[This blog post is one in a series of personal viewpoints of Warehouse Staff members on the Unite Against Corruption March]
How to respond?
There is a stirring all over South Africa that change is needed in our country, and that the church needs to be involved in bringing it about. Opinions on what form this involvement should take reflect the full range of religious, political and personal standpoints. There are calls to pray, calls to protest, calls to advocate on behalf of those who face injustice as well as calls to other prophetic actions. The question is, what is the right thing to do? What does involvement look like in our current context, and is there a “single call” for the church as a whole? As various sectors in South Africa embark on the “Unite against Corruption” Campaign, there’s the call for the church to join the march against corruption at the end of this month. How do we respond?
While it’s true that each of us should seek God’s will for our own involvement, I also believe that there are times when a more strategic approach for the church is needed. I’d therefore like to share what I feel God is saying in general, and around the march in particular. I concede that this is my understanding of what is best and that others may differ. In fact, I know that there are some who feel very specifically called to a different stance to mine, and I cannot argue with that. Yet at the same time I’d like you to consider what I’m proposing and to discern whether this might be something for the church as a whole to take on and pray into. Perhaps there is a space for both. Nevertheless, I’d like to share why I feel that taking part in the anti-corruption march is not the best route for the church right now.
Kingdom, mercy and mutual regard
Over the past two months I have attended several conferences, prophetic gatherings and prayer meetings where the current situation in South Africa and the role of the church has been discussed or at least alluded to. I have not gone with any agenda, except to hear what Christians are hearing from God for our country. What has been unanimous at these meetings, despite the disparity of focus, has been the need for prayer to increase, for seeking after God, for the church to repent of its failures and its self-focus, to seek unity, and to be role models in righteousness and justice, demonstrating a different way of being.
Prof John de Gruchy, speaking at the Kairos-30 conference held in Johannesburg in August, highlighted the difference between hope and optimism and the need for the church to be “people of hope, who live and act as if they believe that God’s kingdom is at hand”. Similarly, The Revd Helen Van Koevering speaking at the St John’s Parish staff retreat earlier this month said that to be “church” means “to be showing signs of the kingdom to people; showing what it means when God reigns”. De Gruchy further spoke of our need to seek the place “where justice, mercy and love manifest themselves”. Love and mercy also came out strongly at the most recent “4th Thursday Prayer Meeting” – a monthly gathering of prayer warriors who come together at The Warehouse to pray for the country. Here there was a strong sense that government are raising their defenses because they are acting out of fear and self-protection, and that any approach we make to government as church should be done in love and mercy, rather than anger and confrontation. “It’s tiring to have people not like you,” one young man explained, “and the response will always be out of fear and self-protection. We need to find out how to relate to them, asking God to open opportunities for us to meet people at a personal level. God’s kingdom is an upside-down kingdom, and the only way to achieve different results is to come in the opposite spirit.” This concept of the upside-down kingdom also came out very clearly in the study of Matthew 5 led by Helen Van Koevering that was done at the Parish Retreat: Our mandate is counter-culture, those who “show people how to co-operate instead of compete or fight” (v9 MSSG). It is the “uncool” who are blessed, and as image-bearers of God we need to “seek mutual regard at all times”.
An audience with kings
The Warehouse has been engaged in a study of the book of Daniel during the past month, and what God has been highlighting here has been very similar. Most evident has been Daniel’s humility and boldness when addressing the king. No matter how harsh the message he brought, he always spoke with honour and respect, yet with full confidence in himself and God. It is this attitude and posture of integrity and excellence that caused him and his companions to stand out and to be given positions of authority and trust from which they had the authority to speak and have an influence. Another aspect of Daniel’s character was his holiness – his refusal to compromise his faith or his character in any way.
For me, a major point coming out of Daniel is that he exhibited all of the attributes that have been highlighted so far – love, mercy, respect, coming in the opposite spirit. He addressed the king directly, on a personal level, and not in the form of a protest. And this is what I believe the church is being called to today; to seek and pursue personal engagement with individual politicians and policy makers; to meet with and engage them in ways that show love, honour and mercy, but with boldness that clearly states the need for change and what those changes should include. I believe we should be praying for such opportunities and be ready to take them when they arise, as well as praying for the political leaders themselves to be open to hearing God.
There are other Biblical characters who acted against injustice in this way. Esther, faced with the imminent genocide of her people, sought an audience with the king and persuaded him to see things differently while her people prayed. Nehemiah, in the midst of building the wall, stopped to listen to the cry of those who were being oppressed (Chapter 5). He then called a meeting and spoke to the oppressors, charging them to act differently and committing himself to acting with integrity. Jesus too, was harsh in much that he said, but this was towards the spiritual leaders. To the “sinners and tax collectors” he showed mercy and compassion, Zacchaeus being a case in point. It was Jesus’ mercy, his choosing relationship and his calling out Zacchaeus’ true identity (the name Zacchaeus means “clean” and “pure”) that resulted in Zacchaeus’ change of heart and his acts of restitution. In all these examples the mutual regard was there – the recognition that the other person is a child of God, and the calling out of that identity in the approach used. Could we not be doing the same? Imagine if we set up meetings with politicians, asking God for some points of how His image is manifested in them, and appealing to their true nature as we discuss the issues? Imagine if we could ask God for his heart for every encounter, and what might be coming against his intentions, and then pray as we go, praying for God’s will and binding that which is not of him.
