The Christian in South Africa
Is South Africa hostile toward Christianity in the public square?
The first weekend of September was unprecedented in the history of the Judicial Service Commission of South Africa. Over a two day period, the Commission interviewed President Jacob Zuma's only nominee for the post of Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Justice Mogoeng Moegoeng was made to field questions from various sects of the population on his suitability to hold a judicial office, let alone that of Chief Justice of a constitutional court.
Case after case was brought forward to show that the president erred in nominating Mogoeng Mogoeng for the highest judicial post in the land. Some felt that what lay under his "impaired" view of justice and law was his Christian belief. Mogoeng is a lay preacher in a Pentecostal church and has never shied away from declaring his faith in public.
Many—including committed Christians—may agree that Moegoeng may not be the best candidate; it is, however, not clear what we are to make of the implication that his Christianity is the greatest character flaw that disqualifies him from being an appropriate candidate for the job.
Is the South African environment really that hostile toward Christianity in the public square?
Reportedly, 80% of South Africans regard themselves as Christians (although what exactly this means is open to multiple interpretations). The South African community is nowhere close to being homogeneous; it cuts across racial and ideological backgrounds. This lack of homogeneity is amplified within the Christian community. It is impossible to make sense of this diversity without a look at the twin legacies of Colonialism and Apartheid, as well as the role Christianity played in both (which I unfortunately do not have space to do here).
A South African Christian could be anything from a black African Zionist Christian who incorporates some aspects of traditional faith into his practice, to a conservative white Afrikaner from the Dutch Reformed Church. Within the African population, the Christian community covers the whole spectrum of brands, from the charismatic Pentecostal student in the midst of a worship trance at a university campus, the staunch Calvinist in the Limpopo trying to build a Christian school, the Catholic saving for his pilgrimage to Rome, or the Zionist dancing at Moria over the Easter weekend.
As a general rule, with very little exception, South Africa regards faith as a private issue that should in no way show its face in the public square. This view is more pronounced where Christianity, the largest organised religion by far, is concerned. Of course religion—and Christianity in particular—has not always been marginalised. Historically, in desperate times such as during the struggle against Apartheid, the church has been called upon to lend leadership and direction. Recently, however, the church has been slowly pushed from the centre of the public sphere where it would otherwise take part in setting the national agenda, especially where policy and public office are concerned, to being used as a peripheral tool in implementing policies formulated in its absence. The fight against HIV as well as the 2008 post-xenophobic attack reconciliation efforts come to mind. A number of specific cases, such as the one involving Justice Mogoeng, and a number of anecdotes indicate that there may be covert efforts to undermine the impact of Christianity in the public square. The history of the church during Apartheid may be responsible for this aversion to Christianity.
A good Canadian friend of mine once remarked that he had a greater hope for the future of Africa than he had for the Western world, as Westerners were, in his view, "modern pagans in a fading Christian story, while Africans were Christians in a fading pagan story." The optimism is, of course, based on the assumption that Africa's inhabiting of a Judeo-Christian story will translate into a worldview such as the one that brought light into Europe and formed the cornerstone on which modern Western Civilization was founded. One wonders if such optimism is warranted.
Here is a too-often neglected fact: In a free and open democracy where the secret ballot is practiced, people are likely to vote according to their deepest convictions. Thus the electorate should be expected to vote for people similar them or whom they think most closely hold values resembling their own—at least at that very point in time. I am of the opinion that the election process in South Africa in the post-Apartheid era has by and large been free and fair. The leadership that the people of South Africa have elected over the last rounds of elections, both at municipal and national level, is quite telling in this regard. This is a truth that may be hard to accept for those who regard themselves the "salt of the earth": Our corporate leadership choices may be more reflective of who we are as a society than we would like to acknowledge. Methinks the traditional pagan has bypassed Christianity and moved straight through to modern paganism to join the former Christian who is already there.
Both, of course, lay claim to the Christian label. For those who are genuine followers of Jesus, the form of Christianity practiced, sincere as it may be, is largely the sort that can be described as "a thousand miles wide and two inches deep." It is too weak and impotent to construct the sort of foundations the West was built on.
I have a niggling suspicion that Africa and the Western World are not ideologically that far apart today. My experience in interacting with the Westerners is that most of them, whether confessing Christians or not, possess a Christian worldview of the public sphere—although most of them no longer remember why they do. Africa lacks the foundations; Europe is dismantling theirs, both wilfully and through sheer neglect. The major difference is that the north has the advantage of living off the capital investments of past generations, while Africa possesses no such reserves. Without new investments, this is unsustainable. The demise of ENRON as well as the recent subprime mortgage crisis are examples of what happens to the public sphere when a worldview in which the Judeo-Christian dictated pre-eminence of truth is ditched in favour of a pagan materialist loyalty-based worldview. The current Euro zone debt crisis is only symptomatically financial—the bankruptcy itself runs deeper. The store house is running dangerously low for lack of replenishment.
In spite of the grim picture I have just painted, I am optimistic that, indeed, "ten can be found," like those through whom Sodom and Gomorrah might have been spared their fate. We in Africa and South Africa in particular come from a tradition of expectant hope. I continue to harbour this hope for both Africa and the world. Perhaps the current state of affairs will quicken us to "stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it" (Jeremiah 6:16).