Opinionista Mbuyiseni Ndlozi 27 December 2015

The trial: The church on the cross

If the government wants to collect taxes from churches and other religious bodies let it be, many governments in the world do so. It can treat them as donation tax and get on with it. It must not pretend and overstep its authority by investigating doctrinal questions as a way to arrive at tax collection.

It is said that one day Jesus was accused of using demonic powers to cast demons out of people. We all know that Jesus performed great miracles from turning water into wine to walking on water, resurrecting the dead, and multiplying bread to feed thousands. This is also the man who self-identified as the son of God, something that speaks volumes about his access and proximity to divinity. He came as the greatest prophet since Moshe. In fact, to demonstrate this, he is the only prophet who directly challenged the law of Moshe and brought amendments to it. Where Moshe says we must not commit murder, Jesus commands that if you hate you have already committed murder.

At one point, right in the early days of his ministry Jesus walked into a temple in Nazareth, his hometown, opened the scroll in Isaiah 61 and read the words that said “the spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. After reading this, we are told he looked at his audience and said to them “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”.

To accuse a man of this stature that he is using devils to cast out devils, was a fundamental stab to his legitimacy. However, Jesus replied to his critiques by saying if he is using devils to cast out devils then Satan’s house is divided against itself. No doubt that it is one of the grounds for why he was crucified; his claim to be a messiah and the earthly manifestation of God, the king of kings who came to restore the rule of God through Israel on earth. This idea killed him, but perhaps also resurrected him.

Nothing sums up the crisis facing the Christian Church in South Africa today better than this story of Jesus. Here at home, the Christian church is on trial and the trial threatens to take it on the same Golgotha path, hang it naked on a cross like the crucified disfigured and humiliated body of Jesus on the mountain top. Like with the story of Jesus, the trial is interrogating, evaluating and questioning the very core of the legitimacy of the church; the miracle, the exorcism, the sanctification, the blessing, and salvation.

In the thousand odd years of its life, the church has gone through multiple and countless trials. Some have been internal to it like the Reformation that resulted in the birth of the Pentecostal Movement. Some have seen where the Church, itself, subjects others to trial which indirectly brought its very own doctrines the very trial. For instance, in the scientific revolution from Copernicus to Newton the basic claims about our existence as espoused by the church were turned upside down, and left many in the Christian world in an existential crisis. The sun was no longer rising and setting, the earth was no longer flat and stable, and in this process science took the centre stage as a basic epistemic reference about facts and our universe, thus overtaking the bible/church.

Science, or secularism to be precise, rose to the centre stage also in the realm of socio-political life with the demands of democracy and individual freedoms. The basic sense here is that if our universe is held together by forces to a point of self-sufficiency, then either there is no God or he has left us on our own. Either way, we can no longer build knowledge on that assumption, we must subject everything into radical skepticism including the very idea of whether we exist or not.

We must ask the essential question; how do we know we exist. We know that we exist not because God has created us. We do not know that, it is in the realm of faith. But we know that we exist because after radically subjecting everything into doubt, there is one thing we cannot doubt, and that is the fact that we are doubting. So even if there is an evil genius out there that is manipulating us into thinking that we exist, there is one thing they cannot stop us from doing and that is thinking. This means “thinking about thinking” is the basis of our existence without which we are lost into the infinite abyss.

This is the Cartesian method and all modern human knowledge gets to be built on this method in the realm of the secular. The state, and law, is about this – in the business of governing you must always do radical scepticism to arrive at truths or facts. Our courts are also about this – we arrive at conclusions by subjecting everything to radical tests and proofs. It is the order of the day, the rule of reason. It does not mean judges do not believe in God, they often do. Instead, they simply appreciate their limitation: they are not God and therefore they cannot know any other way but through radical skepticism, evidence proven beyond reasonable doubt.

In the realm of the religious, faith works differently. One must believe without needing a proof, even proof of the very existence of God. Knowledge is based on nothing but faith and God is the only truth, hence we walk by faith.

Many philosophers have always predicted that faith will ultimately deteriorate with the triumph of science, in particular as capitalism flourishes. But faith is ever strong and still informs many people’s way of being in the world. It is part of us and although secularism (rule of reason) is hegemonic, it has to live with the reality that once in a while, it must deal with religion. It is also the case with religion; it has to live with the fact that time and again, it must deal with science. How the bridges get constructed and under what conditions remains in the hands of both.

