By: Clyde Ramalaine
Is submission and compliance to the synchronised globalised-political-economic-religious-power complex of COVID-19 and its Lockdown response the Christ Believer’s best service to God and His people in this epoch? –
History taught us every moment in the human sojourn either by design or by-default elicits distinguishable circumstances better understood in events that warrant pensive reflection in relevant responses. This opinion piece is deliberately confined to the Christ Believer group [The Professing Christian Church] and does not purport to speak on behalf of all Faiths / Religions as represented in South Africa since I simply have no mandate to speak on behalf of any other Faith stream. I equally do not use other streams as the model to dictate the response of the Christ-Believer since that may compel one to veer outside the Christian Sacred Text. This moment is no different to all others before and the challenge does not exclude the Christ- Believer in his/her response.
There are those from within the professing Christian community who contend the best service of the Christ-Believer amid the COVID-19 virus in global presence is the act of love. Love here for them is understood in putting others first as the central response. The manifestation for this love dictate defines the wearing of a mask, maintaining of social distance, sanitizing, and obeying the State in all its choices of decisions even the shutting of the corporate fellowshipping of the saints as biblically instructed in Acts 2 and Hebrews 10:25. This persuasion dictates those who question the motives, and intentions of the State as irresponsible, not sincere in their love of neighbours for not abiding by all promulgated regulations of the State. Their best service confirms absolute compliance to the State notwithstanding the latter’s known contradictions, inconsistencies and in some instances grave incongruence as not scientifically borne out.
Those who advocate for this form of compliance easily condemn all others for their questioning of this type of uncritical compliance. It appears the intolerance levels of those who advocate a thoughtless submission to the State and its governance of the pandemic attest extremely high spikes. It would appear their understanding of what the State means in this era is uncritically taken from the biblical Romans 13: 1 instruction ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities”. This narrow interpretation of the text did not stand scrutiny during apartheid when the church rose to defy and confront the State. Why then would it today be so prognosticated in this season?
The rationale of love is a powerful theme and no one can deny the centrality of it in the message of Jesus as the embodiment of that love. Yet we dare not misread, misidentify or misunderstand love in simplistic binaries of responsible and irresponsible paradigms when we deliberately refuse ourselves time to engage the content and efficacy of the State’s COVID-19 response of lockdown measures. This section of the professing Christian community strangely does not concern itself to ask how possible is social-distancing in apartheid bequeathed and democratic era endorsed black townships. This group registers no interest to engage the State as to how it can demand from the poor to wear a mask when it never provided the latter with such. It equally so does not engage the state on sanitizing when the citizens in SA still drink along with animals from rivers because the State has failed to provide the basic services. Where than is this love dictate when the professing Church is silent on the complexities and perplexities of the poor the needy the downtrodden. Unfortunately this section of the professing Christian Church finds no challenge with the class contradictions this pandemic lays bare.
We dare not exclude or ignore the ethics of the historical Jesus, troublesome and less palatable they may portend, and his appetite to challenge authority and power be it religious or political power. We cannot be blind not to see our own intolerance to an open discourse because we are obsessed to see our compliance as righteous acts and the questioning of others within the Christian community as naturally unrighteous, insensitive and rightfully blackmailed as responsible for the mortality rates. We warrant contextualising a response to the sojourning unwelcome virus and the engaging of the State for a governance response.
I wish to postulate the 21st Century Christ-Believer [The Professing Christian Church] stands confronted to ask what the historical Jesus would have done faced with the current pandemic or p[l]andemic as some advance. The asking of what Jesus would do is not a luxury of choice we can engage in armchair analysis sense. It’s not a convenient question to ask, neither is it a cynical thought for the cynical season. But it squarely confronts us with a form of stealth sense with the intensity of the demand to be the ‘salt of the earth’ and the ‘light of the world’ as He directed His followers for an identity of relevance in an immediate contesting world. It necessitates a call for a pause to engage the meaning of what ‘salt-and-light’ in a 21st Century setting amidst a world situation of COVID-19 and its accompanying slew of means to governance. It confronts the Christ- Believer to find no easy escapes in claims of its a global pandemic as if because it is that warrants mere and simple compliance. If Jesus taught us anything it must be that God is not always in the crowds.
