Book Review: Saints, but Not Heroes

PrintBy Courtney Lott-

A poster at her college campus made Bethany Hanke Hoang stop dead in her tracks. “Slavery is alive. Rape for profit must be stopped,” it read. What started off as a normal winter day for the Princeton student set her on a new and entirely unexpected path. The simple, jarring message on the poster was the impetus for her eventual induction in to the International Justice Mission (IJM), a premier organization in the fight against human trafficking.

“I…was shocked to learn that there are more slaves in the world today than during the four hundred years of the transatlantic slave trade combined,” Hoang writes. “Today an estimated 35.8 million people are owned by slave masters who use violence and lies to trap those who are vulnerable.”

Her first step was to receive a newsletter from Lisa, a Salvation Army activist who hung the poster on the Princeton campus. At one point, after reading countless stories about trafficking victims, Hoang hung her head, unable to bear up under the weight of the atrocities committed around the world. Were it not for Lisa’s wisdom, she might never have found the strength to move from this posture of defeat.

“Remember,” Lisa said. “The battle belongs to the Lord. It is not our battle. It is his. And he holds the victory. This battle belongs to the Lord.” It was upon this foundation, that God is the source of justice and he invites us to be part of his redemptive work, that Hoang began her journey.

In The Justice Calling, Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson, professor of Theology and Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, walk the reader through redemptive history to make a case for justice. Each chapter opens with a victim’s story, real life examples of modern day slaves. From forced labor to sex trafficking, every case points to the injustices suffered across our world today and the work IJM is doing to combat it.

Following the gritty tales of enslavement and abuse, Hoang and Johnson focus their attention on the overarching narrative of scripture. They begin with the very definition of justice, focusing on our unsettling conviction that the world is not right, and that this comes from the fall. Gross injustice can be severely discouraging, but the authors remind the audience that God is the one who is working to make straight what has been made crooked.

In Christ, God came into the world to set things right and restore harmony. “We need the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ – ‘the Righteous One’ (1 John 2:1) – to know what is right,” write the authors. “But Christ doesn’t leave us with a measure of what is right. He is more than a plumb line or chalk line against which we measure ourselves, leaving us to do the work of fixing what is not right in ourselves and in the world. Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension he shares his righteousness with us. He sets us right with God so that we can live in right relationship with God and offer every part of our lives as instruments of justice and righteousness in this world (Romans 3:21-26; 6:13).” Because of this, they argue, Christians can fight for justice by the power of the Holy Spirit and not falter.

The Justice Calling continues with this theme by underlining the importance of Sabbath to ancient Israel and the Church today. As slaves in Egypt, the descendants of Jacob were unable to rest as God intended for them. Therefore, once the Lord freed his people from the chains of Egypt, he commanded them to take a day in which they would do no work. This reminds Israel not only to trust in God’s provision, but also to remember their creator’s rest at the beginning of creation. “The giving of the law in Exodus and Deuteronomy connects creation and slavery with the Sabbath commandment because Sabbath-keeping not only impacts the individuals or families who observe it, but Sabbath-keeping also impacts their neighbors and the surrounding community.”

As a newly freed nation, Israel was to seek rest not only for themselves, but also the rest of those around them. The authors contend that this is our responsibility as well. With our greatest commandment being to love God and love our neighbor, we are called to receive and extend Sabbath to others. This rest is not just physical, however, but one that finds its root in the savior. “As we undertake the Sabbath,” they write, “we do so remembering that we can rest because we have received all the rest we need in Christ.”

Hoang and Johnson point out that injustice lords power over others, whereas Christ, the second Adam and embodiment of God, instead used his power to become a servant, to die. In light of Jesus’ work, his followers can prayerfully move toward the darkness rather than fleeing from it. When faced with apparent defeat and numerous frustrations, Hoang and Johnson remind their audience that Christ has already conquered all things and brought them under his authority.

And yet, they also encourage us to be honest about such frustrations. Like the psalmists, we are called to lament. Rather than turning away from God when we hear stories of girls as young as five being sold for sex, and boys forced into dangerous labor, the authors admonish their audience to cry out. “God invites us to come to him – not in spite of doubt and derailment but in the midst of it.” It is this action that allows us to draw near to the Lord and brings us to rejoice in his great and glorious works.

Lament also creates an attitude that enables us to live as saints and not heroes. Hearing the unjust stories like those of Kunthy and Chanda, eleven-and twelve-year-old girls who were once raped daily for a profit, embolden a deep and understandable desire to rescue these precious victims. That urgency can often spark what Hoang calls “the hero impulse.” The problem with such an attitude is that it places us at the center of the story, a position that we are not strong enough to bear. Instead, we are to live as saints, trusting in Christ, the true hero of the story. As prophet and priest Jesus reveals and establishes justice. As king, he gives us new citizenship in his just kingdom. The authors write: “From our transformed identities and our ongoing sanctification, the Spirit will empower us to do works that reflect who we are as God’s children.”

Citizens of this kingdom, however, are often slow to reflect their king. Hoang and Johnson tell the story of John Newton, composer of the song “Amazing Grace.” He was also a human trafficker. Contrary to folklore, Newton’s initial conversion did not bring an immediate end to his participation in the slave trade. Rather, it took nearly a decade for God to convict him of the injustice he perpetuated. While difficult to understand, the authors tell us that Newton’s story teaches that sanctification is a long road wherein conviction of different sins comes at different times. “Newton shows us what it looks like for the Holy Spirit to take hold of a life and sanctify it year by year,” they write. “Continually forming a person into the image of Christ, no matter how heinous that person’s sins.”

This lesson is an encouraging one, for it reveals that even in the midst of the often-slow sanctification process, God can still work through us. Our focus should be on the work Jesus is currently doing in the world and joining with him on that mission. There are no separate categories for evangelism and justice. Just as the Lord is sanctifying his people, he is also redeeming the physical world. The authors assert, “operating with a false dichotomy between the soul and the body is like trying to convert an enslaved girl’s soul without attempting to rescue her out of a brothel.”

One of the victorious stories we read about in The Justice Calling is that of Mala, a fifteen-year-old girl trafficked for sex. Rescue attempts were thwarted seven times over six months due to a leak in local law enforcement, but the International Justice Mission did not give up. Instead, persevering in hope inspired by prayer, an eighth operation was launched on the brothel. This time Mala, the victim for whom their team had gained the most evidence, was found and set free. Her rescue and the case against her trafficker were groundbreaking; for it was the first time this particular court convicted a criminal of trafficking and rape in the same case.

Hoang and Johnson conclude with a reminder that our only way to persevere, to hang on to hope, is to abide in Christ. “If we do not abide in Christ, if our work is not the abundant fruit of being deeply formed in Christ through the Spirit, our work is dross,” they write. “We will wither. But in Jesus there is no reason to fear. In Jesus there is abundance of life beyond all we could ever ask or imagine. When we abide in Jesus, God himself will bear his fruit through us.”

Courtney Lott is the editorial assistant at Good News. 

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