South Africa is again reeling from a fresh wave of xenophobic attacks which started in Durban and at the time of writing of this blog, have spread to Johannesburg. Perhaps of greater concern than the attacks themselves is the growing xenophobic sentiment, even among educated citizens. Naturally, many issues have been stirred in the public square, and a good number of those who would consider themselves too civilized to throw a brick have found a platform to express their anger in a more dignified manner. Thankfully, amidst the fog of hatred and frustration, many South Africans are standing for unity – whether through personal morality, religious conviction or belief in an African ‘brotherhood’. In this blog I’d like to add my voice to the discussion as a Christian, a ‘foreigner,’ an African and a minister of the gospel.
DO NOT BE SURPRISED
In 1 Peter 4:12 the apostle addresses persecuted Christians in the early church in this way, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” Although the context is different, I believe the sobering call to “not be surprised… as though something strange were happening” applies to us at this time. Like many of you I’ve followed media reports closely since this fresh spark of anti-foreign/African violence began more than a week ago now, and like you I often find myself being surprised by what we as human beings are capable of – deep anger, violence, destruction and even cold blooded murder in the streets. I find myself asking, “How can people be so hateful and barbaric?”
And yet when we read the first chapter of Romans we see that actually, when humanity turns from God, this kind of behaviour is “par for the course” as they say. Try verse 29 for example, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.” Here’s my point: In our attempt to find answers to the xenophobic psyche, we must not ‘over-personalise’ sin to the South African context, and in particular to those throwing bricks in the street. Man’s problem is sin and it’s universal; it may have localised expressions, but it is not ‘local by nature’ in the sense that “they have it” over there and “we don’t” – whoever “they” and “we” happen to be. Your expression of it may appear more civilized to you, but it is no less destructive – for you and for society at large.
WHERE IS THE CHURCH?
The main thing I want to talk about though is the age old question of the role of the church in society. I acknowledge that political and tribal leaders have a huge responsibility in society and I’m confident that others more qualified than myself are attending to this matter. I’m trying here to take a leaf out of Jesus’ life and ministry where interestingly he paid very little attention to the political institution of his day, as pervasive and oppressive as it was towards the Jewish nation. He didn’t attend political rallies or make appointments with Roman governors. He even steered clear of the Jewish religious establishment which would have been an obvious power base had he won through there. Rather he seemed focussed on one thing – Establishing a new kingdom on the earth, to which the church would be given the “keys.” (Matt 16:19). So, the responsibilities of political authorities notwithstanding, I’d like to speak to the church – and in particular to paint a portrait of three types of church, which will hopefully provoke us as Christians to play our part in society
THE SILENT CHURCH
The first portrait is that of the silent church. This church is not silent because there’s nothing going on – far from it! In actual fact, it’s a very busy church; lots of programmes and events, singing and preaching, ‘mid-week-ing’ and Bible studying – and as long as we can do these good things without being disturbed, then all is well. Why then do I call this a silent church? Well she’s silent because all that singing and preaching is only heard within her walls. All that comforting and ‘one-anothering’ is reserved only for her members. Fires are burning all around her – poverty, HIV/AIDS, anger, hatred, xenophobia – but as long as her meetings and rituals are not disturbed, all is well in the silent church. Besides, there’s a simple solution to all these societal ills; just shut the door on your way in and it all goes away.
THE REACTIVE CHURCH
There is a more noble church just down the road, just as busy but not as silent. When sudden flares appear in society, she is able to put aside some of her rituals and focus some time, energy and financial resources to fighting the fire. The minister may even disrupt a precious preaching series to speak into the issues at hand so that the members are at least aware that God cares about these flames (and the people they’re consuming as they rage on and on). This is commendable, and I wish that more of us would react to society’s pain more readily than we do, but there is one more portrait to aspire to – and it’s the one that I personally feel the church in South Africa (self included), is least awake to.
THE PROPHETIC CHURCH
Xenophobia doesn’t just suddenly appear from nowhere, it’s a symptom of a sick (unwell) society. A few months from now, this will all be old news (one hopes!) and it’ll be back to the battle of the ‘haves’ vs ‘have-nots;’ this tribe against the next, men vs women or blacks vs whites vs Indians vs ‘coloureds’ (That’s politically correct in Africa by the way) and so on. Basically, hatred and division along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality etc is common to man. Now, in a nation like South Africa, where the lines of (especially racial) segregation were drawn so clearly and so forcefully for so long, the role of the church can’t just be to react charitably to occasional ‘flare ups’ in the so-called ‘Rainbow Nation.’
Surely the role of the church is to present to society a compelling picture of a united humanity; nation to nation, tribe to tribe, people to people. A community where the ‘dividing walls of hostility’ (Eph 2:14) are not just white-washed (no pun intended) so that we can all ‘just get along,’ but rather are completely destroyed through the power of the gospel so that we become a real family – God’s family on the earth. For as long as there are ‘black churches’ and ‘white churches,’ South African, Zimbabwean and Nigerian churches, churches for rich people and churches for poor people – what credibility does the church have in speaking against such issues as racism and xenophobia? And maybe that’s why we remain silent, because we have nothing to say. We’re politely racist and our xenophobia is wrapped in pretty church jargon (Like “We love the nations!” – do we really know what that means?) We’re no good to the ‘world’ because under the hood we’re just like the ‘world.’ (If you’re different then don’t worry, I’m not talking to you)
Where is the church that will go beyond silence and charitable reaction to prophetic demonstration? What kind of gospel are we preaching to ourselves that somehow manages to keep the ‘dividing walls’ firmly intact? Who invented it and why do we like it so much?
You may think I’ve been a bit harsh on the church, and maybe I have – but in truth, I’d rather face an ‘angry prophet’ than a disappointed Lord, for make no mistake, we shall all give an account one day. And guess what, every Christian will have to give account, not just leaders. It’s not enough to say, “Well my leaders didn’t prioritise these things.” You have a Bible and the Holy Spirit – work out your own priorities!
Friends, we’re living in a nation and a continent that’s in crisis. If Jesus thought that the political leaders where the answer, he wouldn’t have bothered with twelve ‘ordinary, unschooled’ fishermen. God is looking to the church, not the ‘corridors of power’ to bring about his kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt 6:10). Do the Scriptures not say, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Ehp 3:10)
Come on church, let’s be who we are!
Your brother in Lord