All over the church there are signs of a worldview that Christianity is all about “getting saved” and “going to heaven”. Let me recount two recent events…The first one happened on the streets about three weeks ago. On Thursday nights I normally go with my family and a few friends to build friendships with those who are homeless. On this particular night, a Hillbrow pastor asked to come along. It did not take him long to release his version of “the gospel” to some of my unsuspecting friends. As he pleaded with them to repent and accept Jesus his proclamation went something like this: “You are suffering on these streets, give your life to Jesus and then at least when you die, you will be with Jesus and will not suffer in hell”. I was shocked that he did not tell him anything about hope in this life. There surely has to be more! Then also a few weeks ago, there is the infamous tweet by US Mega Church Pastor Mark Driscol “I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” [i]
Both of these ways of thinking are severely challenged by NT Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. Central to the book is the message that exclusively hoping in life after death leaves Christian mission void of “change, rescue, transformation¸ (and) new possibilities within the world in the present”.[ii] Wright argues that this limited understanding of Christian hope leaves Christians believing the only thing that matters is evangelism. This kind of Christianity is why Karl Marl’s famously paraphrased quote: “religion is the opium of the masses” is so widely proclaimed. Marx argued that economic realities prevent the poor from finding true happiness in this life, so religion tells them to accept this as their lot because they will find true happiness in the next life. Is this the true full gospel, which leaves structural injustice in place?
I remember, as a child singing the hymn
“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all…
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.”[iii]
As I reflect on this song, which shaped some of my early Christian theology, I have to declare - surely there is more to Christian hope than waiting until we die for our liberation. Surely it is not the job of the church to leave the rich and the poor in their assigned lot. God’s salvation plan of setting captives free has to be for this life.
NT Wright contends that “As long as we see ‘salvation’ in terms of ‘going to heaven when we die’, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see ‘salvation’, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth, and of our promised resurrection to share in that new, and gloriously embodied, reality – what I have called ‘life after life after death’ – then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.”[iv]
I am convinced that a weak soteriology proclaiming exclusively how to get admission tickets to heaven while ignoring full gospel demonstrated by Jesus in His birth, life, death, and resurection results in insipid country club religion which leaves structural injustice in place. This is not the full gospel, our kerygma needs to include a proclamation and demonstration of God's shalom kingdom of righteousness, justice and peace.
So many of my friends on the street talk about their desperation to be off the streets, free from their addictions, forgiven for all the things they have done and reconciled with their families. As we hand out peanut butter sandwiches, on Thursday nights and listen to them, touch them, love them and pray with them, we have to believe that there is “life before death”[v] for these precious people. I may feel sad and at times helpless, perhaps even emotional, but I have to believe that God is surely able in this life to demonstrate resurrection as we build for the kingdom. In the gospels “is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’ followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory, and that inaugurated new world, into practice.”[vi]
“To hope for a better future in this world – for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful and wounded world – is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to ‘the gospel’ as an afterthought.”[vii]
Wright shows that the overall plan and purpose of God is not just to snatch a few up to some out of this world to heaven, but to redeem and restore and renew his creation and to reign over it as king. He argues that the new Jerusalem is not in some ethereal heaven, but in the end, the new Jerusalem comes down to earth (Rev 21).
The hope for my homeless friends is that salvation is not something we have to wait for in the distant future, it is something we can enjoy here and now, even if only partially for now. Wright also argues for a holistic gospel proclamation, arguing that “When God saves people in this life, by working through his spirit to bring them to faith and by leading them to follow Jesus and discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope, and love, such people are designed – it isn’t too strong a word – to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation; they ought to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future… In other words… The work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church.”[viii]
The challenge from Surprised by hope is to live not just for the future, but for the now. To participate with the creator God in building for the kingdom. There is indeed life before death and our work in creation care, community building, job creation, in fact all of our acts rooted in love are important as we co-labor with God to bring into reality the kingdom not yet fully evident.
[i] Pastor Mark Driscoll: Christians Don’t Need to Care About the Environment because Jesus is Coming Back for Us http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/05/04/pastor-mark-driscoll-christians-dont-need-to-care-about-the-environment-because-jesus-is-coming-back-for-us/, Accesses 30/8/2013
[ii] NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, (HarperOne, 2008), p5
[iii] Cecil F. Alexander, All things bright and beautiful, Hymns for Little Children, 1848, http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/a/l/allthing.htm, Accessed 31/08/2013
[iv] T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Original, provocative and practical (SPCK. Kindle Edition) p209
[v] Slogan of Christian Aid, ibid, p209
[vi] T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Original, provocative and practical (SPCK. Kindle Edition) p217
[vii] T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Original, provocative and practical (SPCK. Kindle Edition) p204
[viii] NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, (HarperOne, 2008), p200-201
Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. (Ecc 4:1, ESV)
The above quote has been key for my us in our journey as we have recognized that it is both the rich and the poor who require God’s kingdom to bring shalom into and through their lives. My wife and I and my five children relocated to Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa in May 2012. On our website we have stated the reason for our move as follows:
“We are a rather ordinary family doing some extraordinary things. We believe as Christians that God is extremely concerned with the brokenness in our city and nation and that He has called each one of us to get involved in making a difference. To bring change, we need to see the future, prepare for the future and then become the future… or in the words of Gandhi “we must become the change we want to see in the world. We want to see a world in which the rich do not tolerate extreme poverty and inequality. We want to see many people actually laying down their lives of comfort and convenience for the sake of bettering the lives of others. Seeing people freed from poverty, inequality, racism and exploitation is more important than fulfilling our lust for more things! We want to be part of a society in which people are valued more than things. We want to see the god of consumerism in South Africa bowing its knee to a love motivated revolution which results in freedom from oppression and exploitation. We want to see this for all people, regardless of class, citizenship, race or religion. We dream of equality in every sector of society. We believe that if the education system is not OK for a rich kid, it is not OK for a poor kid. The same goes with healthcare, housing, security. The same goes for rural kids and inner city kids. The same for black kids and white kids. We are not more valuable than the least valued in our society. We are doing our lives in a new way. We are going to live our dream and see this reality briefly described above happening around us. We hope others will join us and this will happen around them too. Who knows, very soon, the world can be a different place!”
