Two weeks ago the director of an organisation known as Sceptic South Africa stirred up a hornets’ nest when he revealed his intention to go to court to force schools in South Africa to stop propagating religion during class time in schools. Those interested in his arguments, can read it here: Public schools flout national laws on religious instruction.
He has in the meantime apparently decided not to go to court. While one can never be 100% sure about the outcome of a court case, I doubt whether he would have been able to win this one. South Africa has an extremely liberal constitution, probably one of the most liberal in the world. But this is a blessing in disguise, because the constitution guarantees that nobody will be discriminated against for whatever reason, including religion. Furthermore, the school act allows the school’s governing body to determine the ethos of the school as well as the predominant religion of the school, with the clear understanding that there will be no discrimination in whatever form against people who do not follow this religion.
Formerly, in the pre-1994 years, all government schools were Christian. One could not be appointed as a teacher within the Education Department if one was not (at least on paper) a Christian. During my school years, we had Bible periods which were mostly a waste of time. These periods were mostly used to do homework. With the exception of my last year at school when we had a wonderful teacher for our Bible period, I learned absolutely nothing in these periods and it did not help me to grow closer to God in any way.
The school where my youngest two children attend and where my wife is also teaching, start and end each day with prayer. Nobody is forced to partake in these activities. People with strong objections are allowed to be out of the classroom during these times. What the director of Sceptic South Africa intended, was to stop any form of practising religion within school hours, which would make any prayer during school time illegal.
I don’t get overly stressed about things like this. History has shown time and again that any attempts such as this to stop the influence of Christianity, leads to the strengthening of the church. It was Tertullian who said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” After all missionaries were forced to leave Mocambique during the Frelimo period, the church, instead of dying, became stronger. But I also realise that, should this case go to court, then I do not have the ability to make any change to the final decision. I can pray for the outcome, but that is more or less as far as it will go. Even lobbying for a certain cause, is not supposed to have any influence on the outcome of a court decision.
However, I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two weeks. With all due respect, I think anyone thinking that they will stop the influence of Christianity by forbidding religion in schools, still has a lot to learn. Most probably, should this case go to court and even more so if they should win the case, there will be a huge rise in people professing their faith (good), but there will also be a rise in extreme Christian fundamentalism (not so good) and both of these are going to be totally counter-productive towards the purpose of the sceptics who, it seems to me, want to eradicate all forms of religion as unscientific and therefore untrue.
But, speaking from my experience as missionary, I believe that the sceptics are also missing another extremely important point, which is the influence of African churches in Southern Africa. As the White population seems to be focussing increasingly on physical science and less on God, the opposite seems to be happening amongst Black people. Last week I was at a school in Swaziland around the time that they closed for the day. All the children gathered outside the building (they don’t have the luxury of an assembly hall) where a few closing remarks were made by the principal before the day was ended with a prayer. Because most Black churches are poor and cannot afford full-time pastors, they often make use of dedicated Christians in other occupations (tentmakers) to lead their congregations. We have at least four school teachers in our church (which is a very small church) who are tentmakers. I cannot for one moment think that these people will stop Scripture reading and prayer at their schools, even if they should be forbidden by law to do so.
I hope this doesn’t lead to a court case, as the only people who will win in the process, are the lawyers. But if it should reach that point, it will be interesting to see how the people of South Africa are going to react.
Some time ago a friend passed on some DVDs to me which he wanted me to evaluate. The person speaking used to be a member of one of the large mainline churches in South Africa, at some stage decided that ths wasn’t the place to be and eventually, as far as I know, formed his own faith community which is not linked to any existing church. He tackles a few issues (I can’t even say hot issues, as for the most part I have never heard anyone discussing this in the past) such as sun worship and Freemasonry (which the church I belong to is officially against but which has not been on the agenda of the church for years, mainly because there are much more important things to discuss.)
