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Response to #RUReferencelist: Overcoming evil with good
As I write, just down the road from our offices, student protests are swelling in the midst of another tumultuous week on Rhodes University campus. A number of students have just been tear-gassed, arrested and possibly shot at with rubber bullets for barricading a public road that runs partly though the campus. I am overhearing a conversation in our office of a staff member advising her student sister about what to do in case she gets tear-gassed. How did things come to this?
On Sunday, April 17 presumably a student anonymously published a now well publicised list of male students who had allegedly committed rape against their fellow students without having faced any disciplinary action, let alone police incarceration. What was significant about this was that it was published on Rhodes University’s ‘confessions’ Facebook page that allows users to post comments anonymously. Not surprisingly, #RUReferencelist went viral. A group of students decided to confront the alleged perpetrators in the early hours of Monday, April 18. The perpetrators were filmed as they were confronted by the students, with one managing to flee and another trying to secure police protection. Since then, protests have ensued, with students demanding an end to what has been described as a rape culture, and the police and the University management also being accused of not taking effective action against the over 20 reported incidences of rape on the campus this year alone, without any accused persons facing a criminal sanction, while the victims’ lives have been destroyed.
Crisis of sexual violence
Firstly, it hardly needs to be said that we have a mammoth crisis of sexual and other forms of domestic violence in our nation. As the church, we have often been silent where we should have spoken up more, myself included. When I was a law student, I did an elective research paper on the difficulties of abused children bringing forth evidence in court. It was heartbreaking (and therefore memorable) to say the least. University students, like anyone else, are not immune from this ongoing pandemic. Yet unlike other sectors, students have raised the issue loudly, even going so far as staging a semi-naked topless protest on the edge of campus.
We as Christians should not be silent about the realities of rape. I feel this especially so for a number of reasons. We should not be silent for the victims’ sake. We are all scarred through the pains of life, but an event such as rape is among the worst. While I have not been a victim, a few of my friends have. Through the trauma they have experienced, as believers, they have courageously taken their pain to Christ. It is truly a sign and a wonder. Who else can heal a traumatised heart like our Lord can? Who else can restore what was stolen? Christ alone can do this. As Isaiah declares: Surely he carried our griefs and borne our sorrows. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in a justice system and for the law to take its course. I also believe however that even if every unjust violation received due punishment, that would not be nearly enough to restore the victim. Only grace can do that. As Romans declares…. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more. Yes, we must not be silent for the victims for the sake of justice, but more than that, we should not be silent so we can point them to the only One who has carried their grief and come out victorious.
Turning to the alleged and true offenders, those accused of rape must be brought to justice, a truth that unfortunately happens far too rarely in this and other such crimes. This justice must allow both sides to bring their case, and the accused must not be presumed guilty until found guilty. In this particular instance, publishing the names of people accused but not yet convicted, of rape appears to be unjust and defamatory in so far as someone’s character has been judged without a trial. In the heat of the moment, and with widespread cases of rape going unpunished, a sense of anger is understandable. However, we should not substitute our legal system with ‘justice’ of the majority. As bad as things are, they could get much worse. The Bible holds all these issues – justice for the victim and perpetrator regardless of fear or favour, a fair trial, innocent until proven guilty, and justice not vengeance – in high regard, and so should we. In addition to justice taking its course, as the church we must not forget that Christ also came for the rapist, and they too must hear and hopefully live out the gospel.
Between a rock and a hard place
Regarding social activism, students have undoubtedly brought a pertinent issue to the fore. Yet if my ultimate goal is the Lordship of Christ in all things, I will find myself caught between a rock and a hard place and here’s why. With Christ as my Lord, and His way as my way, I believe that both the pursuit of justice must be advanced, and the manner of my pursuit must not be unjust to those who, for whatever reason, do not support my cause. In this case, these may be passers-by, students, lecturers and management. This is so because I not only want to advance a particular cause, I want to advance a particular Kingdom. Romans 12:17 and 21 are instructive here: 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone…21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. In view of police arresting students protesting against rape by blockading a public road, I am aware that this will not make popular reading and I cannot speak as an eyewitness. But what I can declare is this: under Christ’s Lordship we are to have a high regard and honour for the law and for authority, and law enforcement must uphold the law in a manner that is reasonable and restorative of law and order. This both/and also goes for student and management/academic relationships. Under Christ, my concern must be both for the justice of the violated as well as academics who are coerced to stop lectures under duress. Rape is not just. Coercion, intimidation and disrespect are not honouring and dare I say it, also sinful in God’s eyes. Both issues are vital if we want to truly honour God and advance His Kingdom.
Lastly and most importantly, the gospel alone goes to the root of overturning a rape culture and other giants affecting our nation. The gospel goes beyond telling men to stop rape; it transforms that human heart that would otherwise remain bound by lust, alcohol abuse and other dimensions of the sinful nature. According to Christ, the problem is not only the outward action; it begins with looking at a woman lustfully and living for oneself. This you cannot legislate. Truly transforming a culture is thus impossible without the transformation of the human heart, and only the gospel can do that. In the midst of all the challenges of our campuses and our nation, we dare not relegate this to an afterthought. In the power of the gospel, may we not be overcome with evil, but may we overcome evil with good.
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