In a sense the above describes our vision of Shalom for our community that developed out of our journey of considering what God’s will would look, smell, taste, sound and feel like if fully done in our community. The reasons for us developing this vision have been rooted in our understanding of the brokenness existing in our neighbourhood in the context of South Africa’s history. I would like to begin therefore by explaining some of this context and history so we can understand what salvation would look like in our community. Hillbrow is a one square kilometre area that formed part of the original Johannesburg. Johannesburg’s history stretches back to a Sunday in March, 1886, when Australian, George Harrison, stumbled upon surface outcrops of gold-rich conglomerate on a farm-land near the centre of Johannesburg. Gold changed the face of Johannesburg. Before 1886, it had been a struggling Boer republic, but 10 years later, it was the richest gold mining area in the world. As news of the gold find spread throughout South Africa and the rest of the world, men made their way to Johannesburg. President Paul Kruger appointed a commission to survey a site for a township to service the new goldfields. A triangular two-and-a-half square kilometre piece of “uitvalgrond” (ground left over) from the three Boer farms – Braamfontein, Turfontein and Doornfontein was identified and duly mapped out. The booming mining town required cheap, unskilled labour and so within just a few years, many thousands of men were leaving their homes from all over the world to join the unskilled migrant workers who flocked to Johannesburg for the low wages on offer. From its early beginnings, white “Randlords” (a term used at the time to describe the entrepreneurs who controlled the diamond and gold industries in South Africa in its pioneer phase) lived in opulence while the predominantly black Mineworkers were subjected to humiliating, degrading and exploitative conditions.
Many historians argue that the system of racial discrimination is rooted in the migrant labour system. The popular song by Jazz musician Hugh Masekela, entitled Stimela (the coal train) describes quite well these tumultuous times and what they must have meant for the men who flooded to Johannesburg:
"There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi. There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe, There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique, From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland, From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa. This train carries young and old, African men who are conscripted to come and work on contract in the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg and its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day for almost no pay. Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth when they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone, or when they dish that mish mesh mush food into their iron plates with the iron shank; or when they sit in their stinking, funky, filthy, flea-ridden barracks and hostels. They think about the loved ones they may never see again because they might have already been forcibly removed from where they last left them or wantonly murdered in the dead of night by roving, marauding gangs of no particular origin, we are told. They think about their lands, their herds that were taken away from them with a gun, bomb, teargas and the cannon and when they hear that Choo-Choo train they always curse, curse the coal train, the coal train that brought them to Johannesburg"
Over 125 years later and they continue to come, migrant workers flock to “eGoli” (the city of gold). For many who flock to South Africa, the city centre of Johannesburg, and in particular Hillbrow, is the starting point. Many who come are fleeing economic meltdowns, poverty and conflicts which have besieged the African continent. While gold is no longer mined close to the centre of Johannesburg, its bedfellow, the South African Rand, still lures men from across the continent. Many of the remnants of the multi-tentacled legacy of the migrant labour system still linger and have left the city and its people scarred.
