Join the conversation, Christians! (Part 3) — Craig Bailie

CALL TO ACTION (PHOTO: Sophie Smith Photography),

Craig Bailie questions whether the Church in South Africa is appropriately engaged in the necessary conversations surrounding issues of social justice. In the third of a 3-part series he shares insights from sessions at the Stellenbosch University Faculty of Theology Winter School. — See Part 1 and Part 2

The last of the three events noted in the opening paragraph of this series was the Stellenbosch University Faculty of Theology Winter School, held from June 5 to 7.

If the message given at the breakfast that I attended on June 1 sparked in me a fire of hope for the South African Church, in relation to social justice issues (see Part 2), then the Winter School fanned the flames.

The theme for this year’s Winter School was Justice, Reconciliation and Unity: Rediscovering the Power of the Gospel.

The number of people in attendance at this year’s school, relative to my experience in previous years, underscores the importance and relevance of this theme.

Long way to go
If any of the attendees at the Winter School were in doubt over the finality that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought to the task of racial and ethnic healing in the country, the message of the Winter School will have removed all doubt and substituted it with the certainty that South Africans still have a long way to go.

As I sat through the daily devotions, keynote addresses and my chosen parallel sessions, I felt more and more like I, together with fellow Christians in attendance, were doing Church rather than attending “school” per se.

The Winter School was a component of what I believe Church should look like – a component that I believe must find greater presence and expression within and among local congregations of the South African Church.

This component encourages and allows for biblically-based dialogue on challenging issues of social justice.

The inclusion of such a component in church practice will be necessary if Christians sincerely wish to develop a greater understanding of the challenges facing South African society, and if Christians sincerely wish to practice the Gospel in a manner that has the impact that I believe Jesus intended.

The inclusion of such a component in church practice will be necessary if Christians have a sincere care for those in need; a sincere care for the kind of racial reconciliation necessary in South Africa – a reconciliation that can only grow from the holistic preaching and exercising of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Participants of the Winter School — and particularly those who attended as members of the South African Church –therefore have a significant responsibility to take back to their local congregations the life-giving messages presented during the school.

Below are some of my observations of each of the three keynote addresses presented over three days, in addition to my views on each of the parallel sessions that I attended.

Keynote # 1
Keynote # 1: Eleanor Du Plooy, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) – A Generation Seeking Justice
In her message, Du Plooy explained that reconciliation has come under fire and been met with suspicion in the recent past, where the underprivileged communities, disadvantaged along racial lines, have come to interpret it as assimilation, appeasement, passive acceptance of the status quo, and unity without cost.

In communities of privilege, where social justice involves cost rather than gain, members of these communities have generally delinked social justice and reconciliation, when in fact they cannot be mutually exclusive.

The cost paid by Christ on the cross, as a means by which to reconcile people to God, serves as the strongest possible argument for, and example of, the inseparability of justice and reconciliation. Many of South Africa’s privileged whites who benefited from apartheid and who are part of the Church still need to ask themselves, before God, and in consultation with their black brothers and sisters, whether justice has been done in a post-1994 South Africa.

If South Africa is to achieve real reconciliation, more of us privileged whites need to give of ourselves in seeking justice for the victims of injustice. What exactly it means to give more of ourselves must be determined in the sacred spaces of conversation that I am advocating for in this article.

Where the South African Church has failed to create these spaces, it has abdicated its responsibility, allowing politicians to capitalise on and exploit the consequential void. The creation and facilitation of the sacred conversation cannot depend on any inherently political institution – be it the state, a government, a political party or any politician.

In her address, Du Plooy asked the following question: “Who in our nation is offering an appealing vision of the future?”

If we as Christians believe our God to be a sovereign creator, it follows that His chosen body, where there is “neither Jew nor Gentile”, must take responsibility for offering such a vision, not just in word, but also in deed.

Justice and decolonisation
Parallel session: Walter Philander, Minister at United Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) Piketberg Congregation – Justice and Decolonisation: A Search for Healing

In his presentation, Pastor Philander asked what decolonisation means in the South African context and how we ought to handle it. He defined decolonisation as “freeing ourselves from a foreign mindset”.

How do we distinguish between the “foreign mindset” resulting from colonialism and “foreign knowledge” that results in a more holistic and richer view of the world? Why is such a distinction important? What constitutes “the foreign”?

As is the case with culture, the mind is always and ultimately an amalgamation of knowledge that originates from across geographies and people groups. This is especially so in a globalised world where democracy is considered the norm. In this sense, every mind, in its development, will therefore have adopted an element of “the foreign”. The danger in equating colonisation with knowledge originating from outside the local or the indigenous, is cutting ourselves off from opportunities to learn and grow.