Today in South Africa secularism is again subjecting the Church into a trial. Armed with its strict tools of objective interrogation and radical skepticism it is asking the church to account for its activities and some of its fundamental doctrines. But how shall we make sense of this conversation held today between secularism and the church. What are the conditions of this cross interaction divided by oceans of epistemic differences?

Secularism’s enquiry today in South Africa is about the commercialisation of religion. In the form of the Chapter 9 Institutions in our (secular) Constitution; the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission), is investigating whether the church has or is being commercialised. The idea of commercialisation is about turning something into a commodity, so secularism is probing if churches are like markets where people go to buy products.

To go back to Jesus, we will all remember that he once entered the temple in Jerusalem and lashed at everyone with a Sjambok for trading in the house of the Lord. “In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money” so says John 2v14. It is for this reason that Jesus unleashed corporal punishment and hopefully expected them not to turn the other cheek.

It therefore does not look suspect for secularism to also take the proverbial sjambok and enter the church to whip out commercialisation. So, it could be said that the commission’s work is based on this passage; that it is indeed biblical. Except, its subject status is not that of Jesus Christ – it is not a prophet. It does not belong to a religious body, but a secular institution called the state.

So on what grounds is it investigating doctrines of the church?

The question of commercialisation would mean the church has lost its path and is essentially being ran by a force different to that of God. But is it the place of secularism to hold an inquiry of this nature? What tools would secularism use to be able to interrogate if something has transcended the limits of faith? Does secularism have the grounds to say to the church it is using evil to cast out evil?

The problem we face is that there is a suspicion of human rights violation. Indeed, a people must be concerned when pastors are going around feeding people rats and snakes in the name of healing or demonstrating God’s power. However, the danger with the work of the commission is that it already assumes that commercialisation is wrong, that turning blessings, or holy things into profit is wrong. How did secularism arrive at this point? What method did it use to pose this question and arrive at that assumption? Did it use any scripture? The answer is simple, the commission did not use scripture to arrive at such a conclusion; it is basically prejudicial.

Commercialisation is the problem that emerged with the rise of secularism in the form of capitalism. Marx demonstrated that capitalism’s hunger for profit has no limits. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Friedrich Engels say “the bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labours”. That is to say, it has commercialised even the priests.

Turning all things into commodities and all humans into wage-labourers is not a church problem but that of capitalism; why would you think the water in the church, the dove, or the sermon must not be for a price? At least if you are the government, before going to ask the church these questions have you considered why is education commercialised, or water, electricity, and sanitation being core to human survival, thus human rights? This is not at all to say pastors must not be held accountable, but where are you going to start to root out commercialisation? Pastors must not be paid? They must not collect tithes and offerings? They must not sell holy water? Why indeed, if they themselves have to buy this water before praying for it from the state, or the bottles in it?

The question of commercialisation is much broader and much deeper than the commission is pretending. It has not asked a dialogue with pastors or priests to share light on the matter. The commission summons them to the enquiry using subpoena to be questioned, forcing them to present their financial books as if they are possibly guilty of a crime. To what end? What law could they possibly be violating?

If the government wants to collect taxes from churches and other religious bodies let it be, many governments in the world do so. It can treat them as donation tax and get on with it. It must not pretend and overstep its authority by investigating doctrinal questions as a way to arrive at tax collection.

The reality is that religious freedom means if feeding people snakes and petrol is how they choose to worship, then they are protected by the constitution to do so. Unless they start to kill and eat each other, then we have no grounds within our secular law to say they are wrong. If they choose to give tithes and offerings to receive blessings, we cannot stop them; it violates their right to religious freedom.

The church has many problems indeed, so are many other faiths in our country. How we enter into dialogue about these problems cannot be through the power of subpoena and investigations by governments or state bodies. The current commission’s investigation is violating religious freedoms of people and it does not even have the tools to engage them in terms of their faith.

To mobilise against evil in the church will have to be the work of prophets themselves who must rise up and speak openly against wrongdoing internal to a specific religion. Immediately when you as government say there is commercialisation in the church then you are at the danger of prescribing how people should worship. Unless you are one of them and can do so through tools inherent within their faith, you should keep your distance. Within secularism there are not tools to determine divine delinquencies; the sooner the commission realises this, the better.

This then leaves us to the massive abuse of scriptures out there, but this points not to the lack of state leadership. It points to internal theological bankruptcy of churches themselves and the general absence of seasoned prophets or priests amongst them. The commission is not a prophet, it has no grounds to whip commercialisation out of the church, if any. Its mandate is to protect religious rights; as things stand, through this enquiry, it is undermining them. DM

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