“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV). This is a foundational statement about what it means to live as a follower of Christ. We must care for the most helpless among us!
Throughout history, God’s people have lived out this mandate in various ways. To do so is to reflect the heart of God Himself: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:5 NIV). Here are three examples from history of how believers took up the call to defend and protect the most vulnerable members of society:
The Hebrew Midwives
In the first chapter of Exodus, we read about how Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites in Egypt. “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites” (v. 12). In order to deal with this problem, Pharaoh instituted a sinister plan. He gave the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah this instruction: “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see the baby is a boy, kill him…” (v. 16)
Needless to say, Shiphrah and Puah did not engage in Pharaoh’s program of forced infanticide. In fact, they deceived the king in order to protect life. “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (v. 17).
Followers of The Way in Ancient Rome
In 449 BC, the Law of the Twelve Tables was officially codified in Rome. While rightly regarded as an influential advance in the evolving concept of government, this legislation had a dark side. Among other things, the Twelve Tables stipulated that “Deformed infants shall be killed” and permitted a father to legally expose (i.e., abandon outside the city gates) any female infant.[i] Other cultures of this time embraced similarly abhorrent views on children, and some even incorporated acts of child sacrifice into their pagan worship ceremonies. The pagan mindset that fostered this climate of child abandonment and infanticide continued unabated until the arrival of Christianity.
At that time, a dramatic change took place. We find strong support for the sanctity of all human life in the earliest historical records of Christianity. Followers of The Way not only condemned the infanticide practiced by the surrounding pagan culture, but also went to great lengths to do something about it. In the late second century, Benignus of Dijon was known for providing care for abandoned children, including those deformed as a result of failed abortions. Callistus, a one-time slave who became bishop of Rome in the third century, sought to place abandoned children in Christian homes. And in the late third century, Afra of Augsburg—formerly a prostitute—“developed a ministry to abandoned children of prisoners, thieves, smugglers, pirates, runaway slaves, and brigands” after her conversion to Christianity.[ii]
The Foundling Wheel
The practice of child abandonment reached epic proportions in Europe during the Middle Ages. Due to a complex number of factors including extreme poverty and the shame associated with unwed pregnancy, mothers would abandon their babies or, sometimes, kill them outright, often by casting them into a river. Some would leave their newborns in public places at night, hoping that a stranger would come along, discover the child, and give it care. Abandoned newborns often died of exposure or hunger before they were found. Others, even if discovered, were simply left to die.
Once more, the Church stepped in to address this tragedy. Many churches, convents, and other religious institutions installed “foundling wheels”—rotating turnstiles on the side of a building that allowed someone to anonymously and safely hand over their baby. A person outside the building would place the baby on the foundling wheel, and then rotate the wheel so that the baby would end up inside the church. A bell would then ring, alerting those inside of the child’s arrival. Pope Innocent III went so far as to issue a papal bull institutionalizing foundling wheels and homes in response to the shocking number of dead babies found in Rome’s Tiber River.
Today, Pastor Lee Jong-rak and his small group of volunteers at Jusarang Community Church in Seoul, South Korea are a part of this history. The Drop Box is their story. As in ages past, these committed followers of Christ play a key role in defending the defenseless.
Right now, in the 21st century, from the gleaming cities of the West to the heart of the developing world, there are 150 million orphans waiting and hoping for families to call their own. How can we, as followers of Christ, answer the call of James 1:27 today? We are admonished to “look after orphans,” but God isn’t asking all of us to adopt or to travel to a developing nation. For some, domestic or international adoption might be the answer. For others, it might be supporting an adoptive family, raising awareness of the needs of orphans at their church, or supporting an organization that advocates on behalf of the voiceless. We’re all called to do something. What will you do?
[ii] http://www.mtio.com/articles/bissar53.htm, From George Grant, The Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth arid Hyatt, 1991), 249-51.