[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]
At the foundation of xenophobia or genocide is an underlying narrative that dehumanises the other. Victims of slavery, genocide and xenophobic violence have been called ‘less than human’, ‘cockroaches’ or other demeaning labels such as ‘kwerekwere’ in our case. This is not random labelling, but an attempt to dull our conscience in the face of these acts. We must not be naive and leave this at the door of human behaviour alone — this is a ploy from the pit of hell itself. The root of xenophobic violence and civil strife in our nation is not merely due to ignorance or unemployment. It goes much deeper than that.
How then does the Gospel impact xenophobia? Firstly, the Gospel redefines our primary identity. Much of the refrain against xenophobic violence has carried within it the following logic: How can we treat our African brothers this way? Look at all they did for us during the struggle againstApartheid… To be sure, we must commend every effort to speak out against the horrific acts of xenophobic violence. And yes, we must act in a brotherly way to our fellow Africans, and remember the contribution of Africa in dismantling apartheid. But what if these acts of xenophobia were committed against foreign nationals (such as Bangladeshis) who are not of African origin and may not have contributed to the demise of apartheid? What would be the rationale then? This question is not just an academic one, but a very real one in view of the current climate in our diverse land.
I am a Christian
This is where the Gospel comes in, in a very real way. The Gospel declares that before I am an African/South African/Afrikaans/English/Xhosa/Zulu, I am a Christian. The Gospel also reveals that everyone, regardless of ethnicity, status, religion or gender, is worthy of respect because we are all made in the image of God. This I believe, forms a much more rigorous and solid foundation for our nation (and every nation) to treat all citizens, minorities and immigrants. The Apostle Paul thus writes to the Gentile members of the church at Ephesus, reminding them (and us) about our most important change: that we were once foreigners without hope, but now through Christ, we are fellow citizens with previously hostile enemies, and one new man with them, through Christ:
Eph 2:12-19 thus declares: 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…Furthermore, the Apostle Paul challenges the church at Colossae to put on the new self, which he describes as follows: Colossians 3:11…Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. The Gospel does not annihilate ethnicity or culture, but what it certainly does is dethrone either of these as god, replacing them with a Christ above culture.
Why is this change of primary identity so important? One reason is this: when we truly embrace the Gospel, we embrace a new primary identity, and when we embrace a new primary identity, we embrace a new primary agenda. What both the statues saga as well as this xenophobic violence have exposed is a growing cynicism about whether South Africa is, or can be, a rainbow nation. Why the connection between identity and agenda? Here’s why. If I primarily see myself as pan-African, I will pursue a pan-Africanist agenda. If I primarily see myself as a nationalist, I will pursue a nationalist agenda. If I primarily see myself as a member of a certain tribe, I will pursue a tribalist agenda.
History reveals that what the ANC had to do to ganrner national, grassroots support was to get people from seeing themselves through a tribal lens to an African lens, and only then could they pursue their anti-apartheid agenda.
Jesus, in bringing the Gospel, was simultaneously also changing the agenda of his Jewish apostles from being Israel-centric and Israel-focused to being Gospel-centric, with a message of reconciliation not only between Jewish man and God, but God and all men, and Jew to all men. Identity was no longer marked by circumcision, but by faith in Christ, allowing the agenda to change as well.
Similarly, we now have an agenda, reconciling man to God and man to man, regardless of our ethnicity. As Paul urged the Corinthian church: 2 Cor 5:18-20 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. This is our agenda, and must remain so, whether or not ‘the rainbow nation’ has become passé in the world’s eyes or not. A Gospel-shaped identity gives birth to a Kingdom-focused agenda, regardless of political correctness and growing cynicism. In God’s eyes, reconciliation will always be on His agenda in South Africa.
A Kingdom agenda must be full of action
Naturally, a Kingdom agenda must be full of action. For those of us not directly involved in communities affected by xenophobic violence, I must admit that it is easy to remain uninvolved and unmoved. While this is normal for our world, this is not the nature of the Gospel of the Kingdom. We must be moved and we must act. At this point, I find the parable of the Good Samaritan particularly challenging. I can identify with both the questioning teacher of the Law and the religious but inactive ‘villains’ in the parable, because I can get so caught up in doing my own thing, or simply being unaffected by others, thereby sidestepping my neighbour in trouble. Furthermore, times like this challenge whether we as the Church are all about our agenda or God’s. I recently heard a pastor in a large city lament the fact that he could never engage in what sounded like a vital city-wide initiative, because his fellow pastors were only really interested in what would benefit their own ministry. This is such a moment, where we as Christians will reveal, by our actions or our passivity, whether we are interested in building Christ’s Kingdom or our own.
What action is necessary? Firstly, we must pray. At a recent prayer meeting for this crisis, I experienced the truth of this statement by John Bunyan: “You can do more than pray after you’ve prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” Few things sensitise our hearts to the burdens of Jesus like prayer. Another reason for prayer is the truth that this crisis, the statue defacing crisis, and virtually every other crisis we face will not be solved through natural means. At the root of these issues is an agenda for this nation from the kingdom of darkness and without a spiritual response the darkness will prevail. The best that the government can do is the prevention of violence and the use of adequate law. As Martin Luther King declared tongue-in-cheek: It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important. But civil government is impotent, by its very nature, no matter how efficient, to quell the violent factory of the human heart. Jesus unequivocally declared: Matt 15:19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder…If we dare not ignore prayer, the same could be said about the preaching of the Gospel and the discipleship that follows. We must resist the temptation to think that these weapons will not be useful here. A serious study of genuine revivals will reveal the opposite: that prayer, salvation and discipleship are at the centre of transforming the human heart and therefore society at large. This is not in opposition to practical acts of kindness to affected foreign nationals. On the contrary, both feed into the other. We applaud, support and encourage everyone involved in humanitarian relief, but we dare not neglect prayer and the Gospel message. Finally, we ought to pray that God would stir His Church in this nation to walk in its true identity and agenda, bringing redemption and hope out of this crisis.
A list of churches that are helping victims of xenophobia. You can add to the list by posting a comment below.
Glenridge Church Durban — www.glenridge.co.za