The meaning of “a foreign mindset”, as used by Philander, is open to debate. If freeing ourselves from a foreign mindset means adopting an African, a South African or an indigenous mindset, then the meaning of these alternatives will require conceptualisation. Is it in fact possible to adopt an entirely African mindset, assuming we even know what this is, in a globalised world and in a diverse and multi-cultural South Africa?

For me, the important question is this: To what extent is “the foreign”, or for that matter, “the indigenous”, damaging and limiting to God’s will for all of creation? To simplify things for the Christian and to remove ourselves from the complexities of the indigenous-foreign dichotomy, I would argue more specifically that decolonisation involves freeing ourselves from an ungodly mindset. This is in itself a mindset foreign to God. I acknowledge that this argument is problematic for those who maintain that Christianity is an inherently colonial and oppressive project.

However, and in order to counter this sentiment, I would argue that it is the failure of members of the South African Church to seek increasing freedom from the mindset foreign to God, that explains, in part, why colonialism and Christianity were in many ways a joint project and why apartheid persists in the so-called “new South Africa”.

The challenge is therefore not so much to seek freedom from the mindset of the foreigner, defined by nationality, but to seek freedom from the mindset that is foreign to God. It is in achieving the latter that damaging elements of the former, as understood in the political, social and economic sense, will become more easily discernible and extinguishable.

Philander said: “The harm apartheid did, particularly to people of colour, is immeasurable.” This underscores the extent and depth of a problem that the South African Church must not gloss over.

Before the South African Church can conceptualise and learn how to deal with decolonisation, however, it must first have an understanding of colonialism, apartheid and the immediate and systemic impact of these institutions.

It was appropriate therefore, that Philander quoted the following from Edmund Burke: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” In the South African context, a rephrasing of the quote in the following form may be more pertinent, however: ‘Those who don’t know history are doomed to continue it.’

Does an understanding of colonialism exist within the South African Church? Generally, I think not. This absence lends support to one side of the current debate surrounding the teaching of history in South African schools. Is the teaching of history inside the South African Church not of a greater necessity?

‘Surprised by Hope’
Parallel session: Coenie Burger, former Director of Ekklesia and Communitas (Stellenbosch University) – Surprised by Hope: The Three-fold Hope of the Christian Community

Dr Coenie Burger presented a simple and yet profound thesis on hope, distinguishing between three levels of hope for the Christian: “creation hope” (as related to the Father), “Christian hope” (as related to history and the promises of Christ for the future), and the “living hope” that the Holy Spirit brings.

Creation hope finds reflection in the ability of human communities and societies to overcome challenges. This ability results from the creative capacity given by the Creator to his creations.

An excerpt taken from John F Kennedy’s A Strategy of Peace speech, delivered at the commencement of the American University in 1963, serves as a good example of creation hope: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable and we believe they can do it again.”

Christian hope involves the hope in Jesus Christ. Burger argued that while creation hope my fail us, we cannot say the same for the hope found in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ.

According to Burger, the Holy Spirit does two things in us to cultivate living hope. He opens our eyes to see Him, unite with Him, and helps us to put our trust and hope in Jesus alone. In doing so, He also transforms us into the image of Jesus Christ (gives us the mind of Christ) and inspires us to follow Him.

While each form of hope distinguished by Burger was relevant to the Winter School theme, I feel the third – living hope – to be of greatest importance to the mandate, which I aim to communicate through this article.

Adopting the mind of Christ, that is sanctification, is a journey with many destinations that Christians, in their different contexts, must reach. To develop in the adoption of such a mind, to become increasingly sanctified, Christians must engage the Word of God in relation to the realities that inflict fellow human beings.

Keynote #2
Keynote # 2: Wilhelm Verwoerd, Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology – “Dark ‘White Work’: Towards Deep Reconciliation”

Dr Verwoerd is the grandson of “the architect of apartheid”, Hendrik Verwoerd. During his keynote address, I gathered a sense of the long, challenging and personal journey that he must have travelled from being born into a racist Afrikaner family to speaking on reconciliation at the 2018 Winter School.

Being a peace builder and a facilitator of stories, Verwoerd told the Winter School audience, with reference to the South African context, that “The story-telling discipline is not going deep enough.”

By this, I understood him to mean that the practice of South Africans sharing personal experiences of hurt, pain, guilt and complicity with one another is not occurring extensively enough or at the necessary depths of the heart and soul.

