The value of humanitarians


6 Aug 2021

World Humanitarian Day (19 August) invites us to move beyond our own interests to look at the lives, the plight and the needs of our fellow human beings.

It also calls to mind the great number of people whose unnoticed generosity makes the world a more hospitable place for others. In particular it celebrates the gift of people who dedicate their whole lives to offer friendship, justice, food and healing to those forced to live on the edge of survival. These generous people nurse during epidemics, put their lives at risk in war zones, keep open house for people shut out by discrimination, bring food to the hungry, defend the unpopular in court, and keep pressing for change to unjust laws.

To be called a humanitarian commonly implies that you are a special person. It should not do so. In a just world humanitarian would be just another name for being human. In that world every human being would be seen to have a unique value, commanding respect from all other human beings. Bare humanity, regardless of skin colour, wealth, nation of birth, religion, political ideas and moral character would make the life and dignity of each human being of equal value and worth defending.

In this humanitarian view of the world to care for others is a natural and necessary thing to do because we share a common humanity. We rely on others to be born, to learn to speak and write, for education, for transport, for the existence of computers and our access to them, for companionship, for care of our health, for the safety of our streets and homes, and for what wealth we have. We are not self-made people. So as we receive from strangers, so it is natural that we give to strangers.

Our common humanity means that if we are to flourish we must stand with one another and care for one another. We are our sisters’ keepers and strangers’ keepers. Attached to our lives, our work and our wealth there is a social bond. Our growth and flourishing are linked to the lives and flourishing of other people.

In the Christian story this truth is encapsulated in the story of the Good Samaritan who recognised his own life to be bound to the life of the man lying mugged by the side of the road.

Difference of religion, place of birth and social status did not matter when set along the claims of a stranger’s humanity. For Christians that story has extra depth and pathos because Jesus himself was the ideal good Samaritan who accepted death for us. We are part of Christ’s body, and so doubly committed to one another and to do as Jesus did.

In any world, however, many people give time and money, risk their lives and offer their skills to accompany people who are in need. They are the people whom we honour especially on World Humanitarian Day. At this time we think of the health workers and others who cared for people during the coronavirus epidemic, many of whom caught and died from the disease. We think also of the people who volunteer to bring food to people who are hungry, visit the ill, take time to chat with people sleeping on the streets, and help the world to be a more humane place.

We remember these people on World Humanitarian Day and express our gratitude to them.

We also realise that community organisations are part of a larger human community bound together in respect and in generosity. For those organisations, this a day of gratitude.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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