Today, 22 April 2017, it is suggested that over a million Christians will be gathering in the farming areas of Bloemfontein to pray for South Africa. They are led there by an evangelical fervour because of the multiple crises taking place in South Africa. It’s a non-surprising event. It’s a common action in South Africa that when there are political challenges, we assemble people in mass gatherings for a somewhat charismatic experience. Some call it a move of God. Others simply call it a mass meeting.
I am a committed Christian. I support church activities and donate to missions and good causes monthly. I preach as a lay servant occasionally. I write often. I have worked in Christian ministry for a significant part of my life.
I am also a sceptic of the events taking place in Bloemfontein today.
On so many levels I fear that this is a laager and not a sacred assembly, that it’s the men of the day, largely the Christian beneficiaries of apartheid, gathering as they always have, to fortify, inspire and strategize. But change they won’t.
Here’s my question: What will they do to show South Africa that this is not a laager but a genuine sacred assembly? Like at previous assemblies of this nature, I know that they will cry tears of forgiveness and make declarations of repentance. They will quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 many times over. Like before, I know that they will hug each other and build amazing friendships across the cultural barriers. And that will all come to an end on Sunday. They will return to their separate schools, separate homes and they will write their cheques out to donate towards the preservation of the world they know. Transformative Justice for the poor will not appear on the average Christian radar.
In generalised articles like these I am going to acknowledge that there are Christians who, having benefitted from Apartheid, have embraced a justice orientation towards repentance, and are exemplary representatives of the Christian faith in how they live in South Africa and in how they view their assets. I have met many of them. Some of them are close friends. But there too few of them.
And let me further add the great respect I have for many beneficiaries of Apartheid benefits, who, without a claim to the Judeo-Christian orientation, have displayed justice and generosity as a hallmark of the way they live today. Both these groups of people inspire me greatly.
This event is called “It is Time”. I suppose that “It is Time” is a typical South Africa euphemism for “Ons is nou gatvol.” Let me give the organisers the benefit of the more positive use of the phrase. It is time to do something. But this is where my scepticism lingers. Why was it not time in April 1994, when the horrors of apartheid were finally voted out of power and their sins laid bare on the altar of public pain? Why was the moment of black pain, traumatically told at TRC Hearing after TRC Hearing, not the time? Why was Nelson Mandela’s death not the time? Why was the brutal murder of Dr Johan Heyns not the time? Why was the death of Anene Booysen not the time? Or the death of Kwezi not the time? Let’s state clearly that the Zuma-Gupta political alliance alone is enough to make it time. That corrupt alliance is a disease in this country. But I suspect that “It is Time” in Bloemfontein because finally the beneficiaries of Apartheid have heard the term “Radical Economic Transformation” too often recently. And they hope that their prayers and repentance today will allay judgement and bring a more favourable dispensation upon the “pray-ers”, their families and their cultural notions. This nation has a “Gelofte Dag” psychosis that distorts our engagement with the reality we live in. We will painfully seek a covenant with God, but we will not see the true world around us which that covenant is supposed to lovingly and graciously serve.
In this vein I have been pondering the multiple missed opportunities by the Christian beneficiaries of apartheid to show the change they profess they have undergone. It’s simply not there on the scale required to be worthy of the Christian community in this country. If the people praying in Bloemfontein showed a bias towards a profound pouring of social and economic justice, and place causes like the plight of the black student and the poor at the centre of their repentance, I would gladly write the organisers a public letter of apology. But Bloemfontein will be like Newlands and Ellis Park – pray, pray, pray and then continue the practices of injustice towards other citizens such as the poor, women, the LGBT community, black students etc. But in God’s eyes it’s not the justice that we do to our brother or sister that counts. It’s the justice we do to the stranger, the one who hates us and to the one who is not like us, that counts.
I’m certain the Bloemfontein organisers know that justice – a drastic, visible, painful, costly justice – is a pre-condition for revival. Anything else is simply a deception of the masses to delay the coming radical economic transformation.
Jesus encountered about four or five wealthy men (yep, it had to be men) according to the Gospel records.
On another day I will write in detail about what those encounters reveal about radical economic transformation. Because radical economic transformation is actually a Biblical concept.
The rich man who wanted to inherit eternal life had to give half of his possessions to the poor. That’s radical economic transformation.
The rich man who threw scraps at the poor man Lazarus ended up in hell for his treatment of the poor man. That’s radical economic transformation.
The rich man who proudly gave some money to the temple and felt quite proud about his gift vs the value of the gift given by the poor woman, was pointed out as one who is giving way too little. That’s radical economic transformation.
