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Working for Justice

Dr Gerald Pillay



How do we work for justice in our world? That’s a real question for someone who grew up as a non-white in apartheid-driven South Africa. Dr Gerald Pillay draws on his South African experience, and from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that influenced Gandhi so profoundly, as he challenges Christians to respond creatively to work for justice.

How we work for justice in our world depends on the theological vision that empowers us. That vision is fragmented in our time—why is this so?   What are some of the consequences of that fragmentation?   I also want to consider the different ways that Christian communities interact with society,  and finally focus on,  what we may call,  the wholeness of the Gospel.

The fragmented theological vision

The fact that there is today a question about working for justice is an indication of this fragmented vision.   In the early church the connection between faith and proclamation,  and standing up for righteousness was self-evident.   They were inseparable.

For us ‘moderns’,  however,  after some 200 years under the shadow of the Enlightenment,  an eroding process of secularisation,  and internal ecclesiastical divisiveness,  the possibility of any wholeness of theological vision has become greatly diminished.   The churches,  especially the Protestant branch,  have proliferated.   To generalise therefore about the Church or Christianity as if these are definable unities is simplistic and not very helpful.

Nowhere was evidence of this proliferation of the churches and of this fragmented vision more prevalent than in the country I grew up.   I refer to the South African case study because I know it well.   It provides me with living examples.   It is an insightful contemporary case study of how Christians struggled for social justice.

Back to this question of a fragmented theological vision.   In South Africa it was almost impossible to speak about the whole church,  or Christianity.   It was the Dutch Reform Church that in the 1920s,  long before the dawning of apartheid in 1948,  went to the government asking for the segregation of the universities.   Later,  the Dutch Reform churches gave apartheid its theological basis.  The apartheid constitution had a most Christian sounding preamble,  with scriptural citations to boot.

Then,  on the other hand there was another group of churches that was vociferous in the condemnation of apartheid and led the struggle against it.  That group made up the South African Council of Churches  (the SACC)  and included mainly Anglicans,  Catholics,  some Presbyterians,  and Congregationalists.

But we cannot generalise about even that group.   A young Anglican priest,  my squash partner,  said that he once in a church outside Durban asked the congregation to pray for Archbishop Desmond Tutu.   On hearing that request,  a white member of the congregation,  disgusted that my friend dared mention the name of Desmond Tutu,  put off the lights in the church and walked out.   The leaders of this group of churches may have taken a stand against apartheid,  but not everyone in the denominations they represented agreed with them.  There was often a big gulf between the synod and the pew.

The third group of churches was the largest group.   Among them were most of the evangelical churches,  almost all the Pentecostal churches,  and the Baptist churches.   They adopted strictly a policy of non-involvement.   They wouldn’t join the SACC,  they certainly were not part of the Dutch Reform churches and they argued against politicising the church.   ‘Don’t bring politics into the pulpit,’  was their basic position and they used passages such as Romans 13 to support their stance.   In the 16th century the Anabaptists argued for the separation of church and state and for that they were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants and lost their lives.   Ironically though in South Africa this very group used that same principle to argue for a very conservative and non-committed,  safe position.

In 1986 a group of theologians from the Institute of Contextual Theology produced the Kairos Document.   They argued that it was time to celebrate a kairos theology,  (kairos meaning the theology for that ‘fulfilled’ moment in the country’s history.)   Their document divided all theology in South Africa into three groups:  ‘state theology,’  the theology that supported the status quo;  ‘church theology’ where the various denominations argued for the integrity of the institutions and were quite satisfied with adopting historical positions and leaving it at that;  and thirdly,  what this group called ‘kairos theology’ — the theology of the political struggle that justified as a last resort even the taking up of arms.

