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.