This week we heard that South Africa’s unemployment rate reached a new record high of 35.3% at the end of 2021. (Compare to other countries.) According to an expanded definition of unemployment that includes those discouraged from seeking work, 46.2% of the labour force was without work in the fourth quarter of 2021. While the youth unemployment rate is at an unbelievable 65.5%.
Behind these figures are suffering and hungry people. It was reported this week that seven children died of starvation in the Eastern Cape where an estimated 72% of the population live below the poverty line. What a horror to be unable to feed one’s family. Without any sign of things changing, people live in a perpetual state of present traumatic stress disorder. All this is only a stone’s throw away from places of extensive wealth, causing despair and desperation to easily couple with anger and rage.
When the Kremlin spokesperson recently said the West was waging “economic war” against Russia, I thought how true this is for the unemployed and destitute of South Africa. To be sanctioned or prevented from economic participation is to be attacked. For Russia it happened instantly and justifiably as a result of their unprovoked attack on Ukraine, but for 60% of South Africans who live below the poverty line it has been brought to the boil slowly and as such it is not recognised as war. Without recognition that 60% of SA are in a war there is little urgency to end the war. What war?
I am always astounded at the ingenuity that accompanies war. All sorts of industries are instantly converted to assist the “war effort” as ploughshares and pruning-hooks are miraculously turned into swords and spears. When the victims of the war are “only the poor”, however, the idea of turning swords and spears into nourishing utilities is impossibly unrealistic according to the untouched powers that be.
When the stones, that are only a stone’s throw away begin to fly, those who throw them will be called violent criminals and dealt with accordingly. Few will see them as a desperate people finally taking up stones in a war they have long suffered. Stones will be met with urgent State action – often violent – until “peace” is restored. For the 60% this “peace” is in reality the continuation of economic war against them. A war that is not recognised as a war. This self-defeating cycle will repeat itself again and again with growing intensity. And in the end protecting a false peace will be far more costly than the establishment of justice and fairness.
It is within this context that populist politics gain traction and authoritarianism takes root. In an economic war the ‘enemy’ is easily hidden, if not invisible, and this energises the search for visible scapegoats. It is therefore not surprising in these times that xenophobic and vigilante organisations rise in search of these scapegoats to blame and beat. Tragically, the scapegoats close at hand are people equally poor and desperate. In SA these often take the human form of vulnerable foreign nationals. As in Bredasdorp where more than 1000 people, mostly from Zimbabwe and Malawi, are now living in municipal halls and a mosque after they were targeted and chased out of their homes. The traumatised traumatising the traumatised.
With all of this in mind we gather today to share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. This is not a private ritual of forgiveness to secure a spot on a heavenly cloud. At this table, Jesus our host, reminds us of his economic dream of equality on earth where all are included and all receive as we have need. To share in Holy Communion is to commit ourselves to an economy of nourishment for all. To share in this sacrament is to commit to the forgiveness of debts that keep people in various forms of systemic slavery. It is to be reminded that it is not God’s will that some are rich and some are poor. Inequality is at odds with God and leads to self-destruction. God is the great lover of justice who longs for a fair balance where those who have much, do not have too much and those who have little, do not have too little.
A sacrament is a sign. Today we share in a sign of Holy Communion with the commitment to work for incarnation of this sign of Holy Communion in the world. The work of justice and equality is Holy Communion work. Wherever this justice work is done, Holy Communion is taking place. Whoever is doing this justice work is administering Holy Communion. Whenever this justice work is being experienced, Holy Communion is being celebrated.
In last Sunday’s reading we heard that Herod wanted to kill Jesus [Luke 13:31-35]. This statement alone should end the denialism regarding the politics of Jesus. If Jesus’ life carried zero political significance, Herod (the head of politics) would have had no need to put out a State sanctioned hit on Jesus. Jesus threatened the systems that underpinned Herod’s power and as such Jesus was a direct threat to Herod. Jesus the Truth exposed the lies upon which Herod’s regime rested and Jesus the Life exposed the death that Herod’s regime reaped. Therefore, according to Herod Jesus had to be eliminated.
This compels us to check ‘our Jesus’. If our Jesus doesn’t grab the threatened attention of those in power by exposing lies and death then we are probably holding onto a fake Jesus. The priority of this fake Jesus is our comfort and convenience rather than the liberating and healing will of God. A benign and sanitised Jesus divorced from his crucifying context. A Christ without crucifixion at direct odds with Paul’s injunction, “… we preach Christ crucified” [1 Cor. 1:23] and in line with Paul’s accusation, “for many live as enemies of the Cross” [Phil 3:18]. And if this fake Jesus does come with a Cross, it is more than likely polished silver or gold, more ornament of decoration than instrument of death.
We jump to Jesus’ response to the news of Herod’s murderous intent…
Jesus responds sharply, “Go tell that fox…” referring to Herod. Jesus points out the cunning and cruel character of Herod. This shatters the false (yet all too prevalent) notion that to be a follower of Jesus in short means: ‘be nice’. And ‘nice’ means that thou shalt not offend. As we can see, Jesus does not buy into this. For Jesus, the truth is never to be sacrificed for the sake of being ‘nice’.
