The Message of Palm Sunday in a Country Gone Mad
By Pastor Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt
10 April 2017
From an economic perspective, the past month has been tumultuous for our country: corruption, incompetence, threat, fears, anger and protests have dominated the news and for many of us, our thoughts too. How should we as Christians and church communities respond to all this and what does yesterday’s celebration of Palm Sunday have to say to us about these issues?
In mid-March our courts ruled that the management of social grants by CPS is illegal, and there was a fluster over whether SASSA would pay the R12.6Bn in grants to some 17M recipients on 1 April. This was a big deal because about a third of South Africans depend on social grants for survival and could have faced chronic food shortages and been unable to pay rent, utilities and other basic needs. This was a crisis not only for grant recipients, but the economy as a whole—predictions were that retail sector sales would fall by almost 12% and national economic growth by 0.3%. Of course the grants were paid, but the whole debacle uncovered heaps of incompetence and corruption in SASSA and CPS.
Hard on the heels of this crisis was President Zuma’s recalling of Pravin Gordhan from his international trip to promote investment in South Africa. We all feared what would happen after that, and it did … on Friday 31st in the early hours of the morning, Gordhan and his deputy were sacked and the cabinet was reshuffled. The fact Gordhan was known as a competent and honest finance minister led many to accuse the president of trying to get his hands on the treasury, and taking out anyone who might stand in his way. At the same time the death of struggle activist, Ahmed Kathrada left the nation in a state of grief. Timeously Kathandra also called for Zuma’s resignation in an open letter read at his state funeral. All this has highlighted, again, the growing internal ructions in the ANC as leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa openly expressed their disapproval of the president’s decisions.
Of course, the Rand immediately weakened and two of the three major international ratings agencies dropped South Africa’s credit ratings to junk status. That means they have no confidence in the reliability of our country to pay back money that we borrow … they’re not sure what the future holds. I think everyone is worried about what the future holds right now, that’s why tens of thousands of South Africans took to the streets on Friday, most calling for the resignation of Jacob Zuma, though many also coming out in his defense.
Sandwiched in between all this was the high court ruling on the 31st March making cannabis (dagga) legal for home use. As we’ve seen in other countries, this opens the way for increased drug use. What makes it worse is that many communities are already reeling from the devastating social and economic effects of whoonga addiction. And so we may well ask, “Has our country gone mad?”
We are clearly a nation in crisis right now, and we have moments of déjà vu as our thoughts flash back to the years of the struggle as Christians and churches are faced with many of the same questions we had in the 70s and 80s: Are we supposed to support and pray for those God has placed in authority over us, doing our best to live peacefully and not resist authority (as the Bible tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-8 or Romans 13:1-7)? Or are we supposed to speak up and stand against evil authority as we are encouraged to do in passages like Isaiah 59:15-16 and Proverbs 31:8-19, following the examples of heroes of the faith like Gideon, Esther, Daniel, Peter and John?
Yesterday was Palm Sunday which is, ironically, the day that Jesus performed his most notable act of civil disobedience. He marched into the temple courts and started pushing over tables, scattering money, releasing birds and driving the livestock out into the streets. This wasn’t only disruptive, it was demonstrative—his message was clear: “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers”. It all made such an impression that the authorities seethed with anger and plotted to kill him—a feat they managed just four days later.
What do we observe about Jesus’ attitude to civil disobedience from this unusual story?
- There is a time and place for civil disobedience—Jesus did it after all.
- Although Jesus was disruptive he did not hurt any person—this was not a violent protest.
- He used actions to underscore a clear message—everyone knew what he was trying to say.
- There was no personal gain—he took nothing for himself, and it was not for the sake of his own security, comfort, or rights. It was entirely directed towards God’s honour and kingdom.
- There were consequences to his actions which he was willing to bear—the loss of his life.
In the Bible, there are a handful of times that God gives specific instructions to his people to use violence. But on the whole we find His admonitions are to support authority wherever possible, using prayer as our first weapon, but not failing to speak out strongly when there is injustice, refusing to act in ways contrary to God’s laws no matter the consequences, and using our influence to resist evil systems and people in acts of civil disobedience. It is clear that there are times when God will hold us to account unless we lay our lives and freedom on the line for what is right and just.
Throughout history most of the great social justice movements have been spearheaded by Christians willing to lay their lives on the line for the sake of God’s kingdom—a few of these include: the abolition of infanticide and abortion in the ancient Roman Empire, of slavery and child labour in England, of widow burning in India, the freeing of African countries from colonialism, the civil rights movement in America, the fall of communism, and the Apartheid struggle in South Africa.
When churches have remained silent on injustice and evil, they have invariably regretted it in later years. During the apartheid struggle, many churches disagreed with the system but, for practical or theological reasons, did not use their influence to speak boldly and decisively. In an effort to minimise their exposure to risk, these groups ultimately compromised their message and integrity.
Let’s be wise in how we respond to the crises in our country: Let’s not fall into the traps of failing to speak up, or failing to support and pray for government, or failing to seek God’s will and purposes, or of only responding when our personal comfort and rights are at stake rather than the rights of others, or of thinking and acting in ways that are unChristlike and do not display the fruits of the Spirit.
May God speak clearly as you listen for His voice, and make yours heard in the tumult of corruption, anger, fear, self-centredness and protest. Let’s be agents of peace, of righteousness, and of justice, not looking to our own interests but always the interests of others and pleading with our Father: “Your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven”.