This guy is absolutely fanatic about these topics. A round window in a church building indicates that the specific church is a sun worshipper (serious!) Any picture of the sun in a church indicates that the church worships the sun instead of God. A tower at a church says the same. And so on and so forth! He sees himself as a modern-day prophet called by God to warn the modern believers about the sin in their midst. I was preaching in a church in Pretoria just over a week ago and couldn’t help noticing the round window with a sun beautifully made in coloured glass. The inscription in the window comes from Malachi 4:2: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” According to the speaker on the DVD, this window indicates that this congregation is actually worshipping the sun. The way I see it, is that this window illustrates a wonderful promise from God which has nothing to do with worshipping the sun.
I didn’t bother to watch all the DVDs. I came to the point where I decided that I had much better things to do with my time. But watching part of the DVDs did get me thinking about the difference between people who are passionate about something and people who are fanatic about something. I know many people who are passionate about some cause. I, for one, am passionate about seeing the lot of people with HIV & AIDS being improved. And as I thought about this topic, I asked myself whether I would be regarded as a fanatic about AIDS. I hope not, as I see fanaticism as something negative.
I think the difference may lie in the approach. A fanatic – the way I experience it – seems to present a totally unbalanced viewpoint about a topic. In order to get their point across, they tend to lose focus on other issues which may be equally or even more important. They deliberately exaggerate in order to bring their own viewpoint across with greater authority (“Any church with round windows worship the sun”, or “If you raise your hands during worship and the palms are shoulder-high, then you are actually worshipping the sun!) They redicule people who dare to differ from them. They also deny that anyone who may feel differently about their viewpoint, may also have an equally strong viewpoint. I am pretty sure that, should I contact this person and tell him that I think that he has an unbalanced view about sun worshipping, that he will most probably attack me verbally.
But I know a lot of people who are passionate about certain things. One is passionate about prayer. The other is passionate about helping orphans. Another is passionate about peer educating (people teaching their peers about AIDS), another is passionate about helping less privileged people to be trained. The difference between them and the fanatics is that they see their passion as part of a much larger plan. The one who is passionate about prayer has often asked me to attend a prayer group as they want to pray for our work in Swaziland. The one who is passionate about helping children often contact me to find out whether they could help us with anything. Last week I was invited to speak to a group of 68 peer educators about our work. A few weeks ago I was asked to present a class on home-based caring at a training session for pastors.
I feel uncomfortable when I’m with someone who is fanatic about something, but I love being in the midst of someone who is passionate about some aspect of the work of God.
In my previous post on Being in the world without being from the world, I tried to explain how people from younger Christian communities (Africa and Eastern Europe specifically) tend to make rules in order to counter the lifestyles from which they had previously come before accepting Christ. I had a lot of very positive reaction on this post (positive in the sense of people contributing towards the discussion, although not everyone agreed with the viewpoint of these Christians.) Some people did remark that this may become extremely legalistic, even Pharisaic. To which I absolutely agree.
The point I tried to make though, was that these Christians, coming from a predominantly un-Christian background, felt that they had to do something to prove that they are no longer in the world, but that they have stepped into a new world with new rules. In Swaziland where drinking until you’re blind drunk is a fairly normal part of the culture (and the same can be said about Russia), it does make sense to expect of Christians to break completely with this habit.
But I have often thought whether there are things within the Western culture that Christians will need to break from if they want to make a real stand for Christ. Many of the laws in the Old Testament, which may seem senseless to us today, were specifically proclaimed by God in order to distinguish the Israelites from the other heathen nations. One example comes to mind. Many (probably most) of the heathen nations had a multitude of gods which they worshipped. These gods were present in certain places (mostly “high places”) and in order to appease these gods, the people had to do all kinds of acts, including things like self-mutilation or even sacrificing their own children. When God saves the people of Israel, He makes new laws. He is the One and Only God and they are not allowed to worship any other. He is the One who made heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, the stars and the planets, the trees and the mountains. The “holy” places of the heathens, the places where their gods would be found or the things which they worshipped as gods, were in fact all created by Jahwe. The God of Israel will not be appeased through self-mutilation or the sacrifice of human beings, but when people have sinned, they sacrifice an animal. (Obviously, later this animal sacrifice is replaced by the sacrifice on the cross.)
We had a remarkable professor in Old Testament who regularly told us to search for the reason why these laws were made. He maintained that Leviticus is just as relevant today as any of the letters of Paul. Because if we understand the principle behind the law, we will find that the principle has never changed.
