I was having a phone conversation recently with one of our partners overseas. He has been doing some evangelistic work with a very poor tribe of people. He has not been working with this particular group of people for very long, and he was conveying to me the conditions they are living under, and the social structures they’re forced (for now) to live under. It essentially boils down to medieval serfdom. A family will work the fields for the landowner. After they’ve harvested 80 kilograms of cotton, they are paid about $2.50. In addition to the meager wages, they are also in debt to the landowner. They are living in legalized slavery.
Throughout the world, this is not an uncommon thing, much as we’d like to tell ourselves that the world has advanced and moved on from such things. There’s a lot of talk lately about social justice, and particularly about evil governments, and evil corporations, and evil politicians. In all cases we are talking about social systems, from small local systems to national governments. All are social systems, but the evil part is where people get hung up.
Social systems are not evil in themselves, nor are they good. Social systems are amoral, meaning they have no morality in themselves. Social systems are like tofu. Just as tofu takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in, so social systems take on the character of whoever is running them. If you have evil people running the social system, the social system will be evil. If you have good people running the social system, you will likely have a good social system, unless the good people lack knowledge or wisdom, or are incompetent, which happens.
Social justice activists are spending an awful lot of time trying to dismantle evil systems, and in many cases this is a good thing. However, if you dismantle an evil system but the hearts of the people are still evil, you are wasting your time.
I have spent a good amount of time this week pouring over video footage I shot last time I was in Africa. (I finally have the time to do so.) We interviewed several pastors, many of whom came from a background where in their younger years, they were part of the evil systems we are talking about in their respective societies. They were persecutors, drug addicts, witch doctors, people who were cruel to their wives and families. The common thread between them was when they had an encounter with the living God, and he changed everything. Now these people are out risking their own lives in a dangerous land to tell others about what changed them and their families, and gave them hope. I hear people say sometimes that their faith is a personal thing. That’s hogwash. If your faith doesn’t make a tangible difference in yourself and the world around you, what good is it? As James says, “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You say you believe in God. Good! Even the demons believe, and shudder!”
My conversation with our overseas partner was informative for me, but also really got me thinking about how we are to handle these situations. In regards to the social systems already in place, the bible is very clear about it in many places. 1 Timothy 2 says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” First we need to pray for a turning of the landowner’s heart. If his heart is turned toward God, and it’s genuine, his attitude toward the people working his land will change. The second part of this is what praying for unjust leaders does in us. Jesus talks about this in Luke 6. “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
You see, everyone is running around trying to change everyone else, but change starts with us, and with the attitude of our own hearts. We pray for our enemies both because the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, but also because when we pray for our enemies, we cannot simultaneously hate them.
There may be other strategies we need to take to alleviate the slavery these people are living under, but to start them prematurely or to do them in lieu of praying for their enemies undermines the reason Christ came, that being “to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;” (Isaiah 61). Many are under the assumption that if people are oppressed, they are somehow angelic. I can tell you from personal experience from some of the places I’ve worked in that if you release a slave from his oppressor without taking the spirit of the slave out of the man, he will do worse atrocities to both his oppressor and the people around him than his oppressor ever did to him.
In closing, I’d like to relay a story from one of the interviews I did in Africa this year. The man I was interviewing hated Christians when he was younger. He would attack them and throw stones at them. One day, he came across a Christian and started beating him. The man he was beating continued to tell him about Jesus even while he was beating him. It’s this kind of self-sacrifice that changes the world. Not and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but praying for our enemies and telling them the good news even while they are beating us.