderbilt University before serving as president of Southern Methodist University from 1939 to 1954. He was the first Chancellor of Southern Methodist University from 1954 to 1958. Several schools are named after him.