CHURCH AND MINISTRY
God’s Calling on His Daughters
By Carolyn Custis James
Excerpt from Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women
In September 2009, my husband handed me a New York Times review of a newly released book authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and husband/wife team, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. A quick online visit to amazon.com, a couple of mouse clicks, and in a matter of days I waspouring over Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It was a watershed moment for me.
Half the Sky is a disturbing exposé of the world’s dark and largely forgotten underbelly where the misery and abuse of women and girls break the scales of human suffering. If you haven’t read it already, it belongs on your reading list. Sex trafficking, female genocide, genital mutilation, and honor killings are but a few of the atrocities against millions of women and girls that the book brings to light. These may not be normal topics of polite conversation or suitable bedtime reading, but Kristof and WuDunn fearlessly identify a battlefield of epic proportions that the civilized world needs to engage. Here evil has gained the upper hand and countless souls are trapped, helpless to break free without significant outside help.
Although I was already becoming aware of this global tragedy, the book still shocked me in many ways, including a stubborn thread of hope that ran the full length of the book — a thread I didn’t expect to find that surfaced in unbelievable stories of women who have been beaten down but are fighting back and courageously advocating for others. But I am at a total loss for words to describe the feeling that swept over me at the end of the book where, while recognizing that Christian organizations are deployed in this fight, the authors threw down the gauntlet for the rest of the church to step up to the plate. I was jolted to read, “Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses.”
What troubled me most about this open challenge to the church was that Christians are not the loudest voices to sound the alarm, nor are we the most visible at the forefront in addressing this humanitarian crisis. As I wrestled with this question, I recalled that historically, Jesus’ followers have been known for their ministries of compassion and justice. In the fourth century, the Roman emperor Julian wrote with amazement that Christians “support not only their poor, but ours as well.” In the early centuries Christians were renowned for their active opposition to infanticide. They scoured dung heaps for baby girls who had been thrown out to die, took them home, and raised them as their daughters.
I also remembered stories my mother told me when I was a little girl. Over a hundred years ago (in 1903, to be exact), an earlier version of Half the Sky was published. Things as They Are: Mission Work in Southern India was a compilation of letters that a Christian missionary named Amy Wilson-Carmichael wrote to tell her supporters back home about atrocities against women and girls, which she was discovering as she visited villages and attempted to evangelize.
In 1895, a young Amy Carmichael arrived in Bangalore (Bengaluru, Karnataka) in southern India for a missionary career that lasted until her death fifty-five years later. As I was growing up, my mother spoke so frequently of this Irish missionary, she almost seemed like a member of our family. I remember my mother’s collection of blue books (all written by Amy Carmichael) and the stories she told me of Amy’s valiant efforts to rescue little girls whose families were dedicating them to the Hindu temple and of the tragic accident in Amy’s sixties, from which she never recovered. Mainly I remember that although Amy Carmichael was already a prolific writer before her accident, she produced other books from her bed of pain that have offered spiritual strength and comfort to countless believers in times of suffering.
When I read Half the Sky, I thought of her again — only this time in a different light. Her “rescue” of little girls from dedication to the temple was a daring declaration of war against “marriage to the gods,” which was a euphemism for sex trafficking of little girls into a life of temple prostitution. She wasn’t writing as a journalist but as a determined ezer-warrior in “the smoking hell of battle.” The book that chronicled the truth about what was happening is, in her own words, “a battle-book, written from a battle-field where the fighting is not pretty play but stern reality.”
Amy received strong opposition from Christian Supporters on the home front for her candid (although hardly graphic by today’s standards) letters reporting the things happening to little girls and other atrocities, such as honor killings and the abuse of widows. At one point, her supporters contemplated recalling her from the field. She was exasperated and dumbstruck when she was told to edit her reports and to focus on successes instead of upsetting everyone with harsh realities that her supporters did not want to hear. She was unbending to the pressure and prayed instead that her words, “written out of the heat of battle” would be “fire-words.”
“We are so afraid to offend, so afraid of stark truth, that we write delicately, not honestly. Our smoothness glides over souls. It does not spur them to action, even though they be Christians to whom the thought of the glory of the Lord being given to another ought to be unendurable.”
Her biographer and friend, Frank Houghton, joined Amy in raising the alarm when, sounding much like Kristof and WuDunn, he wrote, “Christians everywhere in India, men and women of goodwill everywhere ... must care until their own souls are scorched in the fire from which they determine to deliver the little ones.”
This book is not like the other books I have written, although like those other books, this book is still very much about you, the reader. The work I’ve done previously has been building a biblical foundation for a better understanding of women. This book is the inevitable progression from those earlier books because it moves us from knowledge to action. One can’t simply learn the truth and sit on it. Truth not only changes how we see ourselves, it changes what we do and how we live. Those first three books have birthed this one. However, the differences in this book are significant and result largely because of the impact of books like Things as They Are and Half the Sky.
First, the discussion has widened yet again to include a new group of female faces who join us from the outer edges of human society, where suffering and oppression are crushing realities from which there is no easy escape. We need these women in this discussion as much as they need us, for if the questions we ask and the answers we embrace do not give them the same hope and kingdom purpose we seek for ourselves, then our conclusions cannot be trusted.