This discipline is a necessity for the healing of the individual within and for the healing of the spaces between individuals, that is, societal healing. Based on South Africa’s contemporary realities, and as already mentioned, based on my own experience of the local church, I am inclined to agree with Verwoerd.

I will assume that in many churches, the kind of storytelling and dialoguing that is necessary for reconciliation in South Africa is not happening. One possible reason for this is that many churches are largely, if not entirely, homogenous bodies – enclaves of  “whiteness” or “blackness”.

Part of the work of South African anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, through his leadership of the Black Consciousness Movement, was to help black people overcome a sense of inferiority in the context of a white dominated space.

The Church should be a space where all people come to understand more fully their value in relation to Jesus Christ. This is why colonialism and apartheid was also a sin of professing Christians – some would say, “A crime of Christianity”. Instead of speaking and acting against a system that degraded humanity, and by implication, the value of people in relation to Christ, sections of the South African Church sanctioned and supported it.

In a post-1994 setting, one of the roles and challenges of the South African Church, in a macro-social sense, is to help its black congregants who suffer inferiority complexes, to overcome that sense of inferiority and to help its white congregants who suffer superiority complexes, to overcome that sense of superiority.

This work cannot happen in a colour homogenous church setting. Such a setting falls short of the kind of sacred space for conversation that I, and many of the speakers at the Winter School, I believe, are advocating.

A profoundly symbolic and factual story that serves as a reflection of such a space is the story of an elderly Afrikaner male congregant in my local church. While travelling, he will stop his vehicle to offer hitchhikers a lift. More often than not, those who accept the offer are non-whites.

While driving, this elderly man then asks the following two intentional questions: “Do you think white people are superior to black people?” and “Do you think black people are inferior to white people?” To both questions, the answer is frequently “yes”.

That, which follows in the sacred space of the vehicle, is the story of Christ on the cross. This is the story of a sacrifice made for all people, created equal in value by God.

During his keynote address, Verwoerd also taught on the notion of contemplation. He reminded the audience of the value of daily contemplation. This means sitting in silence before the Holy Spirit, with nothing in mind, “to bring things within the darkness of oneself into the light”.

Verwoerd quoted Martin Laird who writes: “The opposite of the contemplative life is the reactive life.” This brings me to the next parallel session that I attended.

Parallel session: Nkosivumile Gola, activist at The Warehouse – Decolonisation – A Demand of the Black Oppressed

This parallel session involved a passionate and emotionally-charged demand on behalf of the black oppressed. It was a demand that, if I am to provide what I believe to be the necessary commentary, requires more sacred space than what this article can offer.

In reflecting on the link between the historical and the contemporary, Gola said: “The same boat that carried the colonial tyrant is the same boat that carried the Bible of the missionary…This agenda has to this day remained intact and has not been separated within the Church.”

For the speaker, the co-labouring between the colonialist and the missionary was a project that established white supremacy in South Africa. For him, this project persists in contemporary South Africa, in the co-labouring between white South Africans, the white Church and black “sell-outs”. It persists to such an extent that “Even in the absence of white people, the white voice remains the most prominent voice.”

Gola’s address highlighted the racially-bound, structural injustices that continue to pervade South African society. Consequentially, he argued for a disruption of the white theology that maintains the status quo and the creation of a black theology, a theology of liberation that takes into account the suffering of the poor black majority – “black” as defined by Steve Biko.

Gola believes that “For people to see their liberation, they need to see their God.” He bases his advocacy of a black theology upon his experience that black people are not seeing God in white Christians.

I believe there to be some truth in Gola’s experience. No matter what one may think of his demanded solutions, the extent to which white Christians fail to reflect the love of God in their relations with black people or in their failure to relate to black people at all, is the extent to which Gola’s worldview is an indictment of the same white Christians in South Africa.

SA at ethical and morality crossroads
Parallel session: Ben Theron, Chief Operations Officer at OUTA – South Africa at an Ethical and Morality Crossroads

Theron’s presentation focused on corruption and the misuse and abuse of tax revenue in South Africa. It presented a very gloomy picture of South Africa’s contemporary moment – a moment that he described as “a perfect storm”. A member of the audience, following the presentation, described it as one that “highlights all of the sickness of our society”.

The corruption that characterises the South African government, and its impact upon the increasing and tangible divide between the “haves” and the “have nots”, serves to drive the wedge between South Africa’s colour groups even further. This is in a country that, according to Theron, “has enough money to meet the needs of all South Africans”.

In closing and with reference to the leadership that is necessary to move South Africans out of the perfect storm, Theron said: “There is only one organisation that can step up and say ‘follow me’ – the Church.”