There is little doubt that the historical Jesus, for the open-minded reader of His life as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, proved more than a strenuous character particularly for those that represented the power dynamic be it understood in political, religious, and economic descriptions of His time. Let us not forget His birth as foretold and finally realised spelt a threat to the political leadership of Herod, who demanded that all infants under two be executed, [Matthew 2:16]. The historical Jesus finds him at a tender age of twelve years apparently lost in separation from his earthly parents [Joseph his adopted father and Mary] but seated and engaging if not lecturing religious leaders in the Temple, [Luke 2:41-52). His first healing miracle, the healing of the paralytic at Capernaum as recorded in Matthew 9:1–8, Mark 2:1–12 and Luke 5:17–26, thrust him into the spotlight of suspicion as one who marks an individual that defied the rules around the Sabbath. This miracle which was initiated by Jesus saw him going to the Pool of Bethesda and executing this in the singularity of a healing miracle. It is as if he was deliberately courting trouble with this miracle, it as if he was bent on being difficult in challenging the religious dictates of his time. Following the healing of the paralytic, he instructs the man to take up his bed and walk. He did so knowing, this is in grave conflict with the religious order of the day that dictated such as not acceptable, therefore, the breaking of Sabbath as the law.
His manifold utterances often vituperative and particularly reserved for the religious leaders of his day can simply not be ignored. I searched throughout the Synoptic Gospels for a place, space, and time where the Historical Jesus esteemed, honoured and was simply affable towards the Pharisees and Sadducees. It would not be far-fetched or an overstretch to define Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders of his day as terse, hard-hitting, and almost bereft of mercy. In this setting, his relationship with them was defined by rebukes, reprimands, and condemnation as Matthew 16: 6, Matthew 23:1-39, Luke 11:37-54. One must concede it’s a struggle to find the compassionate, forgiving, and loving saviour in the historical Jesus as it relates to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He showed them out for the hypocrisy, abuse of the people the judgmental minds on others and their failure to live what they knew. The accusations that this same group better understood through the office of the High Priest brought against Jesus which essentially condemned him to the death of the cross, a sentence wholly an inconsistent of the crime he stood accused of, saw to Him dying at the hand of a Roman government for what can be defined a Jewish religious contravention or crime.
In this sense, his earthly life goes full circle from Him being seen, though as an infant, a threat to the political power/ administration of Herod to his death as a grown man at the hand of a Roman Government, presided over by Governor Pontius Pilate with a charge sheet that details a Jewish religious contravention. Yet unperturbed by the powers of the Sanhedrin that brought him to the courts where He was answered their charge sheet, less intimidated by the powers that presided in the Roman Courtroom of Pilates we see His conscious defiance to tell Pilate”You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above…” [John 19:11]
In the execution of His mission, in the fulfilment of His assignment and the completion of the exacted call against His life, the Historical Jesus in the crucible disobeyed both political-religious power authorities and orders. He defied them at times having to flee, lied about, threatened to be stoned, plotted against, and ultimately arrested to face the gruesome death of the cross on drummed-up charges and false witnesses that remains an illegal trial.
It is this conscientious awareness of the historical Jesus, His Sitz im Leben [setting in life], the totality of His call the undeniable presence of an earthly ministry immanent in the performing of the miraculous great works detailing the service to God and people, equally so the consciously and undeniable defiance of power- structures regardless of its threatened consequence, that confronts the 21st Century Christ believer. This awareness then must define a prophetic witness of what the Christ-Believer who since the departure of Jesus was persecuted at times declared vermin for the greater part of the first century. In this sense, the cumulative attitude of the first generations of Christ-Believers toward the existing political order was determined and influenced by the expectancy of the Kingdom of God [Basileia tou theou] whose divine and miraculous power was tangible in the person of the historical Jesus. There is consensus that for the followers of Jesus, the importance of political order was, thus, negligible. The Christ believer in every century that followed stood confronted to face some form of persecution, opposition, threat, and a form of clamping down from a combination of political and religious power. In each century the Christ believers or what we refer to as the church had to make choices between God and man, the divine and the earthly power, the holy and the sacrilegious of political, religious, or economic authorities.