Second, the emphasis is global, so the stories and illustrations are drawn largely from other cultures. We have made many mistakes in drawing conclusions and making assertions from the Bible in isolation from the rest of the world. I cannot alone remedy that problem, and there is much work to be done in this regard. But I can at least raise the issue and make sure that in my work, I am making an effort to engage a global perspective.
Because many of the illustrations point to abuses, it is important to clarify that my intention is not to demonize some cultures and exonerate others. Every culture has plusses and minuses, and every culture (including our own) is complicit in atrocities against women. Women and girls are trafficked in America. Our newspapers regularly carry stories of violence and abuse against women and girls, often hidden in plain sight.
In the dressing room of a women’s clinic in the Florida suburbs, I saw a poster about domestic abuse with tear-off tags across the bottom containing a help-line phone number to slip inside your shoe. It was chilling to see that most of the tags had been torn off by previous patients.
Third, God’s vision for his daughters is an implicit call to a full-orbed gospel. Amy Carmichael’s ministry embodied that gospel. She intended to devote her life to evangelizing the lost. God expanded her efforts to encompass physical acts of rescue, taking care of scores of babies and little children, and bold efforts to draw government attention to atrocities against little girls — in essence, to be a force for God’s justice for the helpless. This shift was not a distraction from the gospel but a centering on its fullness. Whenever anyone argued with her that the gospel was only proclamation and didn’t also include acts of mercy and social justice, she was emphatic: “God didn’t make you all mouth.”
But what takes my breath away is that what looked to supporters and at times even to Amy herself like a detour from her original mission to proclaim the gospel actually turned out to be a brilliantly subversive tactic against the Enemy. For several years, she had tried relentlessly to break through the unyielding iron gates of the Hindu caste system with the gospel. With the help of a seven-year-old girl, God showed her to a side door. A ministry that might have produced only a handful of believers ended up generating hundreds of Christians who still today are rescuing children and spreading the gospel in India.
In my search for answers, one of the outcomes I didn’t anticipate was that God’s vision for his daughters is taking us somewhere. God’s vision for us doesn’t just reassure us that we matter and that our lives do count for something.
God’s vision compels us to look beyond ourselves, to ponder a picture of how things were meant to be that leaves us aching for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and to look for ways to participate in moving the world toward that goal. One of the biggest issues confronting us today is the battle cry of Amy Carmichael and the burning challenge of Half the Sky.
Christianity has often been a compassionate force for good in this world. No matter where it occurs — when there is flooding, an earthquake, or a hurricane and thousands are suddenly swept into the clutches of disaster — individual Christians and churches are at the forefront of an outpouring of relief and aid, as well they should be. At home when little ones go missing, hundreds of volunteers are out combing the brush for evidence that may lead to recovery. But we seem to miss the chronic, systemic tragedies that are snatching one anonymous life at a time, even though the casualty count surpasses the losses in all these combined natural calamities — what according to Kristof and WuDunn is “the paramount moral challenge” of the twenty-first century.
I’m not sure of all that has transpired in the intervening years between the publishing of Things as They Are and Half the Sky, nor do I understand why just now growing numbers of Christian women are feeling greater concern about what is happening to women throughout the world. I only know that as I have searched for answers, God’s vision for us and this global crisis have come together, and I can’t escape the connection. This crisis is devastating the lives of countless women and girls.
Of course this is every Christian’s concern — male as well as female. But as women, we have a natural connection with these female sufferers that compels us to speak up on their behalf. As followers of Jesus, we have a strategic responsibility to raise the alarm within the body of Christ and an enormous potential to make a difference.
Bishop J. C. Ryle, a nineteenth-century British evangelical, sounds a relevant challenge: “Let the diligence of Christ be an example to all Christians. Like Him, let us labor to do good in our day and generation, and to leave the world a better world than we found it. Let us awake to a sense of our individual responsibility.”
What started out as a quest to find reassurance that we matter to God, that our identity in him is rock solid, and that our purpose is secure expands in this book to include an overt call to action. That action may take a variety of different forms, but it is inherent to the gospel and to God’s calling on his daughters.
It is no small matter that women comprise half the church. In many countries women make up a significantly higher percentage of believers — 80 percent in China and 90 percent in Japan. In India, during Amy Carmichael’s tenure the percentage of Christian females in her expanding ministry was at many points nearly 100 percent. Although everyone is concerned about the need to reach more men, maybe these high percentages of women should make us wonder what God is doing, for he often forges significant inroads for the gospel by beginning with women. Perhaps we ought to be asking what he might do through us. When you stop to think of it, in sheer numbers, the potential we possess for expanding the kingdom of God is staggering.
Sometimes when you’re searching for answers, you get more than you bargain for. I hope you get more than you bargained for as you read this book. I hope too that once you see God’s earthshaking global vision for you, for the rest of your life you will be unwilling to settle for less.
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Carolyn Custis James (MA, Biblical Studies) travels extensively as a popular speaker for women's conferences, churches, colleges, seminaries, and other Christian organizations. Her ministry organization, WhitbyForum, promotes thoughtful biblical discussion to help men and women serve God together. Carolyn founded and is president of the Synergy Women’s Network. She is a consulting editor for Zondervan's Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament and author of When Life and Beliefs Collide, Lost Women of the Bible, and The Gospel of Ruth.
Learn more at Carolyn Custis James' blog: The Whitby Forum
Excerpted from Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women
By Carolyn Custis James, Published by Zondervan
© 2011 Carolyn Custis James. Used with permission.
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