Our van was nothing fancy. No one would have mistaken it for a limousine. It was plain, boxy, kind of like a Volkswagen cargo van in which someone bolted a couple of seats to the floor. Nothing about the van stood out in the bustling African streets of Addis Ababa. Like everyone else in town that day, we darted and beeped and chugged along through the crowded automotive corridor, windows down, taking our oxygen from air saturated with a mix of dust and exhaust fumes.
As inconspicuous as our vehicle was in the city traffic, our faces were not so unnoticed. Our skin was noticeably pale compared to the native melanin. Immediately upon entering the market area our van became a gathering spot for kids selling toothbrushes, kids shining shoes, and kids selling packs of chewing gum. But worse than the badgering of the ambitious children trying to make a living was the agonizing appearance of destitute women, widows we were told.
In Ethiopia (and in many other places in Africa), there is little provision for widows. In the market place, haggard ladies wearing mismatched patches of dirty material draped over their malnourished figures tap incessantly on the van windows before we’ve even parked. Through the obstacles of a language barrier, they somehow communicate very clearly that they are starving and want money for food. They know we have money because we are, after all, going shopping at the market.
How could we not help these women? They were widows. And what is pure and undefiled religion if it isn’t helping widows in need?
James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (ESV).
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we had the opportunity to visit widows in their affliction with help that was sorely needed.
In Nigeria, an African nation just three countries to the left (west) of Ethiopia, widows also cry out in the name of pure and undefiled religion. But in Nigeria the pure religion being sought lately is not the care of widows and orphans. Instead, the pursuit for pure religion has become the occasion for turning these women into widows.
The pure religion being sought in Nigeria is not that which is mentioned in the New Testament book of James; rather, it is the pure religion of Islam—according to the terrorist group Boko Haram. And the widows are crying out not simply because their husbands are dead, but because their husbands were murdered in Boko Haram’s effort to purify Islam by ridding the country of its Christians.
According to this report, more than 2,000 women have unexpectedly become widows as the result of their husbands being murdered by Boko Haram’s quest for Islamic purity in Nigeria. These women are destitute. They have children to feed but no means of providing them the basics of food and shelter.
Here–in this Nigerian nightmare–we have a true test of pure religion. On the one hand, Boko Haram in the name of Islam believes that Christian men should be killed, leaving in the flow of bloodshed a wake of widows and orphans–hoping eventually for a purely Islamic Nigeria. On the other hand, Christians have a clear statement from James 1:27 that pure and undefiled religion does not result from killing opposing ideologies. Instead, pure and undefiled religion is on display when we help these widows and orphans pick up the pieces of their broken lives—somehow helping them reassemble the shattered mess of their lost hopes, dreams, comforts, and expectations.
In the case of Nigeria in particular, Christians have the duty to act. It’s easy to see a widow’s need when we are forced to look into her hungry eyes. It’s harder when the widow lives an ocean away. And yet, our Christian sisters in Nigeria represent the actual intent of James’s admonition. In the New Testament, the first responsibility for widow and orphan care exists within one’s own family (1 Tim 5:4, 8). When the family cannot provide, the church must—starting with widows and orphans within the body of Christ. For James, the pure and undefiled religion of caring for widows and orphans would begin with the church taking care of Christian widows and orphans (for more, see here or here). James has been addressing his readers as “brothers” throughout the letter, signaling that this is from a Christian brother to other Christians.
Furthermore, James spells out that his talking of the poor means primarily poor brothers and sisters in the faith (2:15). He is constantly speaking throughout the letter to brothers and sisters about righteousness and faithful works. Like any believer in the first century, James thought in terms of a covenant community. The church was like family, and who could allow orphans and widows in his own family to starve? No one could if they understood God’s nature. Just listen to Exodus 22:22ff.,
“You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”
How awfully dreadful is the state of those who oppress widows and orphans! I have no doubt that those who murder Christian men in their zeal for a purified religion are under the weight of the wrath of God almighty for causing children to be fatherless and wives to be destitute.
But what about us? Do we not have an opportunity—even an obligation—in the face of this wrongful attempt to purify religion by killing Christians to actually demonstrate the pure and undefiled religion God requires? It’s time for us to come to the aid of Nigerian widows in distress. How pure is our religion? The African widows know.