Yet, engaging the subject of a persecuted Christ-Believers group for a topic of discussion simply cannot ignore nor negate the historical realities of the toxic interwovenness of State and Church as we see of a 4th Century when Emperor Constantine granted himself as appropriated the designation of ‘Bishop of Foreign Affairs’ certain rights to church leadership. Rights that not only were concentrated in the ‘outward’ activity of the church but also encroached upon the inner life of the church, as was seen with the role of the Emperor in summoning and leading Imperial councils to formulate fundamental Christian doctrine and to ratify their decisions. Neither does it airbrush the era when the Church and State during the Byzantine Empire relationship saw the secular ruler being called ‘priest and emperor’.
It is this awareness of the historical Jesus and the appreciation for his life, teachings and ministry that compelled the priest and scholar Martin Luther to approach the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany to nail his 95 theses on October 31, 1517, with the message that faith and faith alone can save. This initiative marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The inclination toward the coming kingdom of peace placed Christians in rigidity with the State, which made demands upon them that were in direct conflict with their faith.
Arguing for a theology of justifiable defiance necessary with the maximum symbol of the historical Jesus in frames of an oppressive State & Religious Order necessitates the 21stcentury Christ-Believer to ask for the relevance of a response in their immediate circumstances as confronted. To this end I have deliberately chosen the colloquialism, ‘What-Would-Jesus-Do’ [WWJD], to postulate a set of practical questions as relevant here and now: Had He [Jesus] been in this COVID-19 space would He have been merely complying, or would He have been civil disobedient? Would He have entertained the fact that he could not address His followers, to feed them bread and bring them healing through the preached word and hand touch? Would he have seen the virus as overwhelming an insurmountable threat or would he have dared to lay hands of the sick, the infected – the same that pastors today in obedience run away from in claims of being responsible and sensible? Would Jesus have stayed indoors to protect himself as sensible response? What would he have advocated for? Would Jesus have been labelled a conspiracy theorist for his possible dissenting views on the virus and the State’s response? What does he expect his followers to do in these circumstances?
If he simply would have been compliant, let the 21st Century Church holds its peace, meaning no complaint, and exercise its rightful civil duty to observe due regard immanent in compliance.
Yet if there is no biblical evidence in the synoptic gospels for His mere compliance and submission, but overwhelming evidence of Him consciously defying and challenging the religious and political orders of His day, why are His empowered believers so timid, obedient, literally scared, strangely tolerant, politically correct and less suspicious not to ask fundamental basic questions or to protest the contradictions of unscientific regulations of governance that sees the corporate fellowshipping of the church outlawed?
Shall we remind ourselves that in some ways our past confirms that we have been here before? Lest we forget the Church’s defiance of a brutal system led the World Alliance of Reformed Churches [WARC] in August 1982 in its Ottawa Canada gathering unequivocally declared apartheid a heresy. Confronted by the ambiguities of a set of COVID-19 Lockdown regulatory frameworks and rules when the State devoid of any scientific evidence continues to advocate the corporate gathering of the Saints a natural super- spreader space and community.
It is thus strange that many who during apartheid either as Christian theological students or trained theologians were prepared to go to the streets to confront the oppression marked in an apartheid system with stones are today so mild and calibrated in fear of submission to simply believe the current ANC led Administration’s actions as sincere and above reproach when it failed in a plethora of spaces to be the custodian of the people it leads in political headship It appears those who stood for and endorsed the watershed moment of a Belhar Confession [BC] drafted in 1982 but only formally adopted in 1986 by the DRMC along with the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confessional and the Canons of Dort marked a unique moment for this section of the South African Reformed tradition are today silent.
The Belhar Confession stands in the same tradition of the 1934 Barmen Declaration adopted by Christians in Nazi Germany, remains a timeous intervention that must demand of us to interpret the seasons we are in a continuum of the timeless epoch. Equally so in 1988 Pentecostals responded to articulate in what came to be known as the Relevant Pentecostal Witness [RPW} a stance to the apartheid system of governance. Yet we also observe a strange silence from this group as if both proponents of the Belhar Confession and the RPW Later in this season apparently have arrived in the eschatological kingdom of heaven’s rule in the 21st century and thus have no need to question the actions of a Democratic State on its upholding of an unequal society and in this instance its COVID-19 governance response. Was the aim merely a democratic State as the finality and not to also in prophetic witness custodian sense to keep the very democratic state accountable? The Belhar Confession unequivocally declares in three of its fundamental summaries the following:
We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence (Eph. 4:15-16; Acts 5:29-33; 1 Peter 2:18-25; 1 Peter 3:15-18).
