Stella boarded a flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Entebbe, Uganda. Over safety announcements and my five-year-old daughter, we exchanged names and the purpose of our travel.
Stella was coming home from a conference In Delhi, India, connected with her work. She told me that she serves Jesus with a non-government organisation that rescues infants from child sacrifice. I had to clarify this three times to comprehend what this meant.
It was wrenching.
In many African countries, particularly those in the north, the witch doctors of local communities encourage parents to sacrifice the lives of their own children in exchange for good fortune. Sometimes it’s a son or daughter, but any child will do so it often involves abduction and a witch-hunt. Witch doctors assure the parents/adults that the exchange of the life of their offspring will appease the devil and deliver wealth, protection and prosperity to them. The witch doctor charges handsomely for this ‘service’.
There are more gruesome elements to this macabre ritual but that’s more than enough for here.
Stella’s organisation (and others like it) seeks to rescue children earmarked for sacrifice, intervening before it’s too late. Sometimes they’re successful but even then, it’s generally too late to prevent other acts of violence. By the time children are earmarked for sacrifice, genital mutilation has usually occurred. In some ways, it’s a warning flag for the imminent atrocity that follows.
Genital mutilation is rife in many African countries, while the practice of child sacrifice is common in northern African countries such as Uganda. In 2000, it was reported that of all Ethiopian woman aged 14-49, 80% had been subject to genital mutilation. By 2015, through concerted and integrated efforts, the number had dropped to 65%. While the trend may be friendly, it measures degrees of brutality, and the figure is grotesquely high. Any number beyond zero is grotesquely high. To consider that this is a frequent half-way house on the road to the sacrifice of a own child is only more abhorrent.
Stella told me that there was an Australian connection in all this. Ours was one of the countries where children were sent in order to have restorative reconstructive surgery. The surgery doesn’t restore reproductive function, but it can restore form and more normal bodily functions.
As we chatted, I stifled outright anger at these acts of intentional violence perpetrated on innocents by those in some place of authority to gain positive fortune. Pure evil cloaked in the ruse of false hope.
Amidst thoughts of ‘what sort of parent?’ and ‘how can you allow a child to be sacrificed just so you can get a better life?’, was another: Any act of sacrifice, first or second-hand that is not in response to love, is a clanging cymbal of wrong.
When Paul writes in Romans 12:1 that we should “present our bodies is living sacrifices, wholly acceptable to God for that is our reasonable act of worship”, there’s a precursor. Our submission to God with our lives is because of His great mercy. According to the love He has poured out on us. It is in response to the ultimate sacrifice that God made of His own Son, in love, that the world might be reconciled with Him so that we might share in Jesus’ suffering and the joy of resurrected life. The same Father who, in love, offers His Son as a ransom for many so that we can be reconciled with the Father, also raises His Son back to life.
In love. Always in love.
Love is the moderator of holy sacrifice. It is never a bizarre, warped exchange of brutality for worldly gain, it is the release into a fullness of life through the laying aside of flesh for the abundant joy of life in the spirit.
For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured death on our behalf. It wasn’t to secure luck for His parents; it was so that through Him the world might be saved.
Thousands of years earlier, not all that far from Addis Ababa, another man would be prepared to sacrifice his own son. As Abraham climbed a mountain with his son exercising unimaginable obedience, a lamb was being prepared to become the substitute for the perishing of his own offspring. The lamb provided for Abraham was a type and shadow of a greater lamb to come. The Lamb of God that would carry away, upon his shoulders, the sin of the world.
The connection between love, grace and sacrifice, should never be severed. When it does, it becomes horrifically dysfunction and often brutal. Sometimes those acts of dysfunction are upon ourselves, sometimes they are wrought upon the lives of others. One thing is for sure, there is no quid-pro-quo in the Kingdom of God when it comes to acts of self-atonement and self-justification.
I wish there was no call for Stella’s line of work. It is a gross statement of our human frailty and sin that her restorative work is required at all. There’s a target to rid Africa of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation by 2025. I pray it happens long before. Until then, I’m thankful for the Stellas of the world – those who have responded to the gospel and bring light in the darkest of places.