I believe the South African church is caught up in a civil war. This is not a shooting war, but a civil war about ideas, values, morals, and finding a godly ethical consensus for our nation.
The arena of this war is first of all private culture, and secondly public culture. Private culture speaks of that set of laws or moral principles which guide ordinary people through the routines of everyday life, from the time they wake up in the morning, till the time they retire for bed. These laws and principles control what each individual does at work in terms of a work ethic, and how he or she behaves sexually, how they handle their lives at home, how they handle their finances, whether with integrity or without, and whether they care for others in need or not, etc.
Private culture also contains truths or religious commitments which help people cope with all life’s varied happenings. The realm of private culture holds the narratives, truths and stories that help people make sense of the events that mark the cycle of their lives, whether birth, adolescence, marriage, child rearing, vocation, old age or death.
Christian faith and the Bible
For the Christian the commitment is to a private culture controlled by the commitments, morals and values of the Christian faith and the Bible.
All this means that the church of Jesus Christ in South Africa, if it is to participate meaningfully in this civil war of values, needs to put itself on a war footing in terms of new resolutions to reach out in evangelism and loving practical action to the society around us. We cannot have any kind of so-called Christian culture or discover a Christian ethical consensus for our nation unless by our witness we are producing Christians in the first place, whom we then thoroughly disciple.
The other arena in which the civil war of values is fought is that of public culture. This consists of those truths, symbols, values, principles and laws which order the life of a community, town, city, region, state, or government.
This refers to the entire range of procedural norms and legal codes that define the acceptable limits of personal behaviour and collective action in all areas of life, including the nature and extent of public governance. For example, these procedural norms and legal codes will require the state to keep public order, raise taxes, defend its citizens, carry out public services, curb crime, and punish offenders. But it should not allow the state to determine how we will worship, what opinions or convictions we will hold, and with whom we will mix. Nor will these principles allow the state to do what it is often trying to do now in redefining a god-given creation ordinance such as marriage which precedes and antedates the state, heterosexual marriage having been given by God to humans at creation. Remove or weaken that civic glue of marriage, or put differently, cut the main threads of family from which our social fabric is woven, and the fabric unravels and societal stability is at once imperilled.
The matter of world view here is also vital. Are we here as the accidental result of Impersonal Energy, plus Time, plus Chance? Or are we here as a result of a Creator’s Hand and as the handiwork of the infinite personal God who is there, and who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. How we answer this question will determine a lot about how we behave and how we allow our government to behave. It will determine also whether we get our ethics, morals and values via a corporate thumb suck of the ruling party’s Executive, or from the Transcendent Living God and His Word and Commandments in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures.
Commenting on the United States situation, James Davidson Hunter in his book Culture Wars, notes that “while this culture war starts in our heads, and intellectual arenas and in the spiritual mechanisms by which we make moral decisions, it does not stop there.” It impacts family life, the legitimate limits of sexuality, as well as the content of public education, the media, and how electoral politics are conducted.
What becomes evident as we look at all this is that the moral and metaphysical assumptions which controlled us in earlier times are now being exploded so that we now have a culture with no transcendent reference point, no absolutes, no common frame of moral reference, no criteria of right or wrong, and no concept of ultimate truth.
In South Africa this civil war of values and world view understandings is particularly complex. This, I think, is because the civil war is partly Western in nature and partly African. In Western terms, the civil war is between a Judaeo-Christian understanding of the world as arising from a Creator’s Hands and the secular humanist post-Christian notion of a world that has accidentally arrived as the result of Impersonal Energy, plus Time, plus Chance.
On the other hand, in South Africa, the other culture war is between the Judaeo-Christian understanding of Jesus Christ as the Lord and Centre of Created Reality and the understanding of African Traditional Religion which gives ancestors the key, determining place. This deeply affects how we as a people live, what we sanction, and how we conduct our public discourse and even political life.
Church needs to wake up
I believe the Christian church in South Africa at this time needs to wake up and put itself on a spiritual war footing, and then stand up and be counted in new ways as it calls the country to a new spiritual, moral and ethical consensus around the biblical understanding of life, Christian salvation, as well as personal and public behaviour. This means both new expressions and campaigns of evangelism as well as new dedication in socio-political and prophetic witness. It also means new commitments to practical care and compassionate action directed at the poor, marginalised and unemployed. It means caring in new ways for our orphans and widows. It means bringing our crime rates down from some of the highest in the world. It means reaffirming the sanctity of the home and Christian marriage as heterosexual and monogamous. It means working with new wisdom and compassionate dedication on a more equitable redistribution of wealth. It means facing more creatively and energetically the massive challenges of grinding poverty. It means seeking in new ways to live holy lives.
It also means renewed prayer for the Beloved Country, as perhaps never before, so that we may become everything our God wants us to be here at home, and then fulfil our historic destiny on the continent of Africa.
May we say- “Now, God be thanked who has matched us with His hour”