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State of the Nation (South Africa): A Pastor’s Response

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Since January 2015 I’ve had a growing number of people expressing serious concern over the state of our nation, asking: how must we respond as Christians? The chaotic Opening of Parliament on 12 February has increased the volume of concern. Some want to emigrate. As a pastor I feel pressed to respond by giving our local church some (biblical) perspective and guidance. This is a big issue to address in one talk; hence this headline overview.

I’m a pale-male middle-class South African, fully aware of the (historical) baggage that it represents. But that doesn’t disqualify me from addressing this issue. Besides, to do a little ‘foolish boasting’ as Paul did (2Cor 12:1f), I spent 12 years involved in Soweto working in the name of Jesus for justice and reconciliation (1983–1995), repenting from my racist conditioning and putting my body on the line, taking a strong stand against Apartheid. My book Doing Reconciliation tells the story, with the biblical theology and praxis, of those years. Since 1994 I’ve continued to take a consistent prophetic stance for reconciliation and righteousness in society, in our body politic, without fear or favour. 

State of The Nation 

The state of the nation was not heard in President Zuma’s address, it was seen in what happened at the Opening of Parliament. Was the shocking disorderly happening not a God-given picture-parable (a rebuke?) of the chaotic state of our nation? Did you/do you see it? One would have to be blinded by political ideology, mostly ANC propaganda, not to see and acknowledge that we’re in dire straits in this country. How ironically prophetic to see members of parliament calling out for drinking water, demanding ‘service delivery’ in the face of (parliamentary administration’s) failure. Blocking communication signals, using police to forcefully remove parliamentarians, is but the tip of the growing unconstitutional iceberg that threatens to sink SA in our dark night of load-shedding.

We must not ‘rant and rave’, rather address the (ethical) issues; but all I can say is that my heart breaks before God with what’s happening. The many great gains we’ve made since 1994, to be acknowledged and celebrated, are being reversed by what’s happening in our body politic. How we have fallen from the moral heights of the God-given miracle of democratic change in 1994, with the just rule of the reconciling Mandela, to the murky depths of the corrupt rule of Zuma. No matter how much our president amiably chuckles with denials of any wrongdoing (his hand-picked security cluster protects him at every turn while lower officials take the fall), scandal after scandal, coming thick and fast, shows growing unaccountability, lack of transparency, destabilization of public institutions, and centralisation of power. “By their fruit you shall know them” (Matt 7:15-20). Zuma’s rule and reign has clearly released a corrupt spirit that has not only given permission, but has empowered corruption at ALL levels of society. Few have the character to say “no!”, let alone stand up against it (him) and pay the price. The alarm bells are clanging as loud as they did when Mugabe began to destroy his nation’s economy and infrastructure, setting himself up as a corrupt political dictator, scattering his people far and wide.   

A Kingdom of God Perspective 

The biblical story is simple: The Creator is God of the nations. They are accountable to him. But rebellious spiritual powers subvert earthly rulers against God and his ethical demands – given to prosper the nation (see Psalm 2). To defeat evil and redeem the nations, God entered human history, becoming King in his Messiah. Jesus inaugurated God’s Rule and Reign on earth, confronting evil and advancing God’s Government in spiritual power, like yeast in dough leavening all nations. But it is not yet consummated in its full socio-economic-political-eco reality, which Jesus will do when he returns. Until then, between the times of Christ’s first and second coming, we’re in serious spiritual warfare.

People who believe in Jesus (follow him and obey his teachings) enter God’s Kingdom now, becoming its representative witness and instrument of advancement in society. Christ-followers live simultaneously under two governments; we’re citizens both of God’s Kingdom and our nation. Thus the Church-State relationship is one of critical engagement and partnership: to the extent the State’s policies and actions uphold God’s ‘rule of law’ (ethical values), the Church supports the State. But when they violate ethical norms, we must challenge and resist the government – for God’s sake, for the nation’s sake, for the oppressed poor who suffer most when governments become arrogant and unaccountable. Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Church is the conscience of government and society, upholding the 10 Commandments (don’t lie, steal, envy, murder, lust, etc) that God gave humanity, so we don’t destroy each other!

Kingdom people (Christ’s Church) are God’s healing and hope in the world. God intends for ALL of society’s diversity of race, class, political ideology, brokenness and pain, to be reconciled in his ‘impossible community’ of reconciliation (see Rev 5:9-10, 7:9-10). It happens as we submit to his Kingship: wherever HIS will is done on earth as in heaven, his Kingdom HAS come (Matt 6:10). The Church in all its faults and divisions is still God’s present proto-type project of that consummated Kingdom when Jesus returns (the ANC will not rule until Jesus comes. God heard that arrogant claim! Be afraid, ANC! Be very afraid!) My point is that, despite the state of the nation (and the Church), God is still in charge, Jesus still has “all authority in heaven and on earth”, and he’s given it to us to go and take his Rule to all nations (Matt 28:18). He removes authority from rulers and gives it whomever he wills (Lk 1:51-53). Therefore, Kingdom people are irrepressibly buoyant in their faith and hope in God, like a cork in the turbulent sea. We may be overwhelmed for a moment, but we always come up to breathe the Breath of Heaven (“prayer”), believing God again and again for the impossible. When evil destroys the foundations of society, what can the righteous do? We must look to God on THE throne in heaven’s parliamentary court, and ask for mercy and intervention… and trust him (see Psalm 11).

