In Their Steps
On the Side of the Angels: Justice, Human Rights, and Kingdom Mission
reviewed by Benjamin Marsh
Spring break, senior year. My friends relaxed on a beach. I stood under a blistering Indian sun listening to Dalit villagers tell their stories of children sold into slavery, of impossible debt, of drought, famine, and violence. A month later, I met Joseph D’souza, president of the All India Christian Council, who later asked me to move to Washington, D.C., to be an advocate for India’s 250 million Dalit people, who in India’s caste system are still considered sub-human and often brutally oppressed and mistreated.
I could not refuse, having sat with my wife and relayed to her through tears how the churches in India have gates around them to keep the homeless from coming to sleep inside, and how old men with no hands and girls of three beg in the middle of the highway to earn a few rupees.
On the Side of the Angels is thus a personal book to me, but it should resonate with anyone who struggles to find the proper place for evangelism and justice in a fallen world. Having witnessed unspeakable atrocities, D’souza and Benedict Rogers, an advocate with Christian Solidarity Worldwide whose work on Burma has shed light on a catastrophically repressive regime, understand better than most the violence man perpetrates against man.
They do not offer an academic investigation of justice and mission, but a call for the church to participate in the work of justice and of evangelism in the midst of oppression, based upon their own experiences of extraordinary Christians at work. Their thesis is not new, but the stories they tell are compelling.
“‘My mother—dead,’ reported Amil. . . . [H]e drew his index finger down his stomach and demonstrated the action of pulling out his intestines. ‘My mother, with baby . . . both dead.’” Where, this book asks, was the church when this boy’s pregnant mother, her father, and her brother were killed in East Timor?
The question does not ask for a theodicy, an answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to human beings?” It is instead a question concerning responsibility: What is the church doing to alleviate the suffering of mankind and to act as Christ to a dying world? Have we done enough?
The answer, for Evangelicals and mainstream Protestants alike, the authors insist, is unequivocally no.
In the face of crisis, the first leaves a victim like Amil without his daily bread and the second leaves him without the hope of eternal life.
The writers’ solution is an integration of service, community, justice, and reclamation. Relying on the insights of Bonhoeffer, John Stott, and others for biblical underpinnings, they show how theses elements worked together when Christians got it right.
Their most powerful writing is found in their descriptions of the modern heroes in the Global South who have worked on behalf of the sick and suffering: leaders like Sister Maria Lourdes Martins da Cruz in East Timor, founder of the Institute of Brothers, who braved the Indonesian military, which had no qualms about killing Christians, on behalf of displaced people in her country. At one point she had an estimated 15,000 people in the forest surrounding her institute, all relying on her for food and protection.
The Least & Lost
Another moving leader is Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas of the Commission for Restoration, Life, and Peace, an Evangelical group in Colombia. Their work is wide-ranging, including counseling for rape victims, developing new crop programs for cocaine farmers, and clearing landmines. They have stood up for victims of both the terrorist group FARC and the government, and Ballestas was arrested in 2004 for his work.
A similar story details the response of Indian Muslims after the All India Christian Council sent relief workers and advocates to Gujarat in 2002 following a pogrom against Muslims by the state government. The Muslim leaders, intrigued by the response, sought out the reason for the Christians’ compassion. A few years later, they invited Christians to public gatherings to share the gospel and testify about Christ. Justice work opened a new door to gospel truth.
The stories of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe who suffer on behalf of the least and the lost are the highlights of the book. Rather than dwell on what Christians largely know is the right thing to do, D’souza and Rogers show us people who have acted on their faith and encourage us to go and do likewise.
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“In Their Steps” first appeared in the October 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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