Voordrag: Understanding the Church Situation and Obstacles to Christian Witness in South Africa

Understanding the Church Situation and Obstacles to Christian Witness in South Africa

Address by Prof Willie Jonker

University of Stellenbosch

It is a wonderful privilege to address this Conference. By being together in this way, we are indeed sharing a wonderful moment in the history of the Church in this country. It is a joyous event. How long have many of us longed for and prayed for it! It is my sincerest wish that the Lord will bless us in a wonderful way, and that this historical event will be a decisive turning point in the history of our Churches and the birth of a new day for the relations between the Churches!

So much has stood between us for such a long time. Even at this moment, there are still many issues standing between us and which threaten to keep us from really finding one another in love and understanding. But please, let us not say: ‘This will never work. We know each other too well now to be able to expect anything really worthwhile.’ Let us make it work, let us make it worthwhile, for the sake of the Lord!

I have been asked to say something about the obstacles that may prevent us from coming to a united witness regarding the socio-political position in our country. That may sound fairly negative. But may I request you not to approach the matter of the obstacles in a negative way. Let us look at the obstacles positively, with the view to removing them, and not with the negative attitude of thinking that they will be insurmountable. It may become a major obstacle if we keep harping back to our many past differences and if we keep putting so much importance to them that they continue to form a wall between us. Please, let us allow the Spirit of love and gentleness (Philippians 4:5) to govern our minds and hearts, giving us the freedom to accept one another (Colossians 3:8-15).

The greatest obstacle could be the unwillingness to be changed by the Spirit of God and to let go of our stereotyped images of one another. It could be our unwillingness to break with the negative spirit of suspicion of one another, with the spirit of confrontation which we have treasured for such a long time – and to become willing to approach one another with a positive attitude, expecting only the best of one another and encouraging one another to be faithful to, and live up to, that which we as Christians are supposed to believe and to practice.

Our country will benefit if the Church as a whole could be united in its witness about socio-political matters. However, that can only happen if, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can become like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose (Philippians 2:2).

The main obstacles to a united witness are all related to the sinful division of the Church. The whole history of the Church is a story of strife and dissent. Many denominational and confessional divisions were handed down to us as part of our heritage. In our specific case, however, the divisions within the Church are, to a large extent, linked to the socio-political situation in our country. The racial issue, the friction between the races and the system of apartheid, have created new forms of division and have aggravated existing divisions between and within our Churches.

It is not my intention to spell out all the aspects of these divisions and to illustrate why they form obstacles to a united witness by the Churches. I will only mention a few aspects of the problem.

The Isolation Between Christians of Different Races

The whole social set-up in our country is based on the reality of the isolation of people of different races from one another. Up to a certain point we meet each other to work together, but then we move back to our own worlds, worlds which are not only geographically, but in nearly all other aspects, miles apart. Socially, and on the level of interpersonal relations, there is very little contact between blacks and whites. It is rare for people across the colour line to become friends that really know and trust each other, sharing each other’s burdens and happiness. The sad fact is that this situation in society is also reflected in the Church. In this respect, the situation in the English-speaking Churches is undoubtedly better than in the Afrikaans Churches where, as a matter of policy, separate Churches and congregations have been established for people of different colour. Nevertheless, it is impossible that, given the segregated character of our society, a similar situation should not prevail in many of their congregations too. Their white members, in many aspects, do not necessarily differ from the average Afrikaner in attitude and habits.

This isolation of Christians from one another can be a great obstacle in the way of a united witness. The fact is that we live in two different worlds. We have different experiences and hold different views. Very few white Christians know what is really going on in the black townships or rural areas. Apartheid has succeeded in withholding from white people the truth of the real hardship, poverty and frustration in the black world.

In the past, many white Christians were blinded by their ideological misconceptions about the utopia of peace and stability that allegedly would have resulted from apartheid. Others who were ideologically less committed, were simply not in a position to realise what was really happening in the black community. Nor did they really care to know. Their interests and privileges isolated them from the world of the blacks, and they had no wish to be drawn into the confusion and chaos of Black society. Even the voices of those who cried out to make them aware of the facts, were often silenced in one way or another. The Churches with a predominantly white membership identified to such an extent with the cause of white people that they neglected the pain and suffering, humiliation and injustice that dominated the experience of the black community. Their witness was conceived in their white world and directed at the problems of the white community, not at those of the Black world. The cries of pain in black art and poetry, and the witness of black theologians were too shocking to be heeded, and there were enough reasons to criticise and reject them.