For this to be possible, local church congregations in South Africa must open sacred spaces for storytelling and the kind of conversation that involves prayer and a reading of God’s word in relation to the challenges facing South African society.

The Church fails to achieve a fuller potential when praying and reading a transcendent Word in a manner that does not take cognisance of ungodly realities that exist both within and outside of itself.

What does the Lord require?
Parallel session: Alease Brown, PhD candidate, Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University – What Does the Lord Require of You? Decolonisation as Doing Justice in South Africa in the 21st Century

Brown argued that “Colonialism involves a violence of discourse and violence of domination.” This violence persists in the contemporary period. It is this continuing violence that underscores the need for decolonisation – a process that she defined as “the elimination of white supremacy”. I interpret this as the elimination of thinking that I am better than the other.

This is a necessary process, not only in wider South African society, but also within the South African Church. The violence that Brown referred to, is sustained in and through the Church in as far as the just do not speak against and act upon injustice.

Brown proposed a number of necessary elements in working towards decolonisation, some of which reinforce the ideas already presented in this three-part series. These included: the telling of stories – oral, written and filmed; dialogical engagement; values centred living – living with dignity, connection, courage, truth and vulnerability; including South Africa’s energetic youth in the process of decolonisation; and finally, talking about the violence being perpetrated against the violators.

In ending, Brown made a striking comparison between contemporary South Africa and Nazi Germany – one that conveyed the responsibility she believes white people carry in South Africa’s current context. She said: “For a young white person to enter university with the intention of getting a job, marrying and having a family, is like a German student to have intended and hoped for the same during the Holocaust.”

Unity in diversity
Keynote # 3: Reggy Nel, Dean, Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University – Diverse People Unite / Unity in Diversity

Prof Nel ended the school with a message on unity in diversity. “What is it that we must allow to unite us?” he asked. He highlighted, as did other speakers at the Winter School, the importance of our personal stories, shared with and among one another.

Members of the audience raised the following pertinent questions after Nel’s address – questions that I believe motivate the thrust of this article: “What are we going to do in our own communities and local congregations with the stories we have heard during the Winter School?” “How can we feel encouraged if our own denominations are the pretext for division and injustice?” “How can we feel comfortable?” One answer that was given, that I believe speaks to each of these questions reads as follows: “We need safe spaces to talk”.

The sense that I feel is the culmination of the personal experience gained in my attendance of the three above-mentioned events. It is the same sense that I had at the closing of the Winter School. There was a sense in me that the South African Church must enter “the operating room” where God resides as the specialist surgeon. Are we willing to enter such a sacred space?

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and he reserves the right to improve them whenever possible.

Join the conversation, Christians! (Part 2) — Craig Bailie

CALL TO ACTION (PHOTO: Sophie Smith Photography),

Craig Bailie questions whether the Church in South Africa is appropriately engaged in the necessary conversations surrounding issues of social justice. In the second of a 3-part series he reflects on lessons from a breakfast with a difference. — See Part 1 and Part 3

The second of the three events noted in the opening paragraph of this series was a church breakfast at the beginning of this month, where the guest speaker initiated a dialogue about the Church’s role in relation to social justice issues.

Ricky Cupido, a pastor from Cape Town, attempted to open a sacred space, a space where Christians prioritise the well-being of others in the context of social justice.

Speaking to local church leaders and having highlighted what he referred to as current crises in the Western Cape (taxi violence, racism, land grabs and rape), Cupido asked a number of important questions and made some important statements. Among these were the following:

• “Is your church on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the community?”
• “Where is the Church’s sense of agency?
• “The Church must take corporate ownership of [the] crises [within society].”
• “When we rob the Church of the crises, then we rob the Church of what it was meant to do.”

Need for a dialogue
For me, these questions and statements speak to the need for dialogue in the South African Church – a dialogue that ideally, will result in an increasing revelation of what the Church is responsible for – in South Africa’s past, in its present and going into the future.

Given the realities facing the South African citizenry, it is my sense that many local churches in South Africa fail in relation to the biblical responsibilities reflected in the questions and statements of Pastor Cupido.

In as far as this is the case, “the South African problem”, however one may define this notion, is therefore a problem of the South African Church. Put differently, the South African Church, bringing itself into a godly order of things, is a necessary condition for the change upon which millions of South Africans are waiting, particularly the non-white majority living in poverty.

Historical role of Church
For example, racism in South African society more widely, will not decline, until the Church has confronted within itself, issues of race. This confrontation must include giving attention to the historical role of the Church in colonialism and apartheid South Africa, existing forms of blatant and ongoing racism within the Church, and the denial of the racist spirit that fuels the structural violence still evident in a post-1994 South Africa and still inflicted upon its many poor people.