The divide in that document is much deeper.   The pursuit of justice became a programme that some launched into,  whereas piety and spirituality became the watchword of the group that remained non-committed.   Their spirituality was caricatured as introspective and inward-looking,  as pie in the sky,  a cop out,  conservative and such like.   The group involved in social justice were those concerned about the world,  and social transformation.   They were concerned about pulling down and removing the structural evil in the world.   The so–called pietistic group looked at the social struggles and saw them as political activism ‘endangering law and order’ and even ‘Christian civilisation’.   They saw themselves as trusting God,  not investing too much in the world,  caring for the poor,  and concerned about mission and healing.

Consequences of a fragmented vision

These groups,  for very good reasons,  caricatured each other and stayed quite separate from each other but the consequences of such a fragmented vision meant that firstly,  Christianity could very easily become alienated from the mainstream of social and political life.

Many people,  with some kind of Christendom model in their minds,  still believe the church should be dominant.   They forget or are unaware that over the last 100 years things have changed radically.   For instance, countries that not so long ago were sending missionaries to all parts of the world can barely fill a part of their churches today,  whereas what were the so–called mission fields are now often predominantly Christian.   Christianity,  missiologists tell us,  has ceased to be a European or western phenomenon as the centre of gravity of world Christianity has shifted from west to east and from north to south.   Very soon there will be far more Christians in Africa than in any other continent in the world.   The fastest growing churches are certainly not in the first and second worlds as we know them.   The countries that gave us missionaries not so long ago,  are now themselves mission fields.

Christianity is a minority voice in our secularised world,  and in New Zealand,  fast becoming a marginalised voice.   We not only live in a thoroughly secular context but we also live in a context that is sceptical about religion,  and certainly cynical about Christianity.   In the face of this the option of a spiritualised passivity,  that lives in the cloister and retreats from the world is not an option at all.

But neither is the kind of social activism where we cut ourselves loose from the sustaining context of worship and confession of faith.   Theology has lost its nerve,  (or,  rather,  our theologians have)  when the relationship to the informing faith tradition is fudged or made ambiguous.   Social justice then easily becomes a substitute for a living faith.   The model of a spiritualised exclusivity is juxtaposed by this other model of gentle diffusion,  where apparently it doesn’t matter any longer whether we are Christian or not — as long as we are changing the world,  we are active in our efforts on behalf of the disinherited and the powerless,  and we are promoting social justice.   But it is not clear at all what we bring as Christians to that struggle.   Sadly,  I often saw some of colleagues,  who like me were born on the wrong side of the colour fence and who grew up enduring the hardships of the apartheid laws,  become so infused by righteous indignation that they suffered not just physical burnout but also a kind of spiritual burnout.   Some lost their faith.   There was nothing in the end to sustain the struggle.

The Christian commitment to justice is much more than running an ambulance service in the public square.   It is more than running a relief agency that provides bandaids when people are hurt.   How to take our place in the public square is increasingly difficult to know.   By the end of the twentieth century we struggle to understand how we may keep a Christian presence in politics,  in society,  in economics,  and in the heart of life.

A consequence of this fragmented vision is the way we deal with stereotypes.   We are all aware of the great divide that exits between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’.   Both sides use these labels freely.   Liberals are supposed to be people interested in social justice,  who are given to charity and political transformation,  concerned about changing the world and involved in contextual issues.   Conservatives are supposed to be people who are preoccupied with personal spirituality,  piety,  concerned with mission and the authority of the Bible.   What is tragic about this division — between so-called evangelicals and conservatives on the one hand,  and liberals or ecumenicals on the other — is simply this,  that both these aspects of Christian faith belong together.     Social justice and spirituality,   contextual relevance and biblical authority.   They cannot be separated without distorting the Christian message.   Indeed,  both authority and spirituality,  discipleship and caring for the poor,  in the early church was always lodged in something else  -  and this ‘something else’ is life in God.

The interaction between Christian communities and society

The interaction between Christian communities and society is complex.   The most obvious interaction is that of public witness and protest,  where people express their opinions publicly,  and may denounce governments and march on parliaments.   Many become prisoners of conscience and even lay down their lives.   Such public witness is one important interaction that Christians have with societies and oppressive governments.   In South Africa we saw SACC launch important campaigns for justice,  with Desmond Tutu and several church leaders.

