The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
PART II (final)
All Scripture citations are to the New International Version, British edition (NIV-UK)
Then the LORD said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
Genesis 4: 9
THE WHITE SANDS and azure seas of West Africa attract thousands of tourists every year. Hotels fronted by sun loungers dot the coast line on either side of the river Gambia. It is a popular destination, one visited in ancient times by Greek and Roman traders. After Rome’s demise, Islam came to dominate the old frontiers and Africa’s merchandise had to travel to Europe over the Sahara by costly caravan. It was only after Europe began her renaissance that the sea routes were again mastered.
In the fifteenth century, Prince Henry of Lisbon sent out his merchant seamen to discover new lands and peoples. Antam Goncalvez was one of a few to navigate the stormy seas round Cape Bojador, and perhaps the first European to sail to the tropics. He came not only as an entrepreneur but also as an ambassador for Christendom. His royal mission had a double purpose: to return with profit and with representatives, or interpreters, with whom Portugal might establish trade.
Serving up the Servants
However noble the motives of Goncalvez may have been, the heartless act of brigandry that followed would set the pattern of European and African relations for the next four hundred years. In 1441 Goncalvez anchored his small galleon off the coast of Guinea and from here a small band ventured inland, looking for natives. Under the cover of twilight the raiding party surprised and overpowered twelve of the locals and took them back to the ship.[fn1]
Goncalvez returned to Portugal with his captives and presented them to Prince Henry, who in turn wrote of the conquest to the Pope. The Holy Father exhorted Henry to take the Catholic faith to the new lands and reduce to servitude those who would not submit. Within twelve years of this first raid, one thousand slaves a year were trafficked to Lisbon. Sixty years later the numbers had surpassed three thousand a year. A century after Goncalvez’ foray into Guinea, one in ten inhabitants of the Portuguese capital was a slave from Africa’s Atlantic coast.
In exchange for the human cargo, the Portuguese traded horses, gold and arms with the African chieftains. War became a lucrative business, yielding captives for the foreign slave markets. In a cruel twist of fate, Africa’s enslavement coincided with the discovery of the Americas, two events that rewarded the seafaring nations of Europe with great fortunes. And while Europe grew rich, Africa divided into feuding tribes.
Europe’s Dark History
The French, English, Spanish and Dutch soon established forts and markets along the African trade routes and competed with the Portuguese for an easy source of labour for their plantations in the New World. Prison ships transported the slaves to America, and after unloading their human cargo, were filled with cotton, tobacco and sugar for Europe. By the mid-nineteenth century, after a prolonged campaign on both sides of the Atlantic to bring an end to the slave trade, over fifteen million Africans had been seized, sold and transported to North and South America.
In the old world slavery had never been practised on the organised scale that Europe developed, nor was depravity so blatant. Roman slaves could at least hope for release after six years, but workers on the Caribbean plantations were in bondage for life. Only three quarters of the slaves survived the sea journey to America, with captives confined by the hundreds below deck, chained together in rows. There are no such horrors recorded in antiquity.
Four centuries of this dark trade belies Europe’s claim to be Christ’s Kingdom. While many individual lives have been transformed through obedience to the teachings of Christ, the nation states of Europe, embroiled in wars and serving economic interests, have not brought about the promised relief of mankind promised in the Bible.
Chief of Servants
The contrast is stark. Those nations among whom the light of the Gospel has shined brightest, whose kings, queens and ruling classes confessed Christ as their Redeemer, failed to heed Jesus’ admonition that ‘whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant’. It is a hard saying, and the weight of it also caused the Jews to stumble.
God had long promised Israel that He would exalt them, that He would raise up a strong Deliverer who would with a rod of iron subject the surrounding nations to Jerusalem (Micah 4: 1-3; Psalm 2: 5-12). Jesus did not fit the Jewish expectations of a Messiah. The carpenter’s son, in spite of his erudition, noble bearing and miracles, had neither military rank nor political backing. Indeed His words and work only undermined the Jewish establishment’s prospects of success. Jesus’ great love, meekness and humility discredited Him in Jewish eyes from any claim to be King. The very qualities with which God endowed Him for His future reign, repulsed those looking for one to lead Israel to earthly prominence.
It has been the same with Christendom. Many were bewitched by the promises God made to His church to be judges and kings among men (Revelation 5: 9, 10; 1 Corinthians 6: 2). Authority and power intoxicate the human heart, and God takes precautions to prepare those He chooses to exalt with bitter experiences of shame, suffering and disappointment. Those who endure these trials to the end possess a tenderness and pity that fits them to rule over others, as well as having the patience and humility that preserves their virtue while wielding power for another’s good.
It is not so for the remainder of mankind, with whom executive ability is highly prized and mistakes are counted as weakness. All men and women love to be free, and the fear of being ruled over spurs them on in the race to get ahead, to be recognised and to be rewarded with responsibility. These ambitions are not necessarily evil, but the tactics employed often are.