Unofficially, apartheid did not end in 1994. The extent to which this truth continues to offend professing Christians reflects the extent of the reconciliatory work that remains within the Church. It also reflects the extent to which “the South African problem” is also a problem of the South African Church.

There will be a wide range of reasons for why sections of the South African Church are failing on issues of social justice and why other sections can do more, all of which could not possibly find reflection in this article alone.

I believe one of the possible reasons is a tendency of Christians to enter a space of ministry where we expect to be spiritually fed and benefitted in a manner that will positively impact our personal and familial circumstances.

Such a setting makes for a cozy and overly comfortable environment that denies God’s call to combine faith with work and vice-versa. It is an environment where the Christian asks: “God, what can You do for me” and not, “God, what can I do for Your Kingdom?” The result is a spiritually obese and immobilised Christian and a society where the transformation that God calls Christians to bring, is slow in coming.

Another possible reason for the Church’s failure is the false notion that interaction between Christians and politics should not be allowed, or, the fear of using God’s Word to speak into political spaces. Such a fear is understandable, given South Africa’s history and the many other abuses of power involving the Church, across history and around the world.

Speaking truth to power
Based on the Church’s mandate to speak truth to power, however, such a fear cannot be justified and should not be allowed to restrain the Christian from living God’s Word.

It was with a sense of excitement and opportunity that I shared my experience of the Siyakhula workshop (see Part 1) with a fellow churchgoer on the Sunday immediately following the workshop. Soon after having begun the conversation, however, it became apparent to me that my insights were crossing “the Church-politics divide” and were therefore invalid and illegitimate in the space in which we happened to be conversing at the time.

Is God not concerned about the related issues of race, rape, oppression, slavery, discrimination and identity? What could be more political than issues such as these?

Reconciliation in South Africa – a project to which God has called the South African Church, in its own agency and without state leadership – cannot happen without a discussion involving race and politics. This is because the circumstances that led to the need for reconciliation were in and of themselves not only deeply sinful; they were also deeply racial and deeply political.

As long as the South African Church denies the necessary relationship between the Church, as God’s voice, and the political realm, the Christian only serves to inhibit and postpone reconciliation in South Africa. In the South African context, as well as in other parts of the world, the Christian denial of involvement in politics is to deny involvement in reconciliation.

The Christian cannot be involved with reconciliation without being involved with politics. The Christian who claims that Church and politics should not mix, but then enters political spaces beyond the Sunday service (to vote, for example) – this Christian lacks an understanding that the Church is a living body, transcending the Sunday service, and called to move in all spheres of society in order to share the redemption and restorative work of Christ.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and he reserves the right to improve them whenever possible.

Join the conversation, Christians! (Part 1) — Craig Bailie

CALL TO ACTION (PHOTO: Sophie Smith Photography),

Craig Bailie questions whether the Church in South Africa is appropriately engaged in the necessary conversations surrounding issues of social justice. In the first of a 3-part series he calls on Christians to become ‘sacred spaces’ of conversation. — See Part 2 and Part 3.

Three recent, provocative and reinforcing events helped motivate the writing of this article. In a sense, this article is a continuation of the same dialogue initiated at these three separate events. This is a dialogue, which, I believe Jesus calls all South African Christians to enter into, in this space and time, but which I believe many of us have and continue to deny the opportunity.

By “reinforcing”, I mean these events encouraged and reaffirmed in me, an already-existing and developing sense of the need for action, in and by the Christian Church in South Africa. This piece exists as a general call for action, but even before this, it serves as a plea for South Africa’s local church congregations to engage in a particular kind of action, to become increasingly sacred spaces of conversation.

Siyakhula: ‘Embracing a New Normal’
In May, I attended a three-day workshop with the above title. The Siyakhula workshop was organised and hosted by Stellenbosch University’s Transformation Office in partnership with the university’s Equality Unit, the Disability Unit, and Human Resources. The workshop, still on offer, is aimed at university staff with the purpose of encouraging change in, and understanding of, aspects of the university’s institutional culture.

Themes and concepts that were uncovered and discussed included “modern racism”, “internalised oppression”, “ableism”, “rape culture”’, “decolonisation”’ and “gender identity”, among others. These themes, chosen in and for the Stellenbosch University context, are reflective of realities elsewhere in the country and in the world.

For the Christian, this commonality between a South African university campus and spaces found elsewhere in the world has its origin in a common human nature. Beyond this faith-based explanation and from a socio-politico-economic perspective, globalisation also explains the common realities that have come to characterise different parts of the world.