Another interaction is more subtle.   It is what may be called ‘social upliftment’ and ‘empowerment’ of people.   In South Africa,  as in many other places,  churches provided support for local communities long before the colonial governments did.   The first schools and the first hospitals were provided by the churches.   No matter how much missionaries are maligned today  (and there is much they can be criticized for),  they helped indigenous communities obtain the tools to deal with the radical changes that colonialism and other cultural invasions.  Missionaries,  themselves bearers of a foreign culture,  helped create the scripts for the languages.  They produced dictionaries and grammars of indigenous languages.   Mr Mandela was educated in a mission school — in fact,  there are few leaders in South Africa who have not in some way benefited from the churches’ contribution to education.

There is another interaction that is even more subtle and hard to measure;  it is the interaction the churches had with marginalised people.  The Pentecostals in South Africa never marched on parliament or had any martyrs on Robben Island.   On the face of it they are conservative and uninvolved in social issues.   Yet for many of those socially dislocated by the harsh application of racial laws,  Pentecostal churches played a crucial role.

In 1913 when the Native Lands Act removed thousands of people from traditional lands by the will of a white parliament,  it was the African independent churches,  (among the fastest growing movements in Africa today)  that provided for these displaced people a sense of well-being and healing in the midst of political and social upheaval.   In society these displaced people were treated as second and third class citizens but in these Pentecostal communities they were leaders and equal to others.   These churches provided them with a sense of positive self worth that was not available to them in society.

In the 1950s a quarter of a million Indian people were,  under the Group Areas Act,  moved away from their homes in the city into ‘Indian areas’.   The joint family systems were now broken up as the result of these forced removals.   Traditional family life was in tatters within ten years.   In that context of social dislocation,  Pentecostal churches had unprecedented growth.   The church communities became surrogate families.   Thus,  these apparently a–political churches that were unwilling to take a public stance against apartheid,  played their own important role in dealing with apartheid’s fallout by creating a place for the disinherited to gain social strength.

The Wholeness of the Gospel

Anyone who proclaims the incarnation proclaims that God has come into our time and our history to redeem and to renew.   Anybody who proclaims the Resurrection proclaims the freedom of humanity,  the transformation of time and space and the declaration of hope.   To proclaim resurrected life is in principle to proclaim that all of life is God’s.   The division between political activism and spirituality ceases to be valid.   The Gospel is like light to darkness — light doesn’t co-exist alongside darkness.   Light supercedes it.

One of the great figures who left his footprints on South African soil as much as he has on modern history,  was Mahatma Gandhi.   In 1894,  Gandhi was an unknown,  fledgling lawyer having only recently graduated from law school.   He came to South Africa to assist in an arbitration case in the Transvaal and was to stay for three months.   He ended up spending 20 years in South Africa.   He came dressed in a suit and a tie.   He left 20 years later dressed in a dhoti and sandals.

During those formative 20 years in South Africa Gandhi’s spiritual vision was shaped.   He discovered three books that were life changing.   John Ruskin’s Unto this last;  Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within you,  and H D Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience.   These three books were vital influences on his thinking as he shaped the great message of peace that he was to preach.   Christian friends also introduced him to the Bible.   Matthew 5, 6 and 7, the Sermon on the Mount,  had a special appeal and Gandhi was to read this Sermon regularly throughout his life.

Gandhi simply called this philosophy satyagraha which means ‘truth force’.   Truth force,  he held,  must overcome the carnality and violence of the world.   Thus a Hindu,  having read these other texts and having an understanding of non-violence from Hindu theology,  discovers afresh the power of the Bible and discovers again the power of the text.   Never before had the sermon found expression in a social philosophy that was to have such far reaching political and cultural influence.

