The Failure of Individualism

Ok, so here’s the story.

Yesterday I saw this tweeted and flipped my lid: “If you want to stop human trafficking, make disciples.” It was attributed to Francis Chan at Passion 2012.

As a self-contained statement, I find this admonition to be incredibly damaging. What better way to distract people from the real human needs in the world than to spiritualize the needs of the people around us?

In the immediate context of the talk, Chan went on to speak of the people around us as possible perpetrators. And so, within these few sentences, the way we’re supposed to understand the world seems to be something like this: If everyone loves Jesus, we won’t have to deal with human trafficking and sex slavery anymore.

Such an assessment is naïve, to say the least. There are greater powers at work in the world than the power of individual human hearts that act out of accord with the will of God.

On Monday I was talking about the hot topics before us, and mentioned “the gospel” as a holistic entity as one of those hot topics. We continue to need to learn that the purposes of God are bigger than simply the rectification of persons.

I found that 90ish seconds of Chan’s talk to be dangerous for this reason. People who already assume an individualistic gospel hear an individualistic means toward overcoming a pervasive evil, and are sent on their way to ignore the problem by telling people God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives.

We hear what we already know, and I worry about how 40,000 college students and 1.5 million online viewers heard that snippet, or read it in Tweet form.

If you want to end human trafficking, work to end human trafficking. Give to International Justice Mission. Learn from Not For Sale, and support their work. Find out where human trafficking is likely at work in your area (find someone to show you the “massage parlors” with the bars on the windows and inward facing security cameras).

Disciple making in itself, keeping Christians from soliciting prostitutes, is never going to solve the problem of human trafficking.

Now, having said all that, the larger context of Chan’s talk leads me to believe and hope that he would agree with my concern, and with the trajectory of sending people to work, truly work, for the freeing of prisoners.

The talk itself was about believing the Bible and doing what it says. He tells a story about throwing a banquet for a bunch of poor people as a self-imposed exercise in obeying rather than explaining-away Jesus’ instruction to do so.

He exhorts the audience to believe that the power we see at work in Jesus is still at work today–to heal, and to free the captive!

The very beginning of the talk was Chan celebrating a talk that had come before his, one in which someone was talking about kids trafficked for sex, and he was passionately responding, stirring the crowd up again with the desire to respond and act to free those kids from slavery.

So what happened in that 90 second piece that got me riled up?

One more piece of context: the entire talk was shaped as a call to passionate, faithful, believing discipleship propelled by an individual’s own reading of the Bible without anyone telling us what it says other than what we can see for ourselves.

Individually faithful discipleship. Driven by individual Bible reading. We could talk all day about his hermeneutics and the like, but here’s what I think happened: the “stand against sex trafficking” piece was not part of the planned talk, but was something Chan was passionate about and worked into his talk at several points because of the previous, powerful speaker.

And, as several folks have alerted me to, Chan does tons, including giving millions of dollars, to help rid the world of this scourge.

But, the message of “be and make faithful individuals” is actually a poor container for holding the social justice message that Chan also finds to be biblical. In this brief, 2ish minute riff, the theme of his talk itself (be and make faithful disciples) was brought into conversation with an issue that didn’t fit the topic (end human trafficking), with unfortunate results.

The 90 seconds troubles me, because it captures one possible way of construing the relationship between personal discipleship and the world “out there” that I think too many Christians buy into. I fear that hearing those words from Chan has the power to perpetuate not merely wrong-headed engagement with human trafficking, but a divinely approved withdrawal from the issue. I don’t think it was the best of what Chan had to say that night about human trafficking.

Much better was his strong affirmation at the end: this Jesus we serve really does have the power to free prisoners–so let’s go do it.

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