How will Christians set themselves apart from the non-Christians in today’s world? Some things are easy. Honesty is not often found in the corporate world and definitely a place where Christians should live differently. But the answers are not always as clear. As I see more and more people caught up in the race towards greater wealth, moving from one home to the next larger house, buying bigger and more luxurious cars, buying larger and larger plasma screen TV sets, I’m wondering if this is not the place where Western Christians need to say: “Enough is enough!” In a world where millions of people are dying of hunger, where injustice takes place on a huge scale against the poor and the needy, should Christians not seek the principles laid down by God and reach a point where they say: “As a Christians, I have to make a stand for what is right!”
This may sound legalistic. But is there any other way in which we can prove in today’s materialistic world that Jesus not only came to save me for eternal life, but that He saved me from these powers that threaten to take over our lives completely.
This is not the only thing which we as Western Christians need to be saved from. Where do you think we need to make a stand if we want to convince the world that Christ truly made a difference in my life?
I’m busy working through the book of Revelation (again!). Contrary to most people I speak to about this book, I find this to be one of the most comforting books in the Bible. I recently purchased a new commentary on this book and although I don’t agree with everything the author says – one point being that he disagrees with the fairly general viewpoint that the Christians in the time when Revelation was written was confronted with great opposition from the Roman empire and that martyrdom was a reality with which they were confronted – I thoroughly enjoy reading through this book.
In the letter to the church in Pergamum, the author notes a few interesting issues. This church is commended for the way in which they took a stand against the worshipping of the emperor – something which was common in those days. Revelation was probably written in around 95 AD, in the time when Domitianus was emperor of Rome. He commanded that the people refer to him as deus et dominus – our lord and our god. However, although they took such a strong stand against this ungodly practice, within the church itself there were serious problems. Apparently there was a group of Christians (church members) who did not consider it inappropriate to take part in heathen festivities. These festivities were usually characterised by various forms of immorality. In this letter to the church in Pergamum, it is said that Jesus holds it against the congregation that there were people within the congregation who took part in these festivities, with the implication that the church did nothing to change their viewpoint.
This brought to mind two questions: Does the church have anything to say about the personal life of church members and does God have anything to say about the way in which I conduct my personal life – or, to put it in other words, is it possible to be in the world without being from the world? When I was much younger, the church in South Africa that we belonged to, had endless rules and regulations about what members could do and could not do, what was sin and what was not sin. These rules didn’t help much, because people still tended to do whatever they wanted – they just ensured that the church leaders didn’t catch them doing this.
In Swaziland, as I suspect in most non-Western countries, this is still true to a great extent. A former colleague of mine used to be a missionary in Zambia and he shared a story with us of how one of their male church members wanted to get married. His only means of transport was a bicycle and he picked up his future wife at her homestead and travelled with her through the forest (a fairly long distance) until they reached the church where they wanted to get married. Once at the church, the local church members decided that he couldn’t get married before being put under church discipline for some time, because nobody knew what had happened while the two were travelling by bicycle through the forest! The amazing part of this story is that the couple accepted their “punishment” and put off their wedding until the church discipline had run its course.
In most churches in Swaziland there are certain things which are absolutely considered as taboo. Smoking and drinking are non-negotiable. I’ve found the same in the church in Russia. I suspect that it would be true for many countries in Africa. These churches come from a background where people would drink until they fall down. When people accept Christ, they have to follow a totally different lifestyle to distinguish them from those who are not Christians. And this is the reason why things like smoking and drinking are such huge issues for them. In their eyes, people smoking and drinking cannot be Christians. Compare this with Indonesia, where I attended church and then, as soon as the service is over, people start lighting up their cigarettes, even while still in the church building. Granted: their buildings are totally different due to the extreme heat, which is more like an open space covered by a roof, but still…
The problem of breaking totally from your old lifestyle is that it becomes increasingly difficult to have an influence on non-Christians. And this brings me back to the main question: How to be in the world without being from the world? The answer is not easy. Few people are capable of doing this, without eventually making important sacrifices. This is apparently what had happened to some Christians in Pergamum.
What are your feelings about this?