Often this false focus on being nice is reinforced by a misreading of the scripture, “Do not judge…” [Matt. 7:1]. Regularly this is used to silence righteous outrage by throwing a blanket of moral equivalency over every side of every issue. This is done under the noble guise of neutrality. Yet, Archbishop Tutu reminded us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. We are never to judge ourselves better than others (even the Herods of this world) or to judge another’s state of relationship with their Maker but we most certainly are called to judge whether actions bring life or death. If this were not so we would have no need for the truth-tellers we call prophets and the bible would be half its size.
Jesus went further than calling Herod a fox. Jesus named Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets (truth-tellers) and stones those who are sent to it”. Jesus knew that Herod is not Herod alone. He is a part of a system much larger than himself. A system that enables him to make threats and carry them out. Get away with it and even be rewarded for it. Were Herod to be removed without the entire murderous system being transformed, it would make little difference. Another would take his place. Jesus therefore knew that the fight is not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers that are more than the sum of all the personal parts of a society/system. We have seen this to be true in South Africa multiple times.
Note, Jesus refuses to take orders from Herod. Yes, Jesus does not obey Romans 13 (as commonly quoted). Jesus is accountable to a higher power than Herod and reminds us that we are too. We are all accountable to the Giver of Life and therefore the excuse, “I was only following orders” does not dilute our moral responsibility to act justly and live mercifully.
A final reminder from last week is that Jesus did not call for Herod the fox to be hunted down. To do so is to imitate Herod and then we become Herod’s disciples even as we take his life. Jesus knew that to kill the killer is to resurrect the killer within ourselves. Jesus also knew that if Herod did not change Herod would dig his own grave.
If there is any truth in any of these thoughts may they disturb and direct our living.
Lent begins with the shattering of our complacency or it does not begin at all.
For this reason prophet Joel gave us ‘what for’ on ASH Wednesday. The “fierce urgency” of his tone was to wake people up. To wake up a people living in denial of death about to engulf their world. This death was the consequence of forsaking the life-giving ways of justice, mercy and humility. Especially justice, mercy and humility in relation to the most vulnerable of society – contained within the vulnerable Trinity: widow, orphan and foreigner. Due to the way society was set up socially, politically, economically and theologically, these three groups were the easiest to exploit, scapegoat, demean and get away with it.
Too often we only wake up when the consequences of our complacency threaten to catch up to us. At this late stage it is difficult to see a way out and easy to be overwhelmed. We can move from denial (there is no problem) directly to despair (the problem is too big).
Realising this, Joel invites us to trust that “even now” we can act. In this we are invited to occupy the arena of perhaps. Perhaps, is filled with spacious possibility. Perhaps declares the future is not finitely fixed and therefore there is hope.
Once our complacency is shattered and we overcome the temptation not to act, we face temptations on how we will act. Regardless how well-meaning we are, our action can deepen the problem rather than bring relief. As Jesus’ wilderness wrestling reveals, the devil is in the detail of our actions.
The first temptation is to think we can bring authentic change without the transformation of the human heart that caused the problem in the first place. For example, we fall to this temptation each time we think technology will save us. The lie within this promise is that we can have change without actually changing ourselves. Lasting change demands we actually change.
The second temptation is that our relationships with the Divine, each other and creation are to rest on a quid pro quo formula rather than on grace and the gratitude and generosity that flow from grace. In the quid pro quo world the priest tells us who is in credit / debit or who is saved and who is not. It is a segregated world that states some are worthy while others are not. This world view is often what stubbornly validates structural injustice in the world. In the world of grace the priest reminds us who we all are…beloved. All are beloved and therefore all are worthy of love.
In a quid pro quo world we are only as good as our last deal. And so our third temptation is the need to prove ourselves over and over again. To prove ourselves by promoting and protecting ourselves. This poisons our action with a self-centredness and self-righteousness. We use false categories, like health and wealth to show we have sufficiently proved ourselves, while poverty and sickness are proof we have failed. Suffering becomes the sign of failure and thus God’s forsakenness. The ultimate aim of one’s life is then to avoid suffering at all cost. The fear of suffering limits our loving. Justice and mercy no longer set our true north and we are soon lost, having turned inwards. In seeking to save our lives we lose them. Suffering is not to be sought after for it carries no merit in itself. However, suffering as a consequence of resisting systems that are neither just nor merciful is the clearest sign of faithfulness. The Cross is a sign of such faithfulness.
As a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine many have rightly spoken up with fierce urgency at the complacency and hypocrisy of too many of us regarding other invasions in recent history. Racism has again been exposed in how the suffering of white people is more acutely felt and covered by the media than the suffering of black people. Instead of this truth silencing our opposition to Putin it should provoke us to raise our voice “even now” (especially now!) against all invasions and permanent occupations. This complacency and hypocrisy is clearly seen in relation to Apartheid-Israel (underpinned by USA money and military) and Palestine. I mention this in particular because of how so many Christians are not only complacent in the face of Palestinian suffering but actively endorse Apartheid-Israel’s theft of Palestinian land and subsequent violent oppression of Palestinians. Believing the violent occupation is a biblical blessing blinds them to the truth that God has no favourites and deafens them to the Hebrew prophet’s cry against those who turn justice back by acting inhumanely. No one. No one. No one. Gets a free pass to act inhumanely.
God have mercy on us … who struggle to live mercifully in relation to all our sisters and brothers.