Under these circumstances, it was impossible to come to a united witness. The differences in perception of the situation and therefore, the differences regarding the kind of witness that was required, were too big to be reconciled.

It is very encouraging that a process of reorientation has begun to take place. The present climate in our country makes it possible to discuss these things in a meaningful way. I know that within the circles in which I move daily, there is a growing realisation of the realities of our situation and a willingness to face these. I hope that this new climate will also be conducive to a growing awareness within our Churches of the necessity to stimulate the fellowship of believers in a new way. Hopefully, we will be able to come to a united witness in which the need for a new form of life together will be stressed and realised to some extent. We are, hopefully, moving towards a new situation. Hopefully, we will become more exposed to one another and to the whole reality of our country. And maybe we will be able to unite in a common witness that will really be heard.

Differences About the Rejection of Apartheid

The Churches in our country have become deeply divided by their differences about apartheid. The support of the Afrikaans Churches for the cultural and economic emancipation of the Afrikaners, and later also for the policy of apartheid, was a major cause of tension between them and the English Churches. The English-speaking Churches have always been critical of apartheid, maybe also because of its origin in conservative Afrikaner politics. The fact, however, that most of them have had a majority of black members, confronted them more directly with the suffering and pain caused to the black population by apartheid. They had a greater experience of the total rejection of and the growing resistance against it by the black community. To the extent that they officially identified themselves with the cause of the black population, they often also experienced the misgivings of a part of their white membership who, although probably not voting for the National Party, gladly enjoyed the benefits of the system. Some of them were not enthusiastic at all about the course of their Churches. Nevertheless, these Churches managed to handle the situation in such a way, that they succeeded in preserving their unity.

The real tension about apartheid between the English and the Afrikaans Churches centred around the relationship between the DRC and the other Churches. The fact that the DRC had opted out of the SACC in the 1930s, meant that the contact between the Churches was unsatisfactory in any case. After the Cottesloe Consultation it became worse. Despite the ongoing dialogue within the DRC itself, and the strain that emerged in its relations with the other Churches within the DRC family, the mainstream within the DRC resisted any real change in the stance of the Church with regard to apartheid. It has cost the Church a dear price. It became more and more isolated in ecumenical circles. Its credibility was severely at stake.

Fortunately, the situation did not remain static. During the last decade, the DRC has been constantly wrestling with the problem of its support for apartheid. It has ended up by making a decisive turnabout by condemning apartheid as sin at its recent General Synod. The ongoing dialogue with the other Churches within its own family has undoubtedly played a role in this regard, as well as the pressures from the side of the WARC (World Alliance of Reformed Churches) and the REC (Reformed Ecumenical Council). One should also not forget that there has always been a minority within the DRC that has resisted the general trend. That minority has now become a majority, at least at synodical level. In principle, the General Synod of 1986 signalled the change of direction. At the recent synod, the ambivalent formulations of 1986, which had practically ruined the Vereeniging Consultation, were more clearly defined. Given the resistance from within its own membership, this was no easy task for the DRC.

That means that we have arrived at a point where apartheid should no longer be an obstacle to a united witness by the Churches. The only question is whether the other Churches will accept the sincerity of the DRC and welcome it back in the fellowship of the Churches. There need be no doubt that the DRC is sincere in its rejection of apartheid, but it is possible that the other Churches may be hesitant to accept its bona fides. There is still tension in its relations with the Churches of its own family, and maybe there are other Churches too which are sceptical. The sincerity of the DRC will have to become visible in its deeds. During the last few years the DRC has tried sincerely to take steps to do just that.

Nevertheless, it is hoped that this Conference will be a major step towards mutual trust and acceptance. In the final analysis, only the Holy Spirit can give us the confidence to forgive and accept one another. On the human level, the DRC can do little more than to acknowledge its guilt and ask for forgiveness and acceptance. Without that, mutual trust cannot be restored. We cannot just continue as if nothing has happened between us. The wounds that were inflicted by apartheid and racism are still there. The broken relation between the Churches cannot be healed by synodical decisions alone. An experience of reconciliation is necessary to enable us to come to a united witness.