One of the other famous rich man encounters is with a wealthy Jewish tax collector who was a self-confessed crook on a Gupta-like self-enrichment scheme. He benefitted extra-ordinarily from a system where he charged a basic tax as per his Roman employers criteria and then was free to add on any additional sums for anything he wished to make off that. At random. His exploitation knew no bounds and was legendary. When he encounters the forgiveness of Jesus – in fact, the full embrace of acceptance of his humanity by Jesus – he does what the Christian beneficiaries of apartheid had failed to do: He says: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Talk about Radical Economic Transformation!
This is the Zacchaeus Moment that the Christian beneficiaries of apartheid missed in 1994. Overnight poverty in Jericho was dealt a death blow. The city’s poor of the day received a trust made up of 50% of a living, very wealthy man’s estate and everybody who was exploited during the Zacchaeus Tax Abuse Regime received a 400% cash injection from one man. That’s radical economic transformation. It’s in the same Bible the Bloemfontein people will be praying through today. It is time that they understood that.
Because Zacchaeus considered the grace and embrace he received from Jesus as liberating, he acted to reciprocate – and he did so to the people around him – to his sphere of influence. And this is part of the reason why black South Africa is so angry and sceptical, because the Jesus-like grace and embracing issued by Black South Africans to the beneficiaries of Apartheid in 1994, after years of exploitation and hunger and destruction of black people by these specifically Christian beneficiaries of apartheid, the Christian beneficiaries of apartheid said thank you and left, returning to live in their neighbourhoods, preserving their schools, keeping their jobs, benefiting from a new globally open market, but failed to seize the Zacchaeus opportunity. If the Christian beneficiaries of apartheid had stepped up, like Zacchaeus did, and went beyond the confession and forgiveness seeking, and actively gave away parts of the economic advantage and assets that they gained under apartheid, they would have created, led and owned one of the most significant global examples of radical economic transformation in the world.
The Christian beneficiaries of Apartheid missed their Zacchaeus moment. And ever since then they have fought to retain more and more of their influence but increasingly lost more and more of their moral authority. They have fought to retain their communities. They have fought to retain their schools. They have fought to retain their language. They have fought to retain their churches. They have fought to retain their denominations. As an example, I continue to remain flabbergasted at how many Christian denominations are still organised along racial lines in 2017. And such behaviour is contrasted against the actions of Zacchaeus, who valued his embrace and inclusion as of priceless value – more than any of the assets he owned.
Jesus, upon seeing Zacchaeus’ actions says these words: “Today salvation has come to this house”. The concept of “salvation” that Jesus refers to here is defined by Strong’s Concordance of Biblical terms as a comprehensive reference meaning welfare, prosperity, deliverance, preservation, salvation, safety”. The concept of “house” in the sentence refers to “sphere of influence”. So let’s rewrite what Jesus said: “Today welfare and prosperity as well as deliverance from destructive practices have come to this man’s sphere of influence”.
That’s what I call South Africa’s missed Zacchaeus Moment.
In 1994, the Christian beneficiaries of Apartheid had to assemble, as they are doing today in Bloemfontein, and they had to say to black people: “We will give whatever we can, but not less than 20% of our personal wealth over the next ten years – at a rate of 2% per year – to show how remorseful we are, and create a fund, to receive cash and fixed asset donations by every family who benefitted from apartheid, and we will use these funds exclusively to benefit the people that Apartheid exploited and destroyed.” That 2% would have raised over R500 million at 1994 average income calculations from the Christian beneficiaries of apartheid (on very conservative calculations) and growing every year. That would have sent most black children to university in 1994. Investing that wisely to address poverty would have allowed us today to have a fund standing at billions. Such a radical economic transformative statement, by the elders and leaders from the Christian apartheid beneficiaries across South Africa, would have allowed for a totally different trajectory of development in this country. And would have had a Mandela or a Tutu or even a COSATU declare “Today welfare and prosperity as well as deliverance from destructive practices have come to this nation’s sphere of influence”.
But they missed their Zacchaeus moment. They retreated into the laager. They asked for rights and protections for their schools, their religion, and their neighbourhoods. They refused to give the way Zacchaeus gave.
And they missed their Zacchaeus moment.
Now they are all meeting in Bloemfontein again. The laager has been formed, parading as a sacred assembly. They should have heeded the words of the prophet Amos when God spoke through him to say to the assembled people:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. BUT LET JUSTICE ROLL ON LIKE A RIVER, RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE A NEVER ENDING STREAM!”
But tonight in Bloemfontein justice and Zacchaeus are absent. For, like in 1994, they will seek God’s blessing on their assets and their welfare. And God is pointing them to Zacchaeus.
by Lorenzo A Davids
22 April 2017