[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]
Believe it or not, there is a bigger issue at stake that student protests (and virtually every service delivery protest) reveal, beyond the costs of tuition. Beyond the rands and cents of this particular issue lies a deeper question: what lies at the core of helping nations, individuals and communities come out of poverty in a sustainable way? An excellent resource in tackling this question is the book “The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution” by Wayne Grudem (a theologian) and Barry Asmus (an economist). At the core of their thesis is the belief that nations cannot, and historically have not, come out of poverty by redistribution of resources, but only by the production of more goods and services. The former approach emphasises entitlement, the latter emphasises individual initiative with incentives. Renowned pastor, Rick Warren, lends weight to this approach with his wide-ranging experience of poverty alleviation programs, writing the following in the foreword: Having travelled the globe for thirty 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.
What we really need
Why is this relevant to the price of student tuition and our nation at large? Because virtually every political party’s manifesto is high on ‘we will give you the world,’ and low on ‘let’s get to work, encourage initiative, and take personal responsibility to uplift ourselves’. (How about that as a manifesto at the next elections?!) Yet what we need are not feel-good, impossible promises, but truth that will liberate. If the state has declared that they will provide free tertiary education and everything else, surely then the students are simply holding them accountable to their promises? At issue therefore, is not just the student protests, but the ideas that have informed them and every other service delivery protest in the first place. These ideas need to be challenged before we can truly prosper. Indeed, government corruption and wasteful expenditure must be given due weight. Tertiary education is no doubt a crucial ‘good’ for our nation. Historically, the church has been at the forefront of providing an excellent education to those who could not afford it. But what is the consequence of expecting government to pay for everything we desire, with no responsibility on our part? How will that affect the quality of tertiary education? What mindset are we perpetuating, and will this lead to lasting prosperity and a virtuous and selfless society? These are the questions we need to ask. J Gresham Machen wrote the following concerning how false ideas need to be uprooted for the gospel to flourish: False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root. In a similar way therefore, we need a clear voice that will speak into the entitlement milieu of our day, before true prosperity can be realized.
Two groups of people
We see this played out not only in the realm of the modern nation state, but even as far back as the emerging nation of Israel as they came out of Egypt. The wilderness experience in the desert revealed two different groups of people: the majority who longed to go back to Pharaoh’s control, just so they could be provided with food, versus a minority who looked forward to making something happen in the Promised Land. The options before them were slavery with security versus freedom and taking reponsibility with faith. Before Israel could proceed, God had to change the dominant mindset of the people. Grumbling and entitlement had to fall, and a new generation with a ‘different spirit’ had to emerge. That took approximately forty years. Then, after having provided for their every need, including manna from heaven, God brought them into the promised land and gave them everything on a platter. Actually, in ‘the promised land’ God expected them to milk some cows, chase away some bees, plant their own crops and bake their own bread. Josh 5:11(TLB) records the following: The next day they began to eat from the gardens and grain fields which they invaded, and they made unleavened bread. The following day no manna fell, and it was never seen again! So from that time on they lived on the crops of Canaan.
The nation of Singapore is in some ways a modern example of this. Having achieved independence in 1965, this tiny island state, like a number of African countries, has recently celebrated 50 years of nationhood. Its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, was instrumental in winning over the mindset of the people, from one of entitlement to one that emphasises initiative, personal responsibility and work. A documentary on his life revealed that part of this mindset shift occurred after he brought business, unions and the state together, and struck a mutual agreement that labour would not go on strike to demand higher wages, as strikes are not in the interest of long-term economic growth of the country. All affected parties thus agreed to seek other ways to redress their problems. Today, the results of such a mindset shift are clearly evident, and that former colony is not only prosperous, but reckoned as one of the easiest, ‘red-tape less’ place in the world to do business.
Role of the Church
Does the Church have any role to play in all of this? Our role is indispensable, yet it will be largely unseen and often ignored by the mainstream media. Ephesians 4:28 exhorts believers to discard selfish living and embrace a disciplined and generous lifestyle instead, declaring: Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. We are thus to take the gospel, and bring selfish individuals to a saving knowledge of God. But it does not end there. This is where we have often fallen short. We are to then apply the gospel into the spaces and places where we live, work and play, and through the process of discipleship under the grace of God, help to take individuals to a place of wanting to share with those in need. Only such an internal transformation can change a belief system of entitlement which underlies most of our socio-political issues. On the sub-issue of tertiary education, we as the church must reach out to those in genuine need, not only with financial assistance, but with the full gospel that takes an individual from self-centredness to wanting to contribute to society and their fellow man. True education must not merely develop the intellect, but also greater Christ-likeness. Martin Luther King hit the nail on the head when he declared that the 20th century produced guided missiles but unguided men. For this true education to happen, gospel-based disciplines must be imparted along with financial help where needed, and instead of perpetuating a culture of demanding, entitled people (even if they do have keen intellects), we could rather see God-honouring, authority-honouring, servant leaders with the character to match their brain power, and a nation driven by initiative and not entitlement.