After almost two hundred years of critical study of the text with a range of technical and theoretical devises,  the Bible too is fragmented.   We have dissected the text to such an extent that for many it ceases to hold together any longer.   Wise in our analytical abilities and applying every possible subterfuge,  we have actually dismembered the text in the pursuit of some epistemological quest.   We have lost the informing unity and vision of the text.

It is very much like the dissection of a powerful eagle.   It is laid out on the table for analysis and dozens of fine scientific articles on the smallest parts of the eagle’s anatomy.   The eagle is dismembered and we have great difficulty putting it back together.   The glory of the eagle lies in its ability to soar.   Similarly,  the glory of the text lies in its ability to communicate to us something transcendent to our own experience.   In dismembering the text,  as enlightening and intellectually stimulating that is,  we often forget that the purpose of the text was to bring life,  and to bring life in its abundance to our situation.

It took a non Christian mind to read the Sermon on the Mount and to discover there a power that was waiting to be unleashed on the world.   When missionaries such as CF Andrew and others asked Gandhi,  what they should be doing to be effective missionaries to people in India,  Gandhi’s answer was very simple — be faithful to the message you bring.

At the height of the independence struggle when it seemed as if the struggle was almost won,  he had heard that a Hindu had gone out and murdered a Muslim.   Gandhi immediately called a halt to the struggle for social justice and began a spiritual fast.   His supporters were bewildered as indeed political scientists still are about this enigmatic religious man.   What is the connection between a spiritual fast and social justice?   But Gandhi believed that if the cause of freedom means the death of one person then that freedom is not worth much.   The end never justifies the means.   Gandhi had discovered that the quest for social justice is fundamentally a spiritual quest.

There is something unique that people of the Spirit bring to the struggle.   If the quest for social justice is cut from its spiritual moorings,  it is plain charity and good works.   Atheists care for the poor too.   Gandhi discovered the power of redemptive suffering;  that we are called to bear vicariously the suffering of the world,  and that the call to discipleship,  to take up our cross,  and follow him,  is the call to redemptive suffering in the world.   It is the divine obligation that rescues us from both triumphalism and despair.

Our cause is to develop the means whereby we can touch the conscience of whole nations even those who have no regard for religion or faith.   If our struggle only brings us some end that we desire,  then our struggle is self serving.   We ultimately seek the transformation of evil,  the renewal of the earth and the establishment of a humane society.   That is,  in the end,  real conversion.   When Gandhi went on that fast and became very weak so that people feared he would die,  the Hindu who had killed the Muslim came to him,  confessed that he had done the deed and begged him to stop the fast.   He did call off the fast but only after eliciting the promise that the Hindu would find an orphan child and raise that child as your own.  "But make sure that the child is a Muslim child."

Jan Smuts,  the South African prime minister,  once put Gandhi in jail.   (Ghandi had initiated a march to Transvaal where people burned the passes that they were forced to carry.)   He is reported to have said to Gandhi while he was in prison,  "I wish you would take up arms because then I would know how to deal with you."   In jail Gandhi made a pair of sandals and presented them to Smuts.   It is said that General Smuts never wore them counting himself unworthy to step into them.

The Power of the Sermon on the Mount

What was the power of this sermon that had been uncovered?   Walter Wink and others have given some very helpful clues as to its transforming power for the sake of social justice.   I will look at a just a few of the gems our Lord provides in this sermon.

As a young man finding my way in the faith I often had problems making sense of what our Lord meant when he said,  "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek,  turn to him the other also.   If anyone takes away your coat give him your cloak as well,  and if anyone forces you to go one mile,  then go the second mile."   I found these texts difficult in the context I grew up.   It was almost as if Christianity was some kind of effete religion which responded to evil with passivity and stoical silence.   But that is not what the sermon means at all.

On can only be struck on the right cheek with the back of the hand — or with the left hand.   To strike someone with your right hand,  would mean hitting them on the left cheek.   The victim is admonished to turn the left cheek also.   In Hebrew society it was a great insult to strike anyone with the back of the hand or with the left hand.   It was a means of insulting someone subservient or a slave.