Always a Race to the Top
Whatever good there was in the word ‘politics’ has been driven out by its bad connotations. The word has come to mean whatever is expedient – whether right or wrong – to achieve the will of one’s party. Politics now extends into the office, and even into the family, and generally refers to the manipulation of events for selfish intent. Politics works by degrees, establishing a hierarchy of privilege, a social order influenced by the ability of an individual to hide his own faults and point out another’s, or to amplify one’s own achievements and deprecate the deeds of the competitor. The daily exchanges on the Parliamentary benches are evidences of this.
To be truly political, to act in the best interests of the people, requires submission, service and sacrifice. Jesus ably demonstrated His mastery of all three qualities. As God’s chief agent in the work of creation, He had held a position of power and honour immeasurably above the status of mankind, yet He gladly relinquished that glorious office to become the man Christ Jesus, the world’s Redeemer.
As a servant, Jesus preached to Israel the promises of God’s Kingdom – healing the sick, feeding the hungry and enlightening the blind. His work culminated in the sacrifice of His life and all that He might have had on earth. To free mankind from the curse of death, Jesus first had to die. One might say Jesus is the golden standard of what a perfected humanity is capable.
Perfect through Suffering
The accomplishment of God’s plan required Jesus to give up His freedom and choose God’s will above all else, even unto death. St. Paul employs the Greek word doulos (meaning slave, or servant), to describe Jesus’ condescension to man’s estate. In His three-and-a-half years of ministry to Israel, Jesus did not practise ‘politics’. Being numbered with the transgressors and dying as a criminal, His own good deeds were hidden from all but a few.
It is a tragic irony that in their suffering and enslavement the ‘heathen’ Africans lived closer to Christ than did their Christian masters. And when by God’s intervention the Christian calling came to those African-Americans in chains, the suffering bore fruit in their refinement of character – an evidence of God’s promise to exalt those that are abased, to the confusion of the wise and mighty. Not that this justifies the cruelty: God wants His creatures to possess a deep spirituality, a trustful dependence on His providence, and a sympathy for the weak and unfortunate – qualities which tend to atrophy and fade when one is accustomed to comfort and luxury.
Service prepares man for future responsibility, and the greater the degree of sacrifice in service the greater the responsibility. Self must be mastered because self-interest, when unrestrained, injures others. To choose self-abnegation is difficult, because it is contrary to man’s natural desires. To serve another, or to esteem others better than oneself and submit to them, opposes an inherent sense of equality in mankind.
All Are Equal
In the words of Thomas Jefferson, ‘all men are created equal’, an expression made famous through the American Declaration of Independence. The same aspiration is found in the anonymous motto of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. In both France and America the assertion was a reaction to unjust servitude and the cry for equality was followed by a catalogue of rights to be protected and enshrined in law. All of these rights have been framed from the perspective of the individual and our modern post-war world is founded on this principle.
In December 1948, with the wounds of conflict still raw, members of the United Nations agreed to disseminate, display and spread the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Charter lists rights which are now taken for granted:- the right to life, liberty and security of person, the right to legal representation, the right to be assumed innocent until proven otherwise, and so on.[fn2] The Declaration is more than noble sentiments and has spurred the movement to champion human rights everywhere.
The laws of the United Kingdom changed fundamentally in 1998, when a Parliamentary Act gave legal effect to certain fundamental rights and freedoms derived from the U.N. charter. Subscribing nations are, in this regard, no longer truly sovereign, being subject to the International Court of Justice, an agent of the U.N. which settles disputes among member states. The U.N. Declaration is a fair statement of man’s highest conception of what is right. But the equality of all, though the concept stands unassailable in the minds of men as a self-evident truth, is not absolute. God’s law is higher.
Love is the Law
God’s law for man is not a selfish preservation of his legal entitlement, but a requirement that man be prepared to sacrifice even this for the higher good. Love is the law – this is the essence of St. Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13: 10. For Love will not violate justice, but will see that justice is preserved and even lay down life itself in the blessing of others. Love is the lifeblood of service. This is not merely a sensual or sexual love, but one which has no self-interest, a love which is prepared to suffer loss in order to foster the welfare of others.
God is love, and man was made in God’s image. We might therefore expect love to be a defining characteristic of humanity. And so it is. The proof of the observation is that out of love the individual often abandons his claim to personal freedom and chooses to enslave himself in service for others. It is a master-stroke of God that He has put into His Word this gem of wisdom – that the ideal state of man is one of service, and that he is either degraded or exalted by it.
[fn1] Gomes Eannes De Azurara,
Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea
(London: Hakluyt Society, 1896), 39. The account of Antam Goncalvez’ raid can be found online here:
(retrieved 22 November, 2010).
[fn2] United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
(retrieved 22 November, 2010).
Article copyright August 2010 by ukbiblestudents.co.uk
You are free to reproduce any or all of this material, but please let us know if you do.