Recently South Africa experienced a spate of student protests that has been dubbed by many as historic. During this time I had a number of requests by students for my thoughts on the issue. I remember getting home on the first Sunday after the end of the protests and reading a blog that said something along the lines of, “If your pastor didn’t mention the fees must fall issue they are out of touch”.
During the protests I did not write or say anything, apart from a few conversations with friends. However I was encouraged by a young man in the church who wrote on social media that it is better to be slow to comment in a desire to be faithful to God’s Word than to comment in order to just say something. Having thought about the issue a bit more I have the following thoughts.
The first issue that needs to be set straight is the rhetoric going around ‘Christian circles’ that churches who refused to make this a major issue and stand with students are unfaithful and out of touch. Some have suggested that if we want this generation to take us seriously we need to be passionate about the issues they are passionate about, or speak to the issues that concern them.
The problem I have with this is that it is not exemplified for us by Christ, the early church or the epistles. If we think this was a popular movement, we have never been acquainted with the zealots and popular movement against the Roman government in Biblical Palestine. However we never see Jesus engaging in a hostile way with the Romans, nor do we see Him encouraging resistance to the oppressive Roman government. Jesus says things like, “My kingdom is not of this world otherwise my followers would fight… render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” .He also stops Peter from resisting His arrest.
People are quick to run to all the passages in the Minor Prophets that demonstrate God’s heart regarding social justice and the words of Christ in condemning the Pharisees for their oppressive acts. However it’s important to note that all criticisms against social injustice and oppression occur within the covenant community; within the ranks of those who claim to be God’s people. We do not see the prophets railing against the Assyrians or Babylonians or Romans. Prophets gave God’s people hope of a restored future when they were in exile. This is consistent with the admonition by Paul, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?[i]” The church’s concern is when professed believers, those within the covenant community, are sinning in a particular way.
Not only is it out of sync with the faith of our fathers for the church to be engaging in this issue as an institution, the idea that neglecting the issues that are important to the youth will cause the church to be ineffective in reaching them belies an atheistic air in the church. When I saw pictures of robbed men representing church leaderships marching with students, I saw no distinction between them and any of the political parties who were attempting to high-jack the movement, in the hope of gaining some kind of popularity with the masses. The Lord does not use the same methods as the world; the church has never brought people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and sins forgiven by joining social and political movements. The church has however lost its saltiness and removed from itself the authority of the Scriptures whenever it tries political tactics to increase its number.[ii]
The words from the music group Beautiful Eulogy ring in my ears, “But God does not use the same methods as the world. He chose the foolish and the weak to bring His message to the world[iii]” the foolish and weak methods are preaching the gospel. If people join the body of Christ because the church stands for what they stand for then they will leave when the church doesn’t stand for something they stand for.
What has also fascinated me about those that got excited about this particular social issue extolling God’s Word as their incentive; is their silence the rest of the time about less fashionable social evils. Where were all these cries against the government since 1997 when the murder of the unborn has been legal in South Africa? It seems we should only be concerned about social evils that opposition parties are concerned about.
On the other side of the spectrum I have read some very ill-thought-through statements by Christians who are less affected by popular politics and more affected by cultural conservatism. Statements like, “only in Africa do they destroy stuff to make a point” or “typical protesting to get what they want with a sense of entitlement”. My first encouragement to people who say things like that is to subscribe to an international news site like BBC. These kinds of protests have happened in Germany, Australia and France, Europeans and others also have protested and fought with police and got angry when they felt they were being exploited by high tuition fees. Furthermore just picking the isolated incidents of violent protests and pretending like that typified all the protests is very myopic; the majority of the protests were peaceful. We could no more say that all the students were violent and destructive than we can say all Christians are represented by Westboro Baptist.
Secondly and perhaps more important than an ignorance of world news, using the phrase ‘African or Africa’ in ones denunciation of what happened smacks of hatred and partiality. So not only are we in danger of sounding ignorant, we are in danger of sounding (and being) racist. God hates racism so much that He will send those who idolise their own culture and race to hell for all eternity. If any man says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar and the truth is not in Him[iv].
The third troubling thing I saw from this group was those of my lighter skin pigmentation group who seem not to understand what previously disadvantaged means. To argue that you had to work three jobs to pay for university, or that you can’t afford university as a white person is not really the point. While I don’t want to go into a diatribe about inequality now, allow me to point out that economical disadvantages are the least of the problems that apartheid brought about. Apartheid necessitated families, the building blocks of civilisation, to be separated; generations of children grew up with a single parent (if that), while the other had to travel to be able to earn a meagre income to keep their family going. The ramifications of that cannot be underestimated. There is a lack of generational wealth (not money but wisdom) today that apartheid has stolen. This is ironic since the previous regime claimed to be spiritual descendents of Abraham, yet the promise to Abraham was that his descendents would be a blessing to the nations, not destructive. Yet Apartheid managed to remove even common grace effects of culture and family from black South Africans.
Having said all of this I do still think there is room for protests and for individual Christians to be involved in them. Romans 13 calls for Christians to respect the state, but it does not forbid Christians for being involved in political activities. Protests form an important part of the democratic political system. It is provided for in the system itself. So for young believers who think this is an important issue in the country in which they live and who want to do something to bring about a positive change in the situation in which they live, protesting is a viable option. However Christians will do this in a gracious firm yet godly way; they will not be given to violence in the situation, nor will they disrespect their opponents. They can be vocal and passionate about a serious issue, with a flavour of someone who is a citizen of heaven and lives and protests by different rules.
The words of my friend Neil Cable, from one of his sermons, echo in my ears as I think about these issues and they should inform the Christian perspective on these things, “It’s been 21 years of freedom and democracy, but the scars, inequalities and injustices still run deep and unfortunately will continue to do so, until all lands come before [God’s] presence singing and shouting joyfully to Him saying that it is He Who made us and not we ourselves[v].”
[i] 1 Corinthians 5:12
[ii] I think of the much of the church in SA that became liberal as it abandoned the gospel to make apartheid its main issue. How many of those churches now have abandoned the doctrines of inerrancy, the Scriptures teaching on women in leadership in the church and the Biblical teaching on sexuality.
[iv] 1 John 4:20