What these commentators have pointed out is that our Lord is in fact admonishing not subservience but showing how not to succumb to the insult imposed on them.   To find creative ways to get the other to reckon with you as a person.   Turning the other cheek forces the person who wants to insult you,  to strike you then with the open right hand on the left cheek as he would do to an equal.

Then to illustrate this form of creative action further,  our Lord said,  "if someone takes away your cloak, give them your coat as well."   Very poor people,  the peasants of the time,  had only two garments;  the outer garment which was used to sleep in,  and the cloak which was the undergarment.   The Old Testament makes it very clear that if anyone took away a poor person’s outer garment they would have to restore it by nightfall,  because that was the only thing the poor had to cover themselves with while they slept.

Our Lord is suggesting  (probably tongue in cheek to make the point)  that if people treated a poor person so shabbily as to take his or her coat,  then give them the underclothes as well!  That comment would probably have sent a giggle across the audience.   He was pointing to creative action that would touch the conscience of evil people and unjust societies.

"If anybody forces you to go one mile,  then go two."   That verse could only refer to Roman soldiers who used to commandeer Jewish peasants along the way and force them to carry their knapsacks.   Because the Roman soldiers often treated local people harshly,  after many insurrections the Roman army decided to limit the impositions on local people.   Severe penalties were placed on any soldier forcing people to carry the knapsack more than one mile.   Our Lord is saying then,  if someone forces you to go one mile,  don’t try to fight back,  find a creative way to deal with a cruel persecutor without succumbing to anger and bitterness.   Go two miles!   Can you imagine the hilarious scene?   You are forced to carry it one mile.   You do so willingly but then you carry it a second mile as well.   Suddenly,  the soldier is afraid because he knows if he were caught he would be in serious trouble.   The tables are turned on the oppressor.

These are just three creative ways our Lord gives his Jewish audience from their daily experiences.   He provides a way for the powerless to transcend their misery and touch the conscience of others.   Similarly,  we too are given the means to appeal to the conscience of a nation and work to redeem it without stooping in the process.

As a young theology student Martin Luther King Jnr heard a professor speak of how he was so inspired by meeting Gandhi in India.   King then went out to a bookstore and found some of Gandhi’s writings and read them with great interest.   Martin Luther King too had been reading Thoreau’s  On Civil Disobedience  about breaking evil laws so that they could be changed.   On reading Gandhi he grasped the way of the struggle for justice opened to the Christian .

The texts that we have all become so familiar with become the basis for the just struggle.   Their power is rediscovered and their message translated into real life.   The need in our time is again to discover the power of truth and love over violence and carnality,  the way of grace that goes beyond mere self interest,  and the meaning of redemptive suffering which is at the heart of the Christian gospel.   It also requires the development of the kind of creative action that our Lord describes in the three examples.   These would have to be thought out by us in our situation.

There are many possibilities for this creative action.   Nicholas Berdyaev often said that to think creatively,  is to think spiritually.   He spoke of creativity as being the presence of the Spirit in the world,  not just in our culture and in our heart,  but in our art and our music,  and certainly in the way worshipping,  believing people live their lives.

Working for justice is the work of the Spirit.   I am often saddened at how pious fellow South Africans today look back and say,  ‘I wish I had done something to change the system.  We now know we were wrong.’   It reminds me of what many Germans said after the second World War,   ‘ we didn’t know,  we wish we had done something then.’

Our task then as Christians is to find a faith that recolonises all of life and transcends the divisions within and without.   For as the text says  "if any one of us wants to bring our gifts to the altar,  and if we have aught against someone,  then leave making offerings;  go and make right first and when you have done that,  then come and make your offerings to God."

Dr Gerald Pillay is Foundation Professor of Theology and Dean of the School of
Liberal Arts at Otago University in Dunedin. This article is adapted from an address
given to the AFFIRM Conference in Waikanae, July 1999.


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