Prayer played an important role in the lives of Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther and Jesus. With Daniel and Nehemiah there was the willingness to repent on behalf of their people; Nehemiah prayed constantly, seeking guidance on every step; Esther called on the people to intercede as she approached the king, and Jesus spent much time in communion with the Father. Surely these are the strategies we should be using much more deliberately than strategies such as marches?
Another conference I attended this month was “Shifting atmospheres” run by the Bethel Church. The focus was on the power that we give to certain atmospheres through our “agreeing with” the spirit behind them, and that we have the power to defeat them by coming in the opposite spirit. For example, if we discern fear or hopelessness in a situation, we give it power if we ourselves become fearful and hopeless. But we can come against it by recognizing it, repenting of it in ourselves, and then praying in hope, joy, peace, trust, etc. Dawna da Silva, one of the speakers, said that we often give the right to particular sins even when we’re praying against them, when we carry that same attitude within ourselves. She said that “our actions must show what is right in an honouring way”.
My difficulty with marches is that while they are used to highlight issues and to voice protest, what actually happens is that they force action through confrontation. This happens because there is transference of power from that of the person “in power” to those who march, which is why the bigger the march, the higher the possibility of achieving your aim. Marches demean the humanity of the people they are aimed at through disempowering them. Forcing someone to take a decision through being faced by a threatening crowd is definitely not honouring, and is surely not the stance the church should be taking at this time. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. We have the spirit of Christ in us; we have his voice, and we should use our voice as we speak person-to-person, something we do still have the right to do.
I know that the campaign and the march are about highlighting corruption, and that this is not the same as marching against unjust laws or demanding an action such as service delivery. But it’s still mass action, and while it includes a recognition of corruption in ourselves, the march is still directed at Parliament.
Powerlessness, inequality, rage and shame
Another danger posed by marches is the potential for violence. Too many marches in South Africa, no matter how peaceful the initial intention, have ended in violence with the organisers being unable to control what happens. I agree that the presence of praying Christians in a march could and should shift the atmosphere and avert such violence, and I know several Christians who see their presence as important in this regard, but I still feel that for the particular time and place that our country is in at the moment, a march is not the best route to take.
I’d like to return to the earlier point from the 4th Thursday Prayer Meeting; that the government is acting out of self-protection and the church needs to come in the opposite spirit. In doing so, I would like to make reference to Prof James Garbarino, a specialist in the study of violence and its effects, who addressed a recent “Coffee Conversation” at The Warehouse. One thing Garbarino spoke about was the power of inequality in producing violence; that inequality “produces rage and shame”. Interestingly, da Silva at the “Shifting Atmospheres” conference made a similar point about powerlessness; that powerlessness “gives the right to rage”.
In a country like South Africa, with such high levels of inequality and powerlessness (even perceived powerlessness), rage and shame are bound to be high. We constantly see evidence of this in the violent confrontations between people and police, and in the way in which protests almost always turn to violence and are in turn met with violence. In this kind of atmosphere a march is unlikely to achieve the desired result, and where it does, it’s because of compulsion rather than political will on the part of government. Shame, according to Garbarino, is also caused by constant criticism, which our government is certainly receiving. They know that they are not doing well, and they know that there is gross corruption, and this knowledge causes shame, so they will be defensive. And if our response to them is confrontational, it will always put their backs up and change will not be sustainable. Confrontation and violence have become the norm, even the culture, in South Africa. Our people have forgotten how to speak and politicians and policy-makers have forgotten how to listen. The church needs to lead the way in choosing alternatives to confrontation and power. We need to show people the power that they do have, and demonstrate ways of using that power that do not demean and dishonour.
According to Garbarino, the opposite of shame is respect; “We build respect by treating people with respect”. He cited studies done among prisoners, where rage and shame are powerful driving forces, showing marked improvement in people who were regarded with respect. What I’m wanting to emphasise here is that our best response, as church towards government would be to counteract their shame, fear, denial and defensiveness with love, humility, mercy and honour.
A Kairos moment
Many have been referencing the point we are at in South Africa right as a Kairos moment – a moment of truth, a “right time”, a moment where a specific action is needed. Many have identified the “kairos” as being a time to pray very specifically for ourselves and our government. Several have highlighted the need to pray for mindset change. Others have highlighted this as a time for the church to repent of its complicity in what has gone wrong, and I know that the anti-corruption campaign does include this. But I would add that the Kairos moment holds a moment of readiness on the part of government to see, to hear and to try something new. And we need to take hold of this time and respond to their readiness in ways that we have perhaps not done before. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, his cry was, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42 ESV).
I think God is making the same appeal to us now. He is inviting us to meet anger with love, shame with respect, denial with bold truth, grandstanding with humility. He is inviting us to be the poor, the meek, the peacemakers; the upside-down people who live as if God’s kingdom is at hand. God is inviting us to speak to our brothers and sisters in government, to call out, speak into and appeal to their humanity; to always seek mutual regard and to be the place where justice, love and mercy manifest themselves.
By Colleen Saunders