I cannot claim to have been in support of all that was said or the tacit “agreements” that were, on occasion made between members of the audience and the facilitators at the Siyakhula workshop. I can say, however, that I was and remain thankful for the opportunity to have been involved in the discussion.

Refined thinking, strengthened faith
Ultimately, the workshop refined my thinking and strengthened my faith. Gaps in my own knowledge on social justice issues together with my inability to articulate some of my religious beliefs in relation to these issues were exposed. In short, the experience was one of growth and served as a catalyst for further reflective thought, study and conversation.

While the type of conversations held during the workshop will inevitably continue on the Stellenbosch University campus, in other spaces of South African higher education and beyond the academe, I am of the belief that these discussions have yet to commence in many parts of the Christian Church and certainly the Church in South Africa.

As Christians, we often fail to allow sacredness in the spaces that we occupy. This is because we ourselves are not living and behaving sacredly. We are not living according to the intended purpose for which God created us, and for which Christ died. We often fail, for a number of possible reasons, to allow the presence of the Holy Spirit to abide in us. We fail to allow the sanctification that comes with abiding in Christ.

On the other hand, sacredness also fails to manifest in spaces, precisely because Christians fail to occupy those spaces; choosing instead to keep a safe distance; choosing instead to maintain an inward as opposed to an outward focus.

Learning opportunities
I would argue therefore, that the entry of Christians into spaces like the Siyakhula workshop should be a biblical, and by implication, a standard practice for the Christian. These spaces provide an opportunity to learn from and share with those who, although perhaps holding a different worldview, also carry a desire to see justice done. Conversely and more importantly, Christians must create these same spaces within and across local congregations, inviting inside those who remain outside of the Church.

Two things inform my concern over what I perceive to be inaction, or more specifically, an absence of healthy conversation within the South African Church on issues of social justice.

The first of these is my personal and more recent experience of local church. This is not only the local church as it meets on Sundays, but also the local church that moves beyond the traditional Sunday service and into the broader public space. This broader public space includes social media. It is here that I see on display the denial, arrogance and ignorance of professing Christians in South Africa, in relation to issues of social justice, but particularly issues of race.

At the commencement of the Siyakhula workshop, the chief facilitator called upon participants to view the workshop as a sacred space. I interpreted this as a call for a space in which we share our experiences and views openly, honestly and respectfully; where we seek to understand before being understood; where we expect to be confronted with awkwardness, emotion and hurt; and above all, where we grow in concern for the well-being of the other. Based on my limited experience, and in the context of social justice issues, this sacred space is often absent within the Church.

Thinking God’s thoughts before we engage in social justice


A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.

In the light of the recently ended Justice conference and my recent reading of the book Rethinking Social Justice by Darrow Miller, I thought it would be appropriate to pen some thoughts on the issue of social justice and the church. I did not attend the conference, though many of my friends did. I have been challenged by both the conference and the book in how I think, how I love and how I engage in this area. I will be the first to put my hand up to say that I can do more. But before I or we (especially as young people) try to change the world, I found the book challenging us to think about this area through the Biblical lens.

Carey Nieuwhof: “When you listen to the loudest voices you miss the most important voices.” And in every age, the most important voice remains the word of God, no matter how loud the voices of others become.

But isn’t this the time for action you say? Absolutely. Yet the challenge we face is like that of the son being addressed in Proverbs expressed in a tweet from a man named Carey Nieuwhof: “When you listen to the loudest voices you miss the most important voices.” And in every age, the most important voice remains the word of God, no matter how loud the voices of others become. And if God could command Joshua to meditate on His word day and night in the heat of fighting battles for the promised land, we should do the same in the heat of burning questions about social justice.

Here are a couple of reasons to think before acting. Rick Warren, in his foreword in the book The Poverty of Nations, writes a sobering statement that most programs do not actually end up helping the poor. Secondly, I have discovered that this term social justice can mean a world of different things to different people who have different agendas and end goals. Mine hopefully is to extend the Kingdom of God. When it comes to social justice, some are trying to do this but many have another agenda. Regarding bringing justice or mercy to the poor and society at large, the question is not whether we should, but how.

Defining biblical social justice
As I discovered in law school, definitions are so important and can lead to radically different results depending on what is meant. Words are worlds, and he who controls the words controls the world. Just because words like ‘justice,’ ‘compassion’ ‘equality’ and the like are used, it does not mean that they are currently used in the manner that God prescribed in the Bible.

Regarding bringing justice or mercy to the poor and society at large, the question is not whether we should, but how.

