I’ve been thinking a lot about evangelism under the cross. Not a gospel for success but in suffering. So I was moved by an interview with the late Joe Carter.
How the gospel touched the slaves.
Here’s what he said came together in the lives and the spiritual sensibility of those slaves that connected them so powerfully to the best attributes of Christianity not often practiced:
One thing that occurs to me, if we go back to the cultures of the slaves that came from many different African nations and languages, one thing they had in common was they believed in a supreme deity. But they believed he was very busy and very, very holy, and in order to get to him, you had to go through the ancestors.
It wasn’t very dissimilar to the way Europeans felt with the saints, and so on. When slavery took place — and there was also this concept that you commune with deity with magic, shining songs. If your songs come forth with great fervor, you not only reach deity, but deity comes and possesses you, becomes part of you, and gives you the strength to do whatever you’ve got to do to win your battles, to harvest your crop.
And when people were taken suddenly as slaves, when they were literally kidnapped from their normal lives, whatever those lives were, they were taken away from the land of their ancestors. The spirit of the ancestors couldn’t cross the water. And so, when they were taken on these boats away from their homes, they experienced the most deep desolation possible, because not only were they being removed from their friends and kindred, but they were being removed from their God. And they had no way to get to God, because the ancestors were way back in Africa on the land.
When the slaves heard about this Jesus they were not impressed by the master’s Christianity.
Because they saw all of the brutality, they saw all the hypocrisy, and were the brunt of it. But they heard about this Jesus, this man of sorrow who suffered, and they identified. And then they were told that Jesus is the Son of the High God. “No. Wait, the Son of the High God? We can get to the High God through this guy? And his story sounds like our story? He’s born in terrible circumstances, he’s mistreated. He’s finally abused and killed. My goodness. Maybe He will carry us to the High God.”
The gospel for another kind of slavery
Somebody who’s perfectly free and perfectly rich and perfectly powerful in the world’s terms doesn’t escape from suffering.
And the worst kind of bondage is that which takes place in the inside. When we look back to the slavery days, we were bound, but it was the master who was really the slave. And I think some of us understand that now. But I experience in my own life great strength from telling the stories and looking back, because I see what they went through, and I haven’t experienced anything like what my ancestors did. And I complain about everything.
Joe Carter’s words are worth pondering as we are called to the task of evangelism in a world of suffering … and of empty affluence!