But, if God is in charge, WHY doesn’t he simply stop Mugabe, or Zuma, in their tracks as he stopped P.W. Botha (he had a stroke, bringing F.W. de Klerk to power to help dismantle Apartheid)? The reason, I believe, is the Church’s failure to be the Church God intends. (The Church did intervene sacrificially in an intercessory role in our nation’s crisis – part of the miracle of 1994). When the Church doesn’t fulfill her God-given role in society God allows evil forces to gain the upper hand as a judgement on the nation and the Church. We are God’s “salt and light” in society (Matt 5:13-16). If the salt loses its saltiness and sting (our presence preserves society from rot, making it palatable to God), and if the light is hidden under the hood (‘don’t meddle’, ‘we’re helpless’, ‘these blacks’, etc… so ‘come into the larger’ or ‘cut your losses and go’, or ‘get violent to be heard’, etc), then the salt and light has lost it’s effect and is thrown out on the rubbish dump to be “trodden under foot”, i.e. to come under judgement (see Is 28:3). How are you responding to the state of our nation? What is our salty role, our enlightening response, leading the way in the nation?

A Christian Response – Our Five-Fold Role in Society 

  1. Presence: Our particular presence in all places in society is the most powerful ‘weapon’ God has given us to defeat evil and further his Rule and Reign. We offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God (Rom 12:1-2), the first piece of earth where HIS will is done as it is in heaven. We make our presence felt by putting our bodies on the line for truth, righteousness and justice; especially at certain times and places, crossing societal divides as witness to God’s preferred society. ‘Witness’ in Greek is martyria (Acts 1:8); i.e. to witness to Jesus and his Kingdom is to die to self (white martyrdom) and be prepared to die physically (red martyrdom) for Christ’s sake, for righteousness and truth. Born-again Christians who work in politics, in the ANC and all parties, have a grave responsibility to stand up for truth without fear or favour. God and history will hold them directly accountable, as happened during the Apartheid era.
  2. Prayer: Our second most powerful weapon of warfare against evil in society & politics is prevailing prayer. Do we realize the astonishing power we’ve been given in prayer? We’re invited to rule and reign with Christ over spiritual and political powers through prayer. When we pray the Spirit intercedes in us, with “groans”, as per God’s mind and will… we enter into Jesus’ intercession at the Father’s right hand (Rom 8:26-27, 34). Paul teaches the first priority in Church is to pray/intercede “for kings and all those in authority, so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness” (1 Tim 2:1f). Does that describe how we currently live in SA? Is it a failure of our prayer? We must pray for good government, for God to raise up righteous and competent rulers, and expose and remove from power those who are corrupt, self-serving and incompetent.
  3. Proclamation: Our third most powerful means to advance God’s Kingdom and defeat evil is to persistently proclaim, loud and clear, without fear and favour, God’s good news in King Jesus. Do we realize the power entrusted to us in “The Gospel”. We’ve been given The Message, the information and knowledge that can literally save people, societies, nations, and the planet! No exaggeration! To preach God’s Word, his truth as revealed in and through Jesus Christ, day in and day out, wherever you are, is to teach and disciple the nations. We must not be ashamed of Jesus (Mk 8:38) and The Gospel (Rom 1:16); it’s the power of God to save all who believe. It convicts people of their sin, causing them to confess and repent, spiritually regenerating and enabling them to live a godly life. Obviously, you can’t preach the good news and be bad news. You have to live the truth, have integrity (not lying and stealing, etc) in order to speak the truth!
  4. Pastoring: To enfold people who believe into God’s local community, and patiently pastor them in the ways of the Lord, is to defeat evil and advance God’s Rule in society. Scott Peck, in his book on community, said that is the most revolutionary thing we can do in our world today. Really? Yes! Do we realize the power God has given us in his covenant community? The Church is God’s Family of love and acceptance, where our ‘stuff’ can come out and be healed, where we grow into Christ’s character. We must patiently and lovingly shepherd ALL sectors of society, all races and cultures, the poor and the rich, the ANC and DA card-carrying members, the refugees from other African nations and the middle-upper class who may want to emigrate. The Church is God’s alternative society, a model of heaven on earth, not a mirror of divided dysfunctional society. To form real Christian community – and be formed in it – is to profoundly subvert and confront corrupt powers, becoming very salty and full of light!
  5. Protest: The pastoral leads to the prophetic. In caring for ordinary people in their daily life struggles one comes face to face with the issues oppressing the nation. Then we pray, and stand up and shout from the rooftops (Is 58:1f, Matt 10:26-28). We protest, lobby and work for righteousness, truth and justice, with all the means available to us, never resorting to unethical means, nor to violence. We must courageously expose corruption, untruth, lies, stealing, cheating, and confront political powers that act in any of these ways. In my view, we must pray and vote the ANC out of power. Lastly, if need be, we resist evil by civil disobedience for conscience sake (Acts 4:18-20), being prepared for the consequences, even if it’s imprisonment and/or death.
    God have mercy on South Africa… God bless Africa!

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