Darrow Miller writes: “… the modern usage of the term social justice is code for statist solutions to poverty. Today social justice is more likely to be associated with Marxist and socialist zero-sum economic policies. Rather than individuals forming voluntary associations to care for needs in the community, solutions are more likely to be based on government redistribution … Christian generosity and compassion are not the same as government run welfare programs. In the Bible, compassion literally means ‘to suffer together with another … By its very nature, compassion cannot be done from a distance. Government bureaucrats who are physically removed from needy people cannot exercise compassion, and yet for many this is what social justice implies.”

These very same government run programs often emphasise the need for equality. In our own context, we are often reminded of how unequal a society we are. In this regard, Miller draws us to the important distinction between equality and equity: Whereas equality seeks numerically equal outcomes for all people, equity seeks impartiality for diverse people. Because people are born unique, there will always be diverse starting places and outcomes. The only alternative to this is tyranny. Regarding all humans as equal before the law leads to freedom, while forcing a material equality of outcome promotes tyranny. Social justice as God intended seeks equity, not equality, for a nations citizens.

The important distinction between equality and equity: Whereas equality seeks numerically equal outcomes for all people, equity seeks impartiality for diverse people… Social justice as God intended seeks equity, not equality, for a nations citizens.

African-American economist Thomas Sowell similarly writes: “Lofty talk about ‘social justice’ or ‘fairness’ boils down to greatly expanded powers for politicians, since those pretty words have no concrete definition. They are a blank check for creating disparities in power that dwarf disparities in income — and are far more dangerous.”

Biblically therefore, social justice must involve our voluntary time, talent and treasure at the centre. Crucial to this is discipleship and the gospel. How often do we forget that Jesus not only fed the poor, but came to preach (yes, preach) the gospel to the poor? How could this be helpful in social justice? Author Dennis Peacocke elaborates: “The biblical response to poverty … is to call the poor into the Kingdom, disciple them to adopt the mental and moral attitudes of good stewards under God, and train them with the skills to begin to create wealth themselves.”

“The biblical response to poverty … is to call the poor into the Kingdom, disciple them to adopt the mental and moral attitudes of good stewards under God, and train them with the skills to begin to create wealth themselves.” — Dennis Peacocke

Therefore, part of our discipleship should lead to social justice, and our social justice should also lead to evangelism. If these are not happening, we are doing something other than what we see in the Scriptures. As Matthew 5:16 declares: let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. Jesus called his church to shine with good deeds so that men would praise the Father. Societal structures and government laws can help, but without the engine room of converted souls, we will accomplish very little. As William Booth, preacher, social activist and founder of the Salvation Army unashamedly declared: “I must assert in the most unqualified way that it is primarily and mainly for the sake of saving the soul that I seek the salvation of the body.”

Social justice wars and the generation gap
In a similar vein to some sentiments expressed at the Justice conference, Darrow Miller highlights the critique of young Christians of the church’s lack of involvement in addressing poverty. He writes: “Many young Christians read these passages (in the Old and New Testament dealing with caring for the poor) and wonder how previous generations of Christians could miss something so obvious. How could their predecessors have been so consumed with ‘spiritual salvation’ and so unconcerned for the cultural mandate…’” He then quotes C.S. Lewis, who wrote: “But it did not happen, however, without sins on our parts: for that justice and care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips. With our actions we brought slavery of Mammon…”.

“The ultimate ‘justice issue’ is our standing as sinners before a holy God … “There is a great valley that separates the just from the unjust, and the basis for that separation is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” — Russell Moore

Nevertheless, John Stonestreet, in his foreword to Darrow Miller’s book also states: “We can often be grumpy about the older generation who ‘just didn’t get it.’ Much of the confusion surrounding ‘social justice’ can be chalked up to a selective memory on our part. There are great men and women, even in recent years, whom we can follow in our pursuit of truth, love and justice.”

Russell Moore president of the US Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and staunchly pro-life, pro-adoption, and pro-marriage spoke at the US Justice Conference in 2016. In an eye-opening article, bestselling author Eric Metaxas wrote about how Moore challenged young and old alike at the conference. He writes that Moore “…began by chiding his own allies in the culture wars while applauding the young people who care deeply about the so-called ‘justice issues’ like immigration and sex trafficking …” Moore said, “When I’m speaking to people in my tribe of conservative confessional evangelicalism I often have to say you are pro-life, and rightly so, but because you recognise the image of God and the humanity of God in the unborn child … you must also recognise the humanity and dignity of God in people who might not be politically popular with you right now: with prisoners, with refugees, with immigrants.”

