Last week, we introduced John Geddie, who served among the Melanesian and Polynesian peoples.
One day Geddie came upon a group of women wailing piteously. In their midst was a dead man, which meant that his young widow must now die. The women were corporately weeping, not only over the death of the man, and the imminent death of a sister, but over their own defenseless fate, their exploitation by a savage, senseless and deadly cultural tradition. The young girl, now a widow, sat passively near-by, waiting to be strangled. It was Geddie’s moment, “This woman must not be killed,” he boldly announced. And he started leading her away from the scene. A group of men aggressively assaulted him, knocked him senselessly to the ground and took possession of the young widow.
The women, who moments before had wailed over the inevitable death of one of their own, now dutifully held the girl’s arms and legs as the men proceeded to strangle her. Geddie arose and again tried to intervene. Again, he was driven away with clubs. He arose again, but by now, the young widow lay dead. But something had happened. Geddie had crossed a line. He had challenged the culture not only with words, but now with actions. He had identified with the weak and the throwaway, the powerless victim. The was the tactic of Ghandi and the theology that drove Bonheoffer. Preaching right to establishments of power and calling for repentance meet with little fruit. The godless authorities ignore such pleas. But actionable identity with the victim brings the matter to a head.
Geddie knew the native leaders were now infuriated with him. In his identity with the young widow, he had challenged the prevailing values and power structures of the islands. Further risking his life, he warmly declared the defiled darkness of their deed. They defended their action, “According to our custom and belief, this is right. Be gone before we kill you!” they shouted. But Geddie would not be silenced. He began to passionately tell them of the wondrous love which led Jesus, the Son of God, to leave the celestial acclaim of the angels for the distain and contempt of men, to exchange the diadem of the ages for a crown of thorns, and to embrace the cross, tasting death and bearing our sins into the grave, that sinners might be saved, and go with Christ to his heavenly home. A strange transformation took place. Clubs raised to kill him were lowered. Everyone became studiously attentive. It was a story they had never heard before – a loving God, not merely a god of fearful thunder and devastating power. Such a message – God’s unconditional love – demands a positive response, even from savage hearts.
For years, Geddie would continue to labor. Soon, natives began to listen to his story and follow him about the island to hear it over and over. He turned every hungry heart into an evangelist, charging them that they must repeat the story to others. Those who would learn, he taught to read and write. As some grew in the faith, he sent them to the islands around them. Some of them never returned. They died as martyrs. Eventually, he had a network of disciples on each island. And he learned to enlist the protection of the chief of each island for his workers. Attendance at his Sunday meetings grew. First, the natives came with painted faces, weapons and spears. Slowly, he watched the transformation. Old customs died. A Christian culture was born.
One of the greatest days in his ministry came when Yakanui, a chief and shaman, approached Geddie. Yakanui was the greatest cannibal on the island. He had a special appetite for the flesh of children – few were left in his district, because he had killed and eaten so many of them. Adults had also fallen under the force of his homicidal club. The people both feared and hated him. He seemed to have special mysterious powers to bring ruin on his enemies. But the message of love, preached by Geddie, had overcome the violence of Yakanui’s soul. Drawn by the love of a forgiving God, he made his way to the missionary and to forgiveness by the God who is “able to save unto the uttermost.” Schools were then established in all parts of the island. The New Testament was translated, printed, and given to the people, and then the whole Bible. Hundreds, then thousands, broke with heathen tradition, and followed Christ.
For twenty-four years, he toiled among savage and beastly humans, then among the curious, then young believers and finally among Christian peers. On December 14, 1872, a tablet was placed behind the pulpit of the church in Sydney, where he had preached:
In memory of John Geddie, D.D., born in Scotland, 1815, minister in Prince Edward Island seven years, Missionary sent from Nova Scotia to Aneiteum for twenty-four years.
When he landed in 1848, there were no Christians here, and when he left in 1872 there were no heathen.
Compelling, constraining love. A Christianity that changes the culture – not one that accommodates it. That was the message of John Geddie.
Things to ponder:
- Would you have gone? Would you have stayed? What influence has your life had – over others, over friends and family, over those who work around you who do not believe?
- Are we, is our church, more like the world than we are different from it? When unbelievers attend, when they observe us, are they likely to see people whose lives are marked by profound grace, or just people like them, but perhaps a bit more religious?
- Do we have any of the dynamics of the Corinthian church at work in our midst? If so, how do we change that? How do we establish our credibility before a watching world?
- Do we have the will, the moral courage, to live differently than the world?
- In an age, when the nation itself might perish, when so much is at stake, when we seem to be severing our roots to Christianity – how do you want to be remembered? How do you want your church to be remembered?
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 Eugene Myers Harrison, Blazing the Missionary Trail (Chicago, Ill.: Scripture Press Book Division, 1949). See also: http://www.wholesomewords.org/missions/biogeddie.html