Thursday, January 19, 2012

Setting the Captives Free: Churches Raiding Slave Ships

There are a lot of hot-button social justice issues that come and go in Christian culture.  Whether it be starving children in Ethiopia, orphans in China, medical relief in Haiti, or saving unborn babies, interest in these issues seems--at least to me--to come in waves.  I can think of a few reasons these issues come and go.  (1) Maybe they come and go because they are simply fads.  What seems to be a cool unique cause eventually becomes tiresome and boring until a new cool unique cause comes along.  This is a pretty cynical way of looking at these issues. (2) Perhaps they come and go because they are areas where God wants the Church to focus its attention and join Him in what he is doing.  Maybe God is the one stirs the Church to be about certain issues at certain strategic times in history so that his love and justice can reach the maximum amount of people possible.  If so, then the Church is simply reflecting God's focus and heart for the world about these issues.  (3) Perhaps they come and go because the Church sometimes neglects certain areas of ministry and justice, and needs it's attention refocused and it's heart rekindled so that the heart of the Church is realigned with the place where God's heart and passion have been all  along.  I suspect that reasons (2) and (3) are somewhere close to the truth of the matter.  The reality is that God deeply loves people, and because he loves people, he is doing something in this world to bring about justice and knowledge of Himself.

One current hot-button social justice issue is human trafficking.  I recently heard about Augustine’s Letter to Alypius (# 10, ca. 428 AD) where he refers to an increase in slave trafficking by abduction in North Africa and how groups of Christians raided slave ships to set the prisoners free. Listen to this:
Even the examples of this outrage that I have personally encountered are too many for me to list, if I wished to do so. Let me give you just one example, and you can estimate from it the total extent of their activity throughout Africa and along its coasts. About four months before I wrote this letter, a crowd of people collected from different regions, but particularly from Numidia, were brought here by Galatian merchants to be transported from the shores of Hippo (It is only, or at least mainly, the Galatians who are so eager to engage in this form of commerce). However, a faithful Christian was at hand, who was aware of our practice of performing acts of mercy in such cases; and he brought the news to the church. Immediately, about 120 people were set free by us (though I was absent at the time), some from the ship which they had to board, others from a place where they had been hidden before being put on board. We discovered that barely five or six of these had been sold by their parents. On hearing about the misfortunes that had led the rest of them to the Galatians, via their abductors and kidnappers, hardly one of us could restrain their tears.  (HT:  Michael Bird)
This is a good reminder that Christians are called to action.  If we want our lives to truly demonstrate our beliefs, then we should actively engage in acts of justice and mercy.  "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:16-18 ESV).  So what did you do after church last Sunday?  Go out to a restaurant for lunch, went home for a nap, did some light shopping, or mounted a rescue mission for slaves?  What would it mean for your church or your small group or your friends to get together and "raid a slave ship?"  What is the "slave ship" in your life?  Who is in need of justice that you are capable of supplying?  The Church must always be about social justice because the Church must be about God, and God is about justice.  God is about the oppressed, the alone, and the destitute.  He cares for children, the weak, and the helpless--and so must we.  "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world"  (James 1:27 ESV).  This gets dangerous when the message of the gospel is divorced from or blurred by the focus on the social justice issues, but that should not deter us from displaying and incarnating God's heart towards the world.  Instead, it should simply make us all the more vigilant to keep the gospel central to all that we do and to not separate the good news from good works.

The letter above goes to show that the efforts of Christians to set the slaves free did not begin with William Wilberforce but has ancient origins.  Freedom for the captives is not just a fad, but a historical mantra for the church of God.  This makes me all the more thankful for the work on the International Justice Mission who advocate for those caught in human trafficking.  See also the following books:

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Advocate

One of my favorite hymns is "Before the Throne of God Above."  The author, Charitie Lees Smith, was born in 1841 in the vicinity of Dublin, Ireland. She was the daughter of a minister of the Church of Ireland. Not much is known about her life, but it appears that she was widowed twice: although she married Arthur Bancroft in 1869, she died under the name Charitie de Cheney in California in 1923. Charitie published her poetry in leaflet form as early as 1860, and a number of her collected works were eventually published as Within the Veil in 1867. “Before the Throne” was written in 1863 under the title “The Advocate.”  I really appreciate how this hymn gives a clear picture of the confidence believers have before God--not due to themselves, but due to their strong Advocate--Christ Jesus.
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea. (Heb 4:15-16)
A great High Priest whose Name is Love (Heb 4:14)
Who ever lives and pleads for me. (Heb 7:25)
My name is graven on His hands, (Isa 49:16)
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart. (Rom 8:34)
When Satan tempts me to despair (Luke 22:31-32)
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there (Acts 7:55-56)
Who made an end of all my sin. (Col 2:13-14)
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me. (Rom 3:24-26)
Behold Him there the risen Lamb, (Rev 5:6)
My perfect spotless righteousness, (1 Cor 1:30; 1 Peter 1:18-19)
The great unchangeable I AM, (Heb 13:8; John 8:58)
The King of glory and of grace,
One in Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood, (Acts 20:28)
My life is hid with Christ on high, (Col 3:3)
With Christ my Savior and my God! (Tit 2:13) 
“Before the Throne of God Above” draws heavily from Scripture for its pictures and language. It is a hymn which finds its theme in the perfect security which believers find in Christ, Who intercedes for them “before the throne of God above.” The following Scriptures find echoes in the song, whether Charitie is drawing conceptually from them or merely using their language.
1 John 2:1:  "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."  ("The Advocate," title).
Hebrews 4:14-16: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (“a great High Priest”, st. 1, and general conceptual background)
Hebrews 7:25: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (“Who ever lives and pleads for me,” st. 1)
1 John 4:8-9:  "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him." ("whose Name is Love, st. 1")
Isaiah 49:16a: “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;” (“My name is written on His hands,” st. 1)
Romans 8:34: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (“I know that while in Heaven He stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart,” st. 1)
In verse 2, Charitie may have had the following texts in mind:
Luke 22:31-32a: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” (“When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within,” st. 2)
Acts 7:55-56: “But [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” (“Upward I look and see Him there,” st. 2)
Colossians 2:13-14: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (“Who made an end to all my sin,” st. 2)
Romans 3:24-26: “. . . and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (“God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me,” v. 2)
Likewise, verse 3:
Revelation 5:6: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (“Behold Him there, the risen Lamb,” st. 2)
1 Corinthians 1:30: “[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (“My perfect spotless righteousness,” st. 2)
1 Peter 1:18-19: “. . . knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (“spotless,” st. 2)
Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (“unchangeable,” st. 2)
John 8:58: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’” (“I AM,” st. 2)
Acts 20:28: “. . . the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (“my soul is purchased by His blood,” st. 2)
Colossians 3:3: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (“My life is hid with Christ on high,” st. 3)
Titus 2:13: “. . . waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” (“Christ my Savior and my God,” st. 3)