“Unfortunately, due to this shortage of clear, biblical teaching on economics, many believers have, without thinking, subscribed to the most common unbiblical approaches to poverty, economic justice and wealth. The results have been devastating … In a world that God created with a superabundance of resources, the fact that so many live in poverty is inexcusable, it is sinful, and we Christians need to repent.” — Rick Warren

Moore then turned the moral spotlight on his young audience, challenging them that abortion, too, is a justice issue …”We must … stand up and say No to racial injustice, No to refugee-bashing, No to immigrant-demonising, No to predation on the poor, and No to the violence and injustice of abortion.” He didn’t stop there. He irked more listeners when he challenged them on issues of human sexuality, saying that some of us … are “afraid to speak up on a biblical view of issues of human sexuality because they’re afraid that somehow that means they will be associated with people in polyester somewhere that they don’t want to be like. How cowardly.” That comment drew uneasy silence. Then he reminded his audience that the ultimate ‘justice issue’ is our standing as sinners before a holy God…”There is a great valley that separates the just from the unjust, and the basis for that separation is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Moore said. “We cannot be people who are concerned about justice if we are embarrassed about the doctrine of hell. If you are embarrassed … because it reminds you of some uneducated backwoods preacher … what you’re embarrassed of is not hell … [but] Jesus Himself.”

Metaxas concludes that while some of the young people at the (Chicago) Justice Conference, but by no means all, murmured at his uncomfortable prophetic challenge to expand their understanding of justice, the older generation should be equally provoked to godly action by them, writing: And before we’re tempted to shake our heads at these young brothers and sisters in the faith, let’s remember that we have a lot to learn from their Wilberforce-like passion for justice on behalf of the ignored and invisible.

We do not have to choose between socialism and indifference when it comes to social justice. Biblical social justice should not undermine or diminish evangelism, sin, the reality of hell and discipleship, but rather compliment it and feed into it.

Similarly, Rick Warren challenges old and young alike when he elaborates in his foreword to The Poverty of Nations: “There are more than two thousand verses about the poor and poverty in the Bible, yet most evangelical pulpits are strangely silent on a topic that God cares about deeply. I am both shocked and saddened to admit that although I attended a Christian college and two seminaries, I cannot recall ever hearing a single message about God’s plan for the poor, except that we ought to be personally generous with them. Unfortunately, due to this shortage of clear, biblical teaching on economics, many believers have, without thinking, subscribed to the most common unbiblical approaches to poverty, economic justice and wealth. The results have been devastating … In a world that God created with a superabundance of resources, the fact that so many live in poverty is inexcusable, it is sinful, and we Christians need to repent. The solution lies with neither Marx nor the market, but the words of the Master. Big government is certainly not the solution. In many countries, it has made the problems worse. Unfortunately, so have many well-meaning, but misguided Christian humanitarian programs. Having travelled the globe for 30 years and trained leaders in 164 countries, I’ve witnessed firsthand that almost every government and NGO (non-profit) poverty program is actually harmful to the poor, hurting them in the long run rather than helping them. The typical poverty program creates dependency, robs people of dignity, stifles initiative, and can foster a “What have you done for me lately?” sense of entitlement. The biblical way to help people rise out of poverty is through wealth creation, not wealth redistribution.”

Biblical social justice should compliment evangelism
Going forward then, have we first got clarity on what a biblical worldview of social justice is and how it differs radically from other worldviews? While we must respond to the challenges of our day, sometimes it may involve politically correct causes, many times it will not. We do not have to choose between socialism and indifference when it comes to social justice. Biblical social justice should not undermine or diminish evangelism, sin, the reality of hell and discipleship, but rather compliment it and feed into it.

“We act in the framework of the gospel, never apart from it, either in verbal proclamation or in active demonstration.” — Russell Moore

As we pursue social justice, it is vital for us to remember what pastor Rice Broocks, author of God’s Not Dead declared: “the greatest injustice we can do to our fellow man is not giving them the ultimate human right: the right to hear the gospel.” In answer to the question of how does the church “balance” a concern for evangelism with a concern for justice, Russell Moore wrote: “A church does so in the same way it “balances” the gospel with personal morality. Sure, there have been churches that have emphasised public justice without the call to personal conversion. Such churches have abandoned the gospel … And we do not react to the persistent “social gospels” (of both Left and Right) by pretending that Jesus does not call his churches to act on behalf of the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, the vulnerable, the hungry, the sex-trafficked, the unborn. We act in the framework of the gospel, never apart from it, either in verbal proclamation or in active demonstration.”