[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]
I had decided, with a few weeks left of the year remaining, and Christmas round the corner, that I would end this column for 2015 with a mild sounding article like “5 books I have enjoyed this year.” And then the Nhlanhla Nene debacle happened. If, as the saying suggests, “a week is a long time in politics”, then it’s a very long time in South African politics. Three finance ministers and #Zumamustfall protest marches have come and gone in just over this period. My primary concern here is our response as Christians to this issue, and how to relate to the State. Some have suggested that our role is just to pray and honour the God-given authority and office-bearers that make up the state. Some have suggested that we ought to do more, especially in the face of corruption and a significant lack of confidence in our state President, Jacob Zuma. Specifically, some have asked whether we can criticise the government and its office-bearers? Should we continue to pay taxes if there are compelling reasons to prove government’s wasteful expenditure, unchecked corruption and cronyism? How then do we relate to the state? Here is my two cents worth. (I’ll have to do 5 Books I have enjoyed this year, another year, but probably not 2016 either.)
The key passage we often go to in answering this question, and with good reason, is Romans 13. Verses 1-6 state: 1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.
Rebellion against God
What is clear from this passage, in my mind, is the following: God established civil government, and rebellion against civil government is rebelling against God. We ought to submit to civil government, not only out of fear of punishment, but for our conscience sake as well. Finally, because of the work that civil government does, we owe them the following: paying our taxes and revenue, and respecting and honouring the office and office-bearers of civil government. Also of importance here is the context of the time. These rulers were often completely opposed to Christianity, and yet Paul urges the church to submit to, honour and respect their authority. At this point, some would say, there it is, in black and white, in the New Testament, and regardless of the character of the particular office-bearers. In my mind however, while this Scripture does speak about submission to and honouring of authority, does it therefore direct that we must not speak out against government corruption, dictatorship and injustice where this occurs? I don’t believe so.
I will return to this, but before doing so, I will refer to the second oft-quoted text that we often draw from. 1Timothy 2:1-2 states the following: 1 I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. For sure, we ought to pray for all those in authority. It is a ministry that we either underestimate, or believe that this is our sole mandate- when it comes to relating to the state. To put it simply, we should ask the question: For the God-honouring Christian, is the way to relate to the state simply to just submit, honour office-bearers and the office itself, pax taxes and pray? While those are critically important, I believe that there is much more that we can and must do, based on Scripture and church history. Biblically and historically, the church has played a vital role as the prophet to rulers and nations, and it is a prophetic role that I believe we need to recover.
One thing to consider as we decide this is to be mindful of the impact of prevailing worldviews surrounding authority, and how that will either promote or demote honour and respect, as well as righteousness and justice. Both aspects are important and central to how we are to relate to leaders and vice versa. On the one hand we have the prevailing western view of postmodernism. Let us not be naive. This view promotes scepticism and ridicule of authority and often betrays a pro-anarchy leaning. Popular culture and the mainstream media have undoubtedly been influenced by this. Slander, rebellion and ridiculing those in authority have become standard operating procedure. When was the last time you saw a t-shirt with the words ‘I believe in honouring authority’? In contrast, when was the last time you saw the words rebel, renegade and the like. These are not only words imprinted on textiles, but also attitudes imprinted on our hearts and the culture at large. Practically, this relates to slandering and dishonouring office-bearers, of whom the President is a frequent subject, and while it is en vogue, it cannot be compatible with Scripture.
Traditional African response
Then on the other hand, there is the high power distance and almost reverential status given to leaders that is so prevalent in traditional Africa. Effectively, it teaches that it is somehow wrong to speak out against a ruler, resulting in the perpetuation of gross abuses of power. This insists that it is both wrong and disrespectful to even speak out (as Biblical prophets did) in contrast to speak maliciously against leaders, thus propping up dictatorial regimes and giving a Messiah status and blank cheque to liberation leaders and parties to rule as they wish. Locally, this has given rise to the claim by some that the ANC as the so-called liberator of this country, will rule until Jesus comes back. Examples further afield also illustrate the point: Tendai (not his real name), a now unemployed farm worker in Zimbabwe, spoke on why he remains a Mugabe supporter: “I encourage them (my children) to read their lessons from the Bible, for that will give them the strength to continue. And I tell them stories about how I fought in the liberation struggle. I feel the young have forgotten how Zanu-PF brought us our freedom. I teach them that in African culture, we respect our elders. For this reason, I explain, I could never support the opposition for I remember what our president has won for us, even if I don’t agree with everything he’s done since.” Former cabinet minister Didymus Mutasa similarly declared: “In our culture kings are only replaced when they die, and Mugabe is our king.” Strong words indeed…never and only when they die. We ought to reject both the worldview aspects that promote rebellion of authority on one hand, and the other extreme that promotes the perpetuation of unchecked abuse of power with no consequences. The Bible clearly directs the promotion of both the honouring of authority, and the call for leaders to act with righteousness and justice, even with examples of where they can be called to account for their actions.