This belief statement is unequivocal and solemn its articulation of the church’s obedience as first and foremost to Jesus Christ it’s head. The Church derives its defiance of authority and human laws as it confesses and does all these things despite the threat of authoritative and human laws. It pits the church in confrontation with the State if the latter’s authoritative power and laws detail the opposite of the obligation of doing confessing and doing what its head [Jesus] instructs directs, and model.
- That the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
Notice any form of suffering, meaning the suffering of denied fellowship denies suffering. The suffering of the neglecting of the coming together of the saints as biblically instructed in Hebrews 10: 25 not forsaking the assembling of we together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. In this instance, the State has determined by proclamation that the fellowshipping of the saints is not permissible.
- That the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their interests and thus control and harm others.
Notice how the body of Christ is implored by the Belhar Confession to first take a conscious stand against injustice and to speak up for those who are wronged. The church is implored to witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their interest. Meaning when the church witnessed the brutality of the SANDF and police as unleashed on township life and the embarrassing denigration of township dwellers that in some instances led to the death of more than 11 people in 2020 it strangely remained silent in the face of injustice. It was equally silent when a Police Minister Cele recently disrespected the citizens of SA with his egotistical demands of citizens to sleep at his command. The church ought to have expressed its natural discomfort with this behaviour and raised such publicly as bordering unjust and destructive acts for meaningful life. How then is it possible that the Church in this season uncritically echoes and reverberates shouts with the politically powerful, the moneyed the multinationals, everyone, down as a conspiracy theorist that holds a different view in the critique of the pandemic and the State’s response? Shall we ask from what well does it drink to have such uncritical comfort not to question the intentions of for example the billionaire Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation, or is the church leadership feeding on the same trough until its only grunt is its silence while being eating from the hands of the powerful?
If the Belhar Confession was the response of the oppressed Reformed Church, the Pentecostal Church equally so saw it fit to stand in that tradition to articulate the challenge of Pentecostalism and its conservative identity that prognosticated a gospel of individualism of salvation experience when it penned the Relevant Pentecostal Witness as a call for the Pentecostal prophetic voice against a demonic apartheid system. The Relevant Pentecostal Witness in its analysis and critique of Pentecostal Theology asserts:
- South Africa is a land of unequal opportunity. It is a land of two worlds-a world of the rich minority and a world of the poor majority. Yet under such divisive conditions, we preach a single message of repentance. We see sin mainly as an inherited human condition. We do not regard its presence in our society through the evil actions of people or in the implementation of evil structures. We, therefore, call master and slave, rich and poor, oppressor and op-/ pressed, irrespective of the degree of crime or the degree of injury, to one repentance. We do not follow the tradition of John the Baptist who called on 1 people to repent of specific sins within their specific social context. For example, he said to the tax-collectors, “Exact no more than that which is appointed you”, and to the soldiers, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely.” (Lk. 8 .13,14).
- We have also not followed how our Lord preached repentance. The challenges he issued to the Scribes and the Pharisees (people who abused their privileged positions of power), were not the same challenges he issued to the poor and the oppressed. He called on the poor and the oppressed to “take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly at heart” (Mark. 11. 29). He called the Scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” (Lk. 1 1.44), and a “generation of vipers” (Matthew. 12.34). He accused them of heaping unnecessary burdens on the poor and the oppressed, yet they were not willing to relieve the people of their burdens “with one of their fingers” (Mark. 23.4; Luke. 11.46). To the victim of oppression, he said, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew. 11.28). It is ironic that severe discipline is placed upon those who fairer and commit !.ins which we as Pentecostals emphasise, yet those who are guilty of many of the apartheid sins can even find sanctuary behind our pulpits” [sic]
This revisiting of the distinguishing of what repentance means for the oppressed versus those in power, be it religious, political, or economic must necessitate us to ask what happened to the Church and its prophetic voice? Why is the Church in leadership so cautious and politically correct and failing to address the powerful elites be it in economic, religious, and political frames in an unequivocal call for repentance? Where is the Pentecostal prophetic voice to speak truth to power? Or was its primary preoccupation as understood by the oldest denomination and its affiliation joining the SACC primarily to be accepted as mainline denomination and too finally sit at the seat of recognition equally emulated voicelessness too grateful not be labelled ‘handeklap – boskerkies’ in identity marking?
