“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.” – Proverb 31:8-9 NLT
Every creature created by God has inherent value and dignity. Man has natural rights which were given to him by God at creation, without him having to do anything to gain them. God gave man life, land (for occupational and agrarian purposes), and gave him companionship. Throughout human history, central to every war that was ever fought was the feeling that one’s God given rights were under threat, hence the need to defend them arose. In each and every one of us there is an unquenchable urge to defend these rights even to a point of laying down our lives, because without them man feels stripped naked of his humanity.
Not only is it man’s quest to fight and defend these natural rights, the biblical narrative demonstrates that even God himself always speaks for the protection of these rights. The biblical narrative does not portray God as a being who is interested only in receiving praise, worship and collecting tithes, but as one who is involved in the affairs of man and passes judgment on the ills of society. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus are filled with a litany of instructions on how the social life of his people should be conducted. The book of Amos in particular is a textbook on social justice by itself. In actual fact, the law of God itself is there to regulate social interaction and facilitate social cohesion. Who can forget how God frowned at King Ahab for taking Naboth’s land? How he judged King David for taking Uriah’s wife? The examples are endless.
South Africa has a unique history in as far as understanding the “Christian God” and what is his will for his created beings. In her book, The Role of Missionaries In Conquest, Nosipho Majeke details how the British colonial authority introduced a fake Christian God in South Africa with the ultimate goal of pacifying and domesticating the natives. South Africa was colonized by two different colonial masters, whose strategies were different.
The Dutch colonizers saw no value in preaching the gospel of Christ to the natives, because they believed the natives were beyond salvation; working to try and save them was as futile as trying to drain the ocean. The Dutchmen continued creating perpetual enemies of the African indigenous people. The British on the other hand, had a rather different approach, whose aim was to make the natives subservient to them. There might have been a disparity of views and apparent infighting amongst the colonisers, but we must never lose sight of one basic fact, the fact that they all had a common goal; to confiscate land, subdue the natives and establish white supremacy. The British colonisers found a potent tool in Christianity to achieve their mischievous end. This sentiment is well captured by William Wilberforce when he argued for the British government to send Missionaries to South Africa:
“Christianity teaches the poor to be diligent, humble, patient and obedient, and to accept their lowly position in life. It makes the inequalities between themselves and the rich less galling because, under the influence of religious instruction, they endure the injustices of this world with the hope of a rich reward in the next.” – William Wilberforce | British Politician (1759 -1854)
Photo by Joao Silas on Unsplash
For the next hundreds of years, accepting the Christian God and succumbing to white domination was one and the same thing. Steve Biko’s words, “The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”, came to life in their experience. In many battles fought over land and cattle’s during the time of Ndlambe, Hinstsa and Maqoma, there were a lot of natives who had accepted the Christian God and who were living in the missionary stations. These natives fought alongside their white colonisers because they believed they were fighting on God’s side. The natives, under the bewitching influence of the British missionaries, as Wilberforce predicted it would happen, had accepted their lowly position in life and longed for a better life in the next world.
It took the rise of the African Indigenous/Independent Churches (AIC’s) to change the status quo. Isaiah Shembe, amongst many other African bible students, revolutionised how scripture was interpreted and applied. He advocated for a hermeneutic in which Africanism finds expression. This new hermeneutic allowed the natives to reimagine the God of the bible and reconcile him with the God they had been worshiping before the introduction of this fake god.
Over a period of time, black people in Africa and in the diaspora began to appreciate the God of the bible for who He is. Different Theologies like the Liberation Theology, Black Theology and the Feminist Theology etc., all these theologies have one thing in common, they present a God who identified with the oppressed. This was in sharp contrast to the colonial God, who was championing the course of the oppressor. This was a breath of fresh air is South African political landscape. The Christian community which was in the past used as an army to defend white supremacy, was now positioning itself as agents of social justice and change. It is no coincidence that Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress, had its first meeting in a Methodist Church in Bloemfontein.
The homily of the clergy was embedded with messages of liberation and freedom. The church took it upon itself to decry the injustices that were prevalent in the society and it was not shy to finger the government as a perpetrator.
Scripture such as ““This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Judge fairly, and show mercy and kindness to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. And do not scheme against each other.” – Zechariah 7:9-10 NLT and “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free,” – Luke 4:18 NLT, were frequently used to address social injustices .
This was a very effective tool in dismantling classism and white supremacy. Precisely because the concept of Apartheid , which was a government policy, was not a political construct, but rather theological construct ,that was developed in the Dutch Reformed Church (NG Kerk), who taught that that the natives were sub-human who should not be treated as humans. It was therefore necessary for the Christian community to confront this skewed understanding in scripture. The decisive stance of the Christian community during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s produced three important documents which address directly the issue of social justice i.e. The Kairos Document, The Rustenburg Declaration and The Confession of Belhar.
Over the past few decades in South Africa we have witnessed a shift in how social justice finds expression in the Christian community. After 1994, the church appears to have retired and abdicated its responsibility and is now focused on the prosperity gospel and the performance of “miracles”. It appears that the church has relapsed to the colonial hermeneutic that focuses only on preparing Christians for heaven while maintaining the status quo. The income gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening, the rich continue to enrich themselves through exploiting the masses of the poor, leaving them to languish in poverty. The economy of the country still resides in the hands of the minority, and church seems unphased by that fact as long as the saints are ready for the coming of the Lord.
The church keeps telling the saints that the reason they are not blessed is because they don’t have faith or don’t give enough to God, while the reason for the poverty of the masses of our people is that they have been strategically excluded from the economy and the means of production. It also appears that the church has lost its moral authority in society, it has become plagued with scandal after scandal. Our society is ridden with violence, rape, corruption, child abduction, xenophobia, homophobia, child-headed homes and many other social ills. I believe the church has a very vital role to play in society today. With Christianity in 2015 accounting for 86% (documented) South Africa’s population, meaning at least every week 80% of our people gather to listen to us as ministers of the word.
If only our pastors would stop feeding people rats and performing fake resurrections and begin to address the real issues that are plaguing our society and eating away at our nation then maybe, just maybe we would have a just society. As admonished by Solomon, “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”