As vital as the ministry of prayer is, the Bible is full of examples of men and women speaking out against rulers acting wickedly. This is precisely what got Jeremiah and other prophets, right through to John the Baptist in the New testament – into trouble. They challenged the wickedness of rulers. This is what probably saved King David – a Nathan who came to challenge his adultery and murder. This is what saved the Jews in Persia – Esther who went against the law by entering the king’s presence uninvited, to challenge a law that would lead to a Jewish genocide. Then, right through church history, we have Wilberforces, Luthers and Luther King Jnrs, Bonhoeffers and Tutus, who challenged wickedness emanating from state power. In our own situation, the testimony of church leaders from across the theological spectrum at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings was that we did not do enough to stand up against apartheid, and that while we should have taken action we often turned a blind eye. Professor Nico Smith thus testified at the TRC hearings, saying the following: “We first of all acknowledge and confess that for many of us, especially those in the white community, life was very convenient and comfortable under Nationalist Party rule. Many of us therefore couldn’t and wouldn’t see the oppression and violation of millions of people in our country, hear their cries for justice and failed to take action.”What is particularly significant about this is the fact that Romans 13 was almost exclusively used by church and state to defend the gross abuse that apartheid was. In other words, if our theology limits us exclusively to Romans 13, apartheid could be defended, the Nazi Third Reich could be defended, and the most horrendous abuses of power being perpetrated by African and other despots could be defended, by God-fearing Christians who want to do the right thing. Also speaking at the TRC hearings, Billy Modise thus lamented:…We found, that in fact, Christianity was being used to defend wrong practices of the colonial system and of the Apartheid system.” The other issue about Romans 13 is the context. Here, the church was not part of a constitutional democracy that we are a part of today. Prayer was the only avenue for change for the church in that time, but now we are called not only to pray, but to select and reject leaders for public office. We should therefore not only apply Romans 13, but also ask: does the Bible give us any wisdom on whom to select and therefore reject when we have an opportunity (as in the case of our constitutional democracy) to do so?
In Exodus 18, Moses’ father in law gives him some timely advice for how to select leaders. We too who have the privilege and responsibility of electing, selecting and rejecting political leaders could follow his advice. The text reads: Exodus 18:21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain —and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times…
Great questions to ask in selecting and rejecting leaders include the following: Are they capable enough to govern? In as much as we do not want merely nice people as pilots and surgeons, but capable men and women in these key roles, so we should ask the same of current and potential government officials. Do they have the capability to lead? Secondly, do they fear God? While a truly God-fearing leader can be a huge asset to a nation, this can also be applied in a secondary sense even when the leader in not a professing believer. At issue here is their submission. Do they think that they are the final authority or are they also accountable to the law of the land and recognise that they will also have to give an accounting of their leadership. Finally, are they trustworthy men and women who hate dishonest gain? At the essence of political and other forms of leadership is trust. Leaders are thus removed or recalled from office when ‘a vote of no confidence’ is passed by cabinets, parliaments or in a referendum. Has this person demonstrated that they can or cannot be trusted?
In the immediate context of the #Zumamustfall campaign, is there just cause to support such an action? On the one hand, we ought to stand out against the acceptable climate of scoring cheap points by ridiculing and slandering politicians we don’t like. In our current racially charged context, I believe that this can go a long way in bringing reconcialition, revealing about what the real issues are, rather than defending a ‘black’ or ‘white’ person or position and opening up conversations for the Gospel. Imagine if we refused to go along with mudslinging at the next braai, and upon being asked why, that we would open that up for a conversation about honouring God, leaders and people we disagree with, while standing against abuse of power? Furthermore, if we are in support of the current campaign, should we stand against those who have done so using expletive language and those who have called for us to stop paying taxes? I believe so. Such a call comes too close for me to anarchy, especially when there are many other lawful means at our disposal. It leaves with the same feeling I had when we had a guest lecturer come into our law class to deliver a lecture on ‘anarchy as a viable legal system!’ There is much wisdom in the saying that a bad government is better than no government at all.
