BLIND IN BOTH EYES – AN OPEN LETTER TO SOUTH AFRICA’S RICH CHRISTIANS
13 February 2016
by Marius Oosthuizen at GIBS
I write this letter largely to the Christian community, since it is from within the Church that my own worldview was first formed. Yet much of what I have said here is relevant within all faiths, though not equally true.
THE SOUTH AFRICAN CHURCH IS BLIND IN BOTH EYES
The notion of “blindness” was used in ancient times by theologians and teachers to describe a spiritual condition which plagues people of faith when they lose their capacity for accurate perception and stumble along in darkness. In scripture those possessed by this evil are treated either by washing the clay from their eyes, recovering their sight by seeing the light itself or being admonished to remedy their spiritual ineptitude as a patient who administers a balm. In the end, the ability to see things as they truly are, in the light of day, is the cure.
The South African church suffers from two forms of blindness that threatens our peace and worse, our freedom.
According to Pew research, the vast majority of South Africans, somewhat 85% of the population, believe in God and most of them practice their faith regularly. Place alongside this fact the reality that, were it not for social grants received from government monthly, 17 million citizens, that’s 31% of the nation, would be living in abject poverty. Faith is widespread in South Africa, alongside extreme social exclusion – these are incompatible and we have to face this ethical crisis as a moral issue now. But the Church, the majority, is walking blind in both eyes.
To provide context; the media reported in 2015 that ten of the most expensive private homes in South Africa were priced at between R70 million and R200 million each. ABSA estimated in 2015 that the average nominal value in the “middle-segment” of homes is between R830 000 and R1,8 million depending on the size of the home. So, while one-in-three South Africans would starve were it not for government support and often do go hungry, some are earning between R27 000 and R6 000 000 per month! – the disposable income required to finance homes in the range mentioned. It is therefore unsurprising that South Africa’s average wage sits at around R17 500 per month, cold comfort when 25% of job seekers are unemployed.
The point is, South Africa is a country deeply scarred by fundamentally unjust and unsustainable socio-economic arrangements. This is not a matter of governance and economics alone; it is a matter of conscience. If you are a person of faith and your income falls in the broad range mentioned above, this letter is addressed to you.
YOUR FAITH HAS BEARING ON THE WELLBEING OF THE NATION
If your pastor or priest is teaching you about prayer and devotion, good, these are the lifeblood of faith. However, if you have not heard a sermon about the state of our nation, you may have been undernourished without knowing better. Importantly though, this is not about church leaders, this is about church members. We sing in our Churches about love and truth and righteousness and peace, often without realising that the measure of these is not that which is shared between friends but by that which is exchanged between strangers in the street, even enemies, such as the good Samaritan and his patient revealed.
INJUSTICE IS THE ENEMY OF PEACE
We have enjoyed tremendous freedom of religion in South Africa over the last two decades. Democracy has not only brought about voting rights, it has also provided broad freedom of speech, of assembly and thereby provided space for our beliefs to thrive. So what have the faith communities done with this grand liberty? What wounds have we bound up?
A great many South Africans spent their Thursday evening this week glued to their television screens for the State of the Nation Address (SONA) by the President. The business elites no doubt listened for signals in the President’s speech on how he intends to stave off further ratings agency downgrades which would dry up foreign direct investment and prevent us from borrowing the money we need for long-term development projects. I’m sure they hoped to hear of a plan of how to push GDP growth above 1% and create jobs. Many millions who watched SONA were merely attracted to the anticipated drama of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) provoking the President, calling for “Zupta” to fall, a reference to President Zuma and his controversial friends, the Gupta family.
In some ways the National Assembly in session, or Parliament, is a microcosm of South Africa and plays out like a predictable scene in a play. The African National Congress (ANC) are the new powerful elites, in that position due to their liberation legacy but increasingly disconnected from the people they claim to serve. The official opposition, a patchwork of mostly white affluence that largely makes up the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) parliamentarians, seems lost on how to translate efficient governance in the Western Cape into an attractive brand for the millions of largely black voters who express loyalty along the lines of identity and not policy. The EFF is the noisy and undisciplined youth in the South African family, who comes across angry and irrational. Be warned, out of the mouth of babes… the longstanding issues of injustice in this nation will be brought to the centre of the national agenda.
This year their voices were thrown out of parliament. Yet, the cause they represent will not be thrown out of South Africa’s public discourse for decades unless addressed at the root, a truth that threatens our social stability and could tear apart the social fabric of this nation.
YOU ARE ACCOUNTABLE FOR YOUR NEIGHBOUR’S CARE
The basic notion of spiritual sight is that one is somehow enlightened to the reality of the divine. To some this speaks of a capacity for spiritual connectedness and consciousness, a harmonious coexistence with the powers of the ancestors or of gods. To the Christian faith, this points to a simple familiarity with God through the human face of Jesus Christ. In all these cases, especially in the latter with which I am familiar, spiritual sight is the capacity to perceive the dual reality of the infinite Divine and one’s finite neighbour in union, and to live from this premise. At the core of this message of enlightenment then, there is necessarily a bond between one’s relationship “vertically” with God and “horizontally” with people. Your faith is seen, by your works – toward others, one teacher explained.
This is the crux of the matter. If we say we perceive God but we do not see the 17 000 million citizens who do not have homes and jobs and hope, we are either denying the witness of our first love or blindly convinced of sight we do not possess. I do not say this judgementally, since I would not be able to write this was it not for the many privileges I enjoy. I say this with great care and concern – the South African Church is blind in both eyes. May God help us regain our sight and serve the cause of justice in this nation. Our own peace depends on it.
Marius Oosthuizen is a theologian, strategist and entrepreneur. As a faculty member at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, he teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and heads up the Future of Business in SA project.