"Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
I received an e-mail last week from a friend in Johannesburg. A chartered accountant, he has spent much of his life helping churches and other groups manage their financial affairs, and has raised funds for many community projects. In his letter he wrote: "I am very frustrated at the moment. I love SA but hate living under the rule of a President who is such a flawed individual. I am sure that I am only one of many Christians in SA who are battling to know how to respond to the forthcoming elections." Many would probably say the same, as did my American friends before their Presidential elections last year!
There are many things wrong about South Africa that cause concern. I need not catalogue everything that comes to mind, for you know about them as much as I do. At the same time, we can be thankful that South Africa did not end up in a civil war like Syria, a real possibility in the late 1980's. We can be thankful that our diverse religious communities are not engaged in fostering conflict, that we live in a secular democracy, and that so far we have escaped terror attacks such as have occurred in the United States, Britain, Spain, France not to mention the Middle East, Asia and north Africa. We can be thankful that whatever its faults, we have a reasonably stable government, and that the democratic process is working despite problems We can be thankful that there are processes at work to combat corruption, nepotism, and the squandering of resources . We can be thankful that we have a good civil society, and many committed, courageous and compassionate people in our country who are doing so much. We can be thankful that most of us live reasonably comfortable lives, more so than in some other countries and more so than many of our compatriots. We can also be thankful that, whatever his faults, our president is not a tyrant like some others in the world with weapons of mass destruction on hand. He reminds me more of one Shakespeare's tragic kings, trapped in the mire of past mistakes, beholden to those who have bailed him out, and in danger of being ousted by the same crude tactics used by those who put him in power by others who won't hesitate to ditch him if it serves their interests. But he does keep on calling us to be good patriots, so let us take him at his word.
To be a good patriot is to acknowledge all that we can be grateful for as I have done already. But equally true patriots are sad and often angry when things go wrong, when hard fought for victories over racism are squandered, when money that should go to help the poor ends up in the pockets of politicians, the powerful and rich. True patriots are angry not because they hate their country; but because they love our country. To love South Africa truly means to be committed to its welfare, and therefore disturbed when things are not as they should be. My Johannesburg friend is a true patriot, someone who loves his country so much that he is not prepared to accept things uncritically as they are, not given to uttering the slogan "my country right or wrong," but also not prepared to sit back and do nothing to make it a better country for all who live in it. True patriots like him do not wash their hands of the situation when it is bad; they are prepared to get their hands dirty when needed to make things better. There are, I believe, many such true South African patriots, and I like to think that we are numbered amongst them.
Christians are called to be good patriots, to look for ways in which we can contribute to the welfare and common good of town and country. So we come to the question posed by my friend: "I am sure that I am only one of many Christians in SA who are battling to know how to respond to the forthcoming elections." So should the churches tell their members who to vote for, and what party to support? There may be situations in which this is necessary, when the churches say quite firmly that we should not vote for some party or person. But I don't think that is appropriate at this time in South Africa. In any case, there are Christians in all parties, and the churches would disagree on who to vote for. So does the Bible tells us what to do? St. Paul taught the first Christians to obey the authorities because God had appointed them to govern (Romans 13). This is important, he said, if there is to be good order in society, however flawed those in authority may be. And keep in mind the situation Paul faced was the might of the Roman Empire which he often experienced by being thrown into prison! But, as we see in the book of Revelation, the state can also become tyrannical, the enemy of law and order, an instrument of evil (Revelation 13), which has led some Christians in extreme situations to resist tyranny and pray for its ending, as we did during the apartheid era. In either case, Christians were called on to endure faithfully in their testimony to Christ as Lord above Caesar.
But now we live in a democratic country, the country for which many of us struggled, which is very unlike that faced by Christians in the NT or in many other times and places, and even today. This significantly changes the game plan. So we should at least we glad we can vote, and do so responsibly, rather than wash our hands in a Pilate-like gesture of indifference. To vote responsibly requires that we first think critically about policies and issues; that we do not vote in terms of self-interest but the common good; not in terms of past loyalties to parties or privilege, but on the basis of present realities; that we support that which is just rather than expedient, that which will contribute to the common good. Only in this way will we be able to follow Jesus' counsel "give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's," knowing full well that all things are God's and the emperor had better recognise that for his own good. But acting responsibly as good citizens does not begin or end with our vote; our vote be backed up by a commitment to work responsibly in whatever way we can for that for which we voted. We certainly cannot leave everything in the hand of the politicians we elect! In short, to be a good patriot and a good Christian one at that, is to take our place in civil society as responsible citizens.
Yes, we do get sad when those we love behave badly, and we do feel let down when our country is not what we know it should and can be, just as we despair when the Bafana Bafana, the Springboks or Proteas lose. But that does not mean we give up on them, though we might fire the coach or ditch the president! We work hopefully and responsibly for good, we pray regularly for those who rule, and we exercise our critical faculties when we decide about who should get our vote. May election year 2014 be a good one! May God grant us that for which we pray. May the voices of those who suffer daily from bad government be heard loud and clear, but not lead to violence. May those who govern be given wisdom. May those in opposition fulfil their task with conviction, May the elections be peaceful, free and fair. And may we be true patriots who take our responsibility as citizens seriously. Let's make that our prayer and the guide to action.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, 9th January 2014