Jason Byassee: The moral challenge of our century

An old-time evangelist spoke at Duke recently. His name wasn't Graham or Jakes. It was Kristof.

I heard an old-time evangelist preach to a full house here at Duke the other night. The crowd was buying what he was selling. They laughed at the jokes, nodded at the profound points and lined up for the altar call.

The evangelist was Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. I mean him no disrespect by comparing him to an evangelist. He spoke with the boldness and conviction of Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and the apostle Paul all rolled into one. And the message he spoke was as true as anything those other men preached. The altar call was a line that stretched outside the building for his signature on the book. The sellers didn’t bring enough copies. As jaded as the Facebook generation is, they wanted to sign up for this.

“In the 19th century the central moral challenge was slavery,” Kristof said. “In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the oppression of women and girls throughout the world.”

Kristof was in town to promote his new book with his spouse, Sheryl WuDunn, author of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” (Knopf). This is an old preacher’s rhetorical trick: line up your cause with great moral triumphs of the past. Kristof was preaching what we here at Leadership Education call “eschatological innovation.” He just didn’t know it.

“This cause is going to advance whether you’re part of it or not,” he said. “I hope you’ll join up.” So it is in the kingdom of God. God is going to get his way. The question is whether we’ll enter into the joy of cooperating with God.

The statistics Kristof cites are staggering. He estimates that 100 million people would be alive today but for unequal health care, selective abortion, insufficient nutrition and a lack of opportunities for women. When he compares the status of women today to the north Atlantic slave trade, he is not engaging in hyperbole. If anything the oppression of poor women worldwide is even greater. At the height of the slave trade in the 1780’s, some 80,000 Africans were forcibly brought through the middle passage to the Americas. Today, an estimated 800,000 women and children are forcibly trafficked into sex slavery every year.

Not that life is easy for those poor and rural women and children who are not living in bonded labor to another. Every minute, somewhere in the world, a woman dies in childbirth. Freed of worms and other intestinal parasites -- a plague in much of the world today -- children are better nourished, have greater immunity against diseases and attend school more regularly (as poor southern children in this country did when the Rockefeller Foundation moved to stamp out worms in this country in the 1920’s). And the cost to de-worm a child? About 50 cents a year.

“We spend $50 a year deworming our dogs,” Kristof reminded a wincing audience.

But if, as Josef Stalin said, one man’s death is a tragedy while a million deaths are a statistic, Kristof made sure his statistics got personal. He told a story of a church in New Hampshire that gave six goats to a village in Uganda through Heifer International. One family was lucky enough to receive a pregnant goat that produced a steady supply of milk, enough to feed the children and still have extra to sell to others. The family’s wealth grew until they could send one of their daughters to America to study. I heard the audience gasp as Kristof showed the next slide: the daughter graduating from Connecticut College, primed to go back and help build her country.

In another story Kristof told of an Ethiopian woman given in marriage as a preteen whose child died in childbirth. The mother was left with a fistula: incontinent, and so unwanted in her village. The villagers took the door off her hut, hoping the hyenas would get her. She fended off the animals with a stick all night, crawled to the next village, and collapsed at the feet of a missionary. He took her in and brought her to a hospital in Addis Ababa, where her fistula was repaired and where she still works as an aide --abandoned no more, but rather valued and giving back to her community.

These stories about church people made me wonder where the rest of the church will be during what Kristof calls this century’s great moral challenge. We have often been on the wrong side before. Sure, some Christians were heroic opponents of slavery, but far more were defenders. Christians, both pacifist and militant, resisted totalitarianism but just as many or more baptized people supported Hitler and Stalin.

What about now? Will we be like the little church in New Hampshire that pooled money to send goats to a village in Uganda, revolutionizing one girl’s life, and helping her entire village? Will we be like the missionary who took in the rejected woman and helped her build a life of freedom and dignity? Or will we mostly sit this one out?

And how like God would it be to use a secular journalist like Nicholas Kristof to remind us of our vocation and to use a secular gathering at a post-modern elite university to spark a moral crusade.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.