I confess before you and before the Lord, not only my own sin and guilt, and my personal responsibility for the political, social, economical and structural wrongs that have been done to many of you, and the results of which you and our whole country are still suffering from, but vicariously I dare also to do that in the name of the DRC of which I am a member, and for the Afrikaans people as a whole. I have the liberty to do just that, because the DRC at its latest synod has declared apartheid a sin and confessed its own guilt of negligence in not warning against it and distancing itself from it long ago.

Differences About the Task of the Church in a Polarised Society

We must now turn to the third great obstacle in the way of a united witness. It is the tension between two different views on role of the Church in the present situation. The difference my be best expressed by referring to the concepts of reconciliation and resistance. These two concepts indicate two different views on the purpose of the witness of the Church, which, in a somewhat simplified way, may be explained as follows:

1. There are Christians who are deeply moved by the sinful violent situation in our country, and who are convinced that only Christian answer to this situation is the proclamation reconciliation with God and with our neighbours. They see the complex situation in our country as dominated by racial and institutional injustices, poverty and hatred, suffering and violence. They analyse the situation as a basic struggle between two different nationalisms and ideologies, that of the white man on the one side and the black man on the other. They believe that the Church should address this problem by preaching the Gospel of reconciliation to both sides.

Of course, they want to take sides with the poor and the oppressed in the reality of their need, but not in their capacity as one of the competing political forces. According to this view the Church has a responsibility with regard to politics, but it should not play a political role itself. The Church should try to remain true to its identity as the people of God, and the light of the world. In this capacity, it should administer the Word of God to both sides of the struggle, calling them both to repentance before God and to reconciliation with one another. They believe that the Gospel of love and justice should be proclaimed to all, challenging them to change their attitudes and to become willing to accept one another and to co-operate in establishing new political dispensation that will be to the benefit of all.

2. In opposition to this point of view, there are other Christians who believe that the Christian faith has a very clear political function and message, which calls people to liberating political action. This is typical of the political theologies, which the Theology of Liberation is the best known. It offers a reinterpretation of the Christian faith as a whole in terms of the struggle for political liberation, making use of the Marxist model of social analysis and the concept of class struggle. It consciously interprets the Gospel from the perspective of the poor and oppressed, who are seen as the agents of God’s redemptive activity. According to this interpretation, the Gospel can only be good news if it is understood in the way the poor understand it. It sees the South African scene as one of totalitarian oppression, which is idolatrous and totally under the judgment of God. It should therefore be resisted. The Church is called upon to identify itself, in the name of Christ, with the power struggle of the oppressed, in order to bring about new political structures.

It is obvious that these two types of theology cannot easily be reconciled. That poses a serious obstacle in the way of a united witness. Liberation theologians usually react very negatively to the more traditional theology of the first type, which they regard as pre-critical and naïve in its attempt to present a middle way between the opposing forces. They argue that the concept of reconciliation is not suitable in our situation, because it can be misused by the forces of oppression. They suspect those who propagate reconciliation of having vested interests in the status quo, causing them to shy away from revolutionary change that will bring real liberation to the country.

In turn, those who propagate reconciliation reject political theology as ideological. They fear that it must lead to the politicising of theology to such an extent that the Church and the Christian faith are summoned to support the revolutionary powers in the class struggle. That may cost the Church its own identity. Although they share the commitment to stand with the poor and the weak, they see it as an ethical imperative, rather than an epistemological principle, that should dominate theology as a whole.

The question is: Is it possible to overcome the tension between these two points of view and to unite in a clear and unequivocal Christian witness? Let us pray that it will be possible. Maybe we have already moved into a new situation in which some of the tensions of the past have lost their hold on us. Since 2 February 1990, many things in our country have changed quite dramatically. Although the situation is still very volatile and dangerous, we may at least say that political activity has taken the place of the struggle against the system. Hopefully, theological positions which were geared to match the struggle will be softened and even changed. And that may open the way for a kind of Christian witness in which all of us can take part.

Differences on the Church’s Role in Politics

In the arguments just discussed, we can distinguish between two different views on the calling of the Church with regard to politics. This has inevitable consequences for the nature of the witness of the Church in political matters. For that reason, it is necessary to reach some form of agreement on this point if we want to come to a united witness.

