Praying for the Pirates

Dear Friends:

Captain Richard Phillips spent his Easter weekend drifting in a lifeboat. He was held hostage by four Somali pirates who seized Captain Phillip’s merchant ship, the Maersk Alabama. His unarmed crew somehow took back the ship and captured a pirate. The pirates were armed and threatened the crew. Captain Williams–wife waiting back home in Vermont with two children in college–gave himself up as a hostage to save his crew. He is a brave man.

He loved his crew and was faithful to his responsibilities as their captain to put his life on the line to save theirs.

As of this writing Captain Phillips is safe, rescued in a daring raid by U.S. Navy Seals that left three of the pirates dead and one in custody,

We recognize Captain Phillips as a gracious and authentic hero, but what would we think if he’d offered his life to the U.S. Navy if it would forgive the pirates and spare their lives? He would be written off as some kind of mad fool, for doing what no one asked him to do and what the law-abiding and patriotic among us wouldn’t want him to do.

The Apostle Paul marveled at the willingness of Jesus Christ to give his life to save a pack of no-account, scruffy sinners who were the enemies of God.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, we will be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Rom. 5:6-11

Jesus died for Captain Phillips and for the pirates who kidnapped him. Shocking as it is, the scandal of the Cross in fact, neither the pirates nor the good captain have a greater claim on Christ’s love and grace. Here’s Paul again, “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ abounded for the many. . . Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:15,18).

Frankly, this teaching of unmerited grace can be a haunting irritation in my life, so I frequently deny it in my thought and actions. I wanted Captain Phillips free and the pirates captured and brought to justice or even destroyed if that what it took. Who can really argue with that thinking? It would be my shame as a responsible human being and a citizen of Captain Phillip’s country if I didn’t feel that way.

These pirates weren’t nice guys. In the aftermath of the rescue that killed three of them, one of their colleagues on shore told the Associated Press, “This is unfortunate action and our friends should have done more to kill the captain before they were killed. This will be a good lesson for us.” It is impossible to feel sympathy for someone who thinks and acts like that.

But niceness and sympathy are not qualifications for the receipt of mercy. The standard of Christ’s mercy is neither “touchy-feely” reaction to a sad story or anger at wrong. The standard isn’t even an open and grateful heart in the recipients of the mercy. The standard of Christ’s mercy is exacting to us precisely because it is unlimited and does not allow us the “dodge” of justification.

Jesus foreclosed our careful theological parsing of merit for mercy when he said early in his ministry, “I say to you that listen, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes your coat do not withhold even your shirt. . . Love your enemies, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-29, 35-36).  He then went on to live out this truth by dying on the Cross to save those who hated him.

I betray the love of Christ when I wish only good for the Captain and death for the pirates. Oh, that my feelings were only restricted to Somali pirates, and not the youth in the low-rider Honda Civic that cuts me off on the freeway, or the harsh-speaking, abusive adversary on the other side of a contentious case, or frankly anyone who stands as an obstacle to my plans and purposes. In such circumstances, a pride and selfishness is revealed in me that betrays Christ every bit as much as Judas’ short-sighted manipulation to obtain a strong, triumphant king for Israel rather than surrendered acceptance of the humble Savior.

In Jesus’ telling of the story of the great wedding banquet, the king is insulted by those self-absorbed with their possessions and businesses and is violently rejected by the self-important. Yet, in his gracious will he deems everyone on the streets worthy of his dinner and hospitality including both people acknowledged to be “good,” and the malicious degenerates that Matthew blandly describes as “bad” (Matt. 22:1-10).

The ramifications of this encompassing love of God for the unlovely are radical. Paul noted that this love in our heart creates a confidence in us that causes us to forget about ourselves and our interests and to look deeper than the outward appearances of others with a loving fervor for their salvation even though others may think us crazy for doing so (2 Cor. 5:11-13). It is in this love and this love alone that we find our identity, our calling and our ministry as ambassadors for God’s reconciliation to sinful men and women who are so at odds with his kind intentions for their lives. Paul wrote:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who dies and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:14-20).

Here is something worth pondering–what does it mean to be an ambassador for Christ entrusted with the message of reconciliation of the selfish and the lawless to God? I don’t mean as a theological point for debate, but as a practical reality on the coast of Somalia. If you could have spoken of Christ to the pirates holding Captain Phillips what would you have told them?

There is a temptation to say, “I understand that you live in an anarchic, impoverished, suffering nation and you are only doing what you need to do to survive. Let’s send you more financial aid and food so you don’t have to steal, kidnap and murder anymore.” That reaction would ignore the plain reality that beggars are not thieves that take others property, livelihood and lives and make multimillion dollar ransom demands. The Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal” does not contain a loophole.

The sociological excuse and solution also glosses over the selfish depravity that dwells in the human heart. That selfishness seeks preservation of human existence through exploitation rather than through the transformation of unconditional love and faith that are the necessary virtues of freedom and community. It is not that we should not help the desperate and the violent, but that we should do so solely from who we are in Christ.

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). No other motivation for service is necessary and no other motivation is possible without a slide into exploitation from the perspective of the conditioning of the good upon merit.

It was Jesus’ love that put him on the cross, not our worth or our need, and it is his expressed will that we share his love in the same way:

The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters. For this is the message that we heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. . . We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or a sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (1 John 3:10).

As much as I, an experienced lawyer, would like to find a loophole in that test, there isn’t one, not even in the claim that those who don’t share my belief in Christ are not my brother or sister. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asked the lawyer seeking to distinguish the deserving and the undeserving. The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).

It was our fervent prayer that God would see to Captain Phillip’s rescue and return to his family, safe and sound. That prayer for a real hero rose easily from our hearts to our lips. But what prayer rises from the truth that “Christ died for the ungodly.” That is the question that tests our hearts about those pirates and while a good man like Captain Phillips is a rarity, pirates of one kind or another are always with us.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,


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