Henry Dunant grew up a well-to-do Swiss Calvinist home, where he watched his parents do one good deed after another, driven by Christian empathy for the needy. His father labored tirelessly to assist orphans and ex-prisoners, and his mother had a burden for the sick and poor.
This was a time of spiritual revival in Switzerland, and Henry grew up feeling compelled to do all he could to serve Christ. As a teenager, he helped organize young men in regular Bible studies and in projects for the poor. He helped found a chapter of the YMCA in Geneva. In college, Dunant was so preoccupied with his mercy ministries that he neglected to study. At age 21, he was forced out of school by poor grades. He found a job, worked hard, established his own business, and prospered.
On June 24, 1859, while traveling in Italy on business, Henry arrived in the town of Solferino in the aftermath of a battle that had resulted in 38,000 wounded soldiers. The scene shocked him—thousands of young men were writhing in pain, and there seemed to be no one to help them. Henry abandoned all thought of business and went to work organizing the local people to assist the wounded troops. He convinced volunteers to aid all soldiers regardless of what side of the conflict they were on.
Dunant returned to Geneva a changed man. He was haunted by the fact there was no organized way of caring for wounded soldiers in times of war. Writing a book of his experiences, he had it self-published and distributed to political and military leaders. It included a plan for creating a politically-neutral organization to care for wounded soldiers regardless of the uniform they wore. Ultimately his efforts were rewarded. On February 17, 1863, a committee of five men gathered to establish the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded.” Shortly afterward the name was changed to the “International Committee of the Red Cross.”
Why the Red Cross? This organization was established in Switzerland, and in trying to think of a protective symbol for hurt soldiers and medics, it seemed sensible to use the symbol on the Swiss flag. Switzerland’s flag is red with a white cross. The origin of the flag dates to the thirteenth century when the emperor carried a banner bearing the cross as a holy sign, understanding himself to be the protector of Christianity. Ultimately it points back to the cross of Christ.
The founders of the Red Cross took the flag, reversed the colors, and created a red cross on a white background. Thus the Red Cross became a symbol of empathy and mercy that has brought immeasurable healing and relief to a world rent by war.
The cross is a symbol of love and an emblem of ministry to the sick, poor, widowed, hungry, oppressed, abused, endangered, and illiterate. From the beginning, the cross has represented an empathetic Savior, One who felt the pain of sinners and sacrificed His life for their salvation. As believers, we should bare the marks of the cross in how we live and in how we respond to the hurting.
A Short History of Empathy
Many people don’t realize the brutality of the Roman world into which Jesus was born. Empathy and compassion didn’t extend beyond the family circle. Life was cheap, and society was harsh and heartless. Jesus came with a message of love, and His parable of the Good Samaritan was like a lightning bolt of love in a blackened sky. In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus told of a man who’d been waylaid and robbed on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Various passersby saw the man injured and lying in the ditch. But only one person—a Samaritan—stopped to help.
But in Luke 9, Jesus was rejected by a village of Samaritans as He traveled to Jerusalem and His appointment with Calvary. He did not revile. He was not angry like the disciples, He simply traveled on to the next village. In Luke 9, the Samaritans disdained Jesus; in Luke 10, Jesus commended a Samaritan.
Our Lord was (and is) a good forgiver. His spirit was (and is) impervious to harboring bitterness or resentment. He taught empathy and compassion, and He told us in this parable: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Whatever our role in life, let’s find a way today to carry on the Christian tradition of extending the love of Jesus to others under the banner of His cross.