There will be no difference between us on the point that the Church has a prophetic task with regard to politics. We will probably also agree that the nature of it will differ according to the specific political situation which is to be addressed.

In abnormal times, when normal political action is made impossible by unjust laws, the banning of political organisations and the suspension of democratic opposition, the Church will have to step into the void with its political prophecy in order to take up the cause of the helpless and the victims of injustice. That is also what the biblical prophets would have done.

But that is not the normal task of the Church. When the situation returns to normal and the democratic political process is succeeding, the Church should return to its normal task and leave political action to political parties. The normal task of the Church is to preach the Word of God as Gospel and law, calling on all men to repent of their sins, to turn to the Lord and to do His will. As far as the political sphere is concerned, the Church should proclaim God’s general and abiding demands of justice, fairness and the protection of the weak and the poor. The Church should also not be afraid to criticise unjust laws and specific political models.

But there are limits to the political task of the Church. The Church has no divine authority to prescribe political programmes. It should never act as a political party or movement. On the contrary, it should encourage all Christians to fulfil their Christian calling in this regard. Hopefully, there will be enough Christians and people of integrity within the political parties to work for the application of sound moral principles in the political life. By acting in this way, the Church recognizes politics as an ethical activity in its own right, in which relative solutions are sought and tried out in a democratic process that leaves room for continual change and adaptations necessary to serve the needs of all the citizens.

Exactly for that reason, the Church should not associate itself with a specific political movement, ideology or party programme. The Church may never forfeit its critical role in society. But that is exactly what happens when the Church identifies itself with a specific political programme or system. Churches are always in danger of relaxing their critical vigilance when, after a period of strife, the political power is taken over by a party or movement to which they are favourably disposed. They are then tempted to bless it and offer religious sanctioning. But when that happens, the possibility of a united Christian witness is severely threatened.

Historically, it is true that the Church very often became the protector of the ideals and values of a specific nation, community or political ideology. The Churches in the West, and the DRC, have all done that in one way or another. But it always meant that their preaching of the Gospel and the law of God became selective, and the status quo was blessed and defended. The Church can only escape from this snare if it remains faithful to its own spiritual identity. Christ asks nothing less of us than total surrender, total commitment. If the Church is obedient to Christ, it will really be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It will not only look to its own interests or to that of a specific group, but also to the interests of the total population (Philippians 2:4). It will cross barriers and bear the burdens of all men. It will seek to be inclusive in the sense that it knows of no favouritism but seeks the salvation and benefit of all.

It is essential that we should be reminded of this now that we are living in a transitional period of rapid change, full of possibilities, but also of dangerous temptations. Allow me, in this regard to quote from an editorial of Dunamis, the periodical serving the Confessing Church. The writer says that there are many attempts in our country today to get the nation to make a gigantic leap of faith into a future of peace and prosperity. But he warns that the national decision against racism, injustice and oppression is not the same as a national decision for freedom and democracy. The one does not naturally and inevitably lead to the other. He then continues:

The smell of power, like the smell of blood and the smell of money, does strange things to people. And history is full of examples that those who will in the end enjoy the fruits of struggle, are very often not the ones who most deserve and need them. Hence, it is so vital that we make our leap of faith with our eyes open and our defences ready. In God’s name then let us be done with the religious adulation of political power and political personalities. Let us get rid of the hungering and thirsting for messianic quick-fixes. Let’s be ever suspicious of those who promise us the Kingdom of God. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel instead of carrying politicians aloft. In God’s name then, let’s also be done with the religious sanctioning of political power. Let us rather be guided by the Gospel of Christ to examine the motives of politicians and political organisations, supporting what is true and just, whoever may espouse them. (Dunamis, 1990: 3,1)

It is the task of the Church to remind our people of the moral issues that are at stake, to pray for our country in this decisive hour and to take a clear stand against the evils of the past and the possible evils of the future. But in order to be able to do that, we will have to be personally committed to the one great thing that Christ asks of us: radical and uncompromising discipleship. Otherwise we will not have the spiritual integrity that is necessary for this new situation. Political change alone can never make us free from our inner bondage. If we are to be a blessing to our country in this hour, we need the Spirit to liberate us from ourselves and from the lack of love which is so detrimental to our mutual relations.

If we are united in our obedience to Christ, we will also be able to find the way to a united witness that will serve the honour of His name and the well-being of the country as a whole.