Our city has also not been birthed in a vacuum. It has grown and developed within the context of a brutal and dehumanising apartheid system. Even after almost 20 years into our democracy it too has left our nation and land scarred. As a nation, we face significant challenges in the following nine areas, according to the recent national planning commission set up by the South Africa presidency:
And so with this background, let me now share the father of modern South Africa’s vision for shalom in our nation which he shared upon acceptance of his Nobel Peace Prize in 1993:
“At the southern tip of the continent of Africa, a rich reward in the making, an invaluable gift is in the preparation for those who suffered in the name of all humanity when they sacrificed everything – for liberty, peace, human dignity and human fulfilment. This reward will not be measured in money. Nor can it be reckoned in the collective price of the rare metals and precious stones that rest in the bowels of the African soil we tread in the footsteps of our ancestors. It will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of the children, at once the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of our treasures. The children must, at last, play in the open veld, no longer tortured by the pangs of hunger or ravaged by disease or threatened with the scourge of ignorance, molestation and abuse, and no longer required to engage in deeds whose gravity exceeds the demands of their tender years. In front of this distinguished audience, we commit the new South Africa to the relentless pursuit of the purposes defined in the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children. The reward of which we have spoken will and must also be measured by the happiness and welfare of the mothers and fathers of these children, who must walk the earth without fear of being robbed, killed for political or material profit, or spat upon because they are beggars. They too must be relieved of the heavy burden of despair which they carry in their hearts, born of hunger, homelessness and unemployment. The value of that gift to all who have suffered will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of all the people of our country, who will have torn down the inhuman walls that divide them.” (Nelson Mandela, Oslo, 1993)
As I dream of Shalom for my community, I am guided by these words of Nelson Mandela and cognisant of the haunting voices from our history, reminding me that forces larger than I have for centuries been at work dehumanising, violating, destabilising, demonising, and opposing God’s vision of Shalom. Living in Hillbrow, at this strategic time in our nation I realise that God wants me to become the answer to my prayers for Shalom. Surely God’s vision for shalom, starts in me. It starts as a tiny seed, a seed of hope. The dream I have for my community may in my lifetime never be attained, but in my life others will hopefully catch a glimpse of what God’s Kingdom could look like if we embraced it. We are the weapon God wishes to use in setting the oppressed free, and in breaking the back of extreme poverty, inequality and injustice. When I look at the life of Jesus, and weigh up all of the stories recorded in Scripture, I notice (and I am not trying to ruffle feathers by saying this) that while Jesus did indeed spend time praying, that was not the focus of what is recorded about his life on this planet. The main focus of Jesus’ life was demonstrating practically what the world would look like around us if God was king. I have come to believe that these kingdom life demonstrations of Jesus should be at the heart of our spiritual warfare as well. This in my view is the role of the true prophets – to become a sign of the age to come. We need Christians who will see the future, prepare for the future, and courageously become signs of the future pointing to a kingdom birthed in our lives but not yet fully evident in the world. As NT Wright says
“When God saves people in this life, by working through his spirit to bring them to faith and by leading them to follow Jesus and discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope, and love, such people are designed – it isn’t too strong a word – to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation; they ought to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future… In other words… The work of salvation, in its full sense, is 1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; 2) about the present, not simply the future; and 3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church.” (NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, p200-201)
We need to do this in every area of our lives. In the book of Revelation, John says “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev 11:15, NIV) As we allow God to take authority of every area of our lives and allow that authority to be demonstrated in every area of our lives, we make the Scripture a reality. We can then begin to demonstrate this authority in our family, our community, our nation and the world. The diagram below represents this thinking as I dream of Shalom for my community. It reflects for me the process by which we bring shalom (from demonstrating it in our lives and then into our family, community, nation and the nations and how we do this in every area of our lives.
Diagram 1: A vision for transformation
To embrace this vision therefore I have to take up a calling to be the prophetic voice declaring the vision of God for my community, nation and world through my life. I need to live in a counter-culture manner, putting down greed, racism, selfishness, materialism, separation and other societal values and practices that are directly opposed to God’s shalom for my community. In a sense when we gave up our 6-bedroom home in the suburbs and “moved into the neighborhood”, our lives began to declare God’s Kingdom and will for a more shared caring economy. When we live in this way, we will begin to see signs of the new world breaking in all around us.
And so, In conclusion, I would like to quote from Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church which for many is his magnus opus on ecclesiology. “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10, NIV). It is my view that one of the things we cannot put down in order to bring about God’s will fully into our neighborhoods is the church. In all her brokenness, with all of her selfish ways, as divided as she stands, she is still God’s vehicle through which we must confront the powers of this age.
My wife Trish and I have been living in the inner-city slum of Hillbrow, South Africa, for just over a year. We moved from a six-bedroom home in a gated-security community in Midrand, a suburb of Johannesburg. We left the suburbs and moved to Hillbrow for a number of reasons, including our wanting to allow our lives to prophetically declare that the current growth in poverty and inequality requires a church and the nation to live differently. We believe that God is extremely concerned about the brokenness around us and wants Christians to place themselves right in the middle of forsaken communities and become signs of hope.
Hillbrow is one of those communities that have the dubious distinction of having governments specifically issue travel advisories to its citizens not to travel there. With its reputation for crime, prostitution, drugs, and extreme poverty, it is not really a place tourists flock to anyway.
The first time I experienced an attempted robbery in Hillbrow was about a year before we moved in. We were on our way home after looking at possible apartments to rent, and had just seen one which we thought was quite suitable. The music was playing in the car, we were all excited, and my car window was down. As I was parked in heavy traffic while driving down one of the busy main streets, two homeless guys, both high on glue, came to my window and began to stretch their hands in and start feeling for cell phones, wallets, or whatever they could find. I grabbed their arms and shouted loudly at them, “Hey!” They both got a fright, jumped back, and ran away without taking anything. One would think the thwarting of this close encounter with crime would have resulted in my rejoicing, but on the contrary, I felt sadness that I had not responded in a better way. I had been reading the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular the sections on enemy love. I remembered Matthew 5:39