Why is it then that the Church in this epoch is not attuned to recognise the new injustices of COVID-19 in its manifested governance response reality? Why does the Church not see the hand of the new oppressors that seeks to manipulate to control those that God loves as His creation? Why is the Reformed Church and Pentecostal Church expressions in this sense silent on the in its exacted prophetic witnessing against the dictates and lust of insatiable capitalistic multinationals in bed with political power that is uniquely obsessed to have people vaccinated? From where the natural lack in suspicion of a State that has become the enemy of the poor, that continues to malign and oppress. How is the Christ- Believer silent when the State can unilaterally withdraw a much needed R350 grant scheme it entered with the poor? Is the church in leadership so calibrated to political power that its silence confirms its subservience?
What shall the response be when the State deceives? What is the church to do when the State is accused of billions in corruption in misappropriation of PPE through fraudulent tenders? Why are we as followers of Jesus silent when the State through creative means of an applied Disaster Management Act, encroaches if not tempers with the very constitutional rights of its citizens in as far as it concerns the freedom of religious gatherings as dictated by Sacred Texts? The hypocrisy of some church leaders to speak up against certain acts by certain politicians in a factional sense calling them to be jailed when it lacks the conviction to question a sitting president that needed R1bn to win an election is deplorable? Is it true that the church understood in leadership lost its prophetic voice to maintain a critical distance of reflection to tell the State that its response to the COVID-19 virus for shutting the church doors is not biblically endorsed? What it the custodian role of the Church in this epoch?
Is it not strange that the very theologians in this particular season now somewhat slavishly repeat what the State says on the pandemic in absence of any critical engaging to assist the State to lead better? So, fear-driven is the Church leadership that it believes its best service to God in this season is to submit and comply in the absence of engaging. Why did the Christian Church not do the same under apartheid? Have we so quickly forgotten that any State that shuts the fellowshipping of the believers even aided with claims of a pandemic is not doing what is right? This conflation of State and Church is perhaps nowhere clearer as in the role of the South African Council of Churches [SACC] in this epoch. There is little doubt that the SACC, which comfortably claims it speaks for the majority of church formations in SA while it attests an ANC factional politically slanted entity that dismally failed to inform the State and the president at the dawn of COVID-19 in unequivocal sense THUS SAYS THE LORD. Instead, it appears it maintained a submissive attitude, possibly somewhat overtaken by being invited since for almost ten years it was side-lined by a former administration. How did it not manage to show the relevance and importance of pastoral care as an essential service, until some of us penned arguments to the State to advocate for pastoral care as an essential service.? How did the church representation remained subdued when all other sectors knew to defy in raising their hands and voices to negotiate with the State until the alcohol industry, mini-bus sector, entertainment spots such as casinos are open when the Church doors are indefinitely shut and the corporate fellowship of the saints in physical gathering is outlawed.
We ask again, what would the historical Jesus have done under these circumstances, was he going to be merely submissive or defiant? Is the Christ- Believer’s best service to God and His people politically correct submission and silence to the dominant global, political-economic-religious complex powers of the hour? Should COVID -19 persist for the balance of the year and the current justifications for the State’s actions measurable in regulations remain will its submission and compliance details its best service to God and His creation?
Is it not time that the Christ-Believer actualize this radical and challenging ethic of Jesus measurable in his conscious defiance of the religious and political power complex of his era? Is the recent pastoral gathering organised in Sebokeng, that so brutally was interrupted by an uncouth and lusty police-officer group, who exactly know how to trample on the constitutional rights of apartheid blacks while super conscious to uphold the rights of the apartheid whites as we saw not confronting and compelling the church to find its prophetic call? Is Sebokeng not marking a new Kairos for church life in this era? Is the right thing not to mobilize and go to the streets regardless of the threat of arrests, criminal records, abuse, possible bullets, and even police brutality. The Christ-Believer dare not flinch since he/she is told not to fear.
*Bishop Clyde N.S Ramalaine – A Public Theologian, Analyst and Political Commentator