Having said that, without delving into hearsay, gossip, slander or speculation, are there some factors that could lead us to support the campaign? I will venture to mention a few of these that have been established through our law courts and parliament. Why do I do this? Because everyone must be given a fair hearing, even if we think they are wrong from the outset, and while it is very important to have a media that speaks out against abuses, it too enjoys slander, speculation and gossip, which we as believers must not attach ourselves to, whether we like the President or not. So then, what are possible reasons to lobby for a presidential recall and support the campaign?
List of concerns
Concerning the now infamous upgrades to his Nkandla residence, the investigation by the Public Protector found that the President ‘unduly benefitted’ from such upgrades that ran into millions, and should thus reimburse public coffers. The President has however refused to abide by such recommendations, spending significant time ridiculing his political opponents on the issue in Parliament. Under his watch, the auditor-general has found that billions of state funds are unaccounted for, going to waste or lost through extravagant spending by several government departments and officials. In his personal capacity, though the President was himself not brought before court (which is another issue in itself), the court has held that convicted fraudster Schabir Schaik maintained ‘a generally corrupt relationship’ with the President. Somehow, the Gupta family, who are known to maintain political and personal relations with the President, were authorised to land their hired commercial plane at Waterkloof base, a key national security point, seriously abusing an airport for their personal gain. Official sources insist that the President knew nothing about this, indicating that the President either does not have firm grip on who is doing what, or worse, much worse. The Executive ignored its requirements as a signatory of the International Criminal Court in refusing to detain Sudanese president Omar El Bashir during his last visit here, and subsequently effectively ignored the judiciary’s finding on the issue. The judiciary themselves have also raised concerns about interference and noncompliance by the Executive. The mismanagement of state-owned and supported enterprises has at times reached crisis proportions, with revelations that SAA is again in serious trouble after having lost billions, an Eskom crisis that had a major economic impact, and the revelation that former SABC CEO did not have a matric certificate, let alone suitable qualifications, prompting investigations into cronyism appointments here and elsewhere in government. Lastly on my list, many have questioned the President’s trust and capability to hold the highest office after the sudden removal of the Minister of Finance, the surprise appointment of another, and the subsequent removal and re-appointment days later of the former minister. All this was done without giving reasons before the first removal, and the whole fiasco has also had a negative effect on the rand and public confidence. At best, this decision caused us to ask whether the President is capable of holding such office, suddenly recalling the most strategic minister at a crucial time of economic challenge. At worst, it prompts investigation as to whether there were sinister and personal motives behind it.
In essence, therefore, we need to ask: Do we have a President who is capable, fears God (or is at least accountable to other bodies), and is trustworthy, hating dishonest gain? Has the office of President been so abused that there is just cause to lobby for his recall? On these and other reasons, you decide. Some of those against his recall have argued that the leaders we have had under apartheid were tyrannically worse, and that these are mostly ‘white’ middle class concerns against a President, and the numerous ways in which the President is often ridiculed makes one resistant to any of these claims. In response to this, we should ask: if we tolerate corrupt and inept leadership at the highest level, what culture are we creating for other office bearers and those ambitious for the highest office? If leaders can rule as they wish without being accountable to anyone except their own Party who stand to benefit, is this a middle class concern, or will this affect us all, resulting, as Proverbs says, in a king who tears the country down through bribery?
In conclusion therefore, there is Biblical and historical precedent for us as Christians to be both prayerful and to challenge gross abuse of power in civil government. Nevertheless, are we honourable and respectful to the persons and offices of civil government, even where we take action against abuses of authority? Are we rooted in humble and consistent prayer for them to God, knowing that we too, like the nice boy who suddenly becomes the bullying prefect, can be corrupted by the trappings of power and knowing that no man but God is our ultimate Saviour, and that He can change any circumstance directly or through human agency? As Esther demonstrated, we can have a submissive spirit, call our brothers and sisters to pray and fast for our nation, and when the need arises, take selfless action against the law of the land and the King, if the situation is grave enough, and if God will ultimately be honoured and his Kingdom advanced through momentary civil disobedience for the purpose of greater obedience to God and conscience, then so be it.