Some years ago Brian Stanley, professor of world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, cited a November 1884 issue of the Juvenile Missionary magazine, the then ‘newly launched children’s periodical of the LMS [London Missionary Society].’ He places his remarks in the context of advice given to children:
“My dear children, I have just been reading [a book about] travels in Africa, where the black people live. The author says, ‘The lions sometimes come to devour them; and when the people cannot get away themselves nor frighten the hungry lion away, the parents will throw one of their children to the lion, that he may take it and head back to his den.
“’O how cruel this is to the poor little children! Your parents would not throw you to the lions. No, indeed; they are not so hard-hearted as those African fathers and mothers. But then, you know the poor blacks had not heard the gospel, nor known anything about the love of Jesus, who took little children into his arms and blessed them …. If the black people had heard of Jesus Christ, they would not have given their children to the lions. O send Missionaries to tell them all about Jesus, the children’s friend! And when you give your money to send the Missionaries, say, ‘I am going to save the little black children from the lions.’
“’Your parents have got houses, and we have no lions in England; because the gospel of Jesus Christ has made us happier than the Africans. But if you will send the Missionary to them, they will soon have houses, and they will not lie down in the fields at night, and will not be frightened so as to give their children to the lions.’”
What words can I say except, Lord have mercy on us? In their historic zeal to convert, our forebears forgot Jesus’ command to love. Christian evangelism became a war tactic to subdue others for purposes of institutional gratification, not individual or community empowerment. Jesus does not, and never has, freed in exchange for institutional and structural slavery.
According to the Christian Scriptures book of Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free” [Galatians 5:1]. What part of free have adherents to the Christian faith not understood historically? What part of free do practitioners of the Christian faith not understand today? Tragically so, when we look to save others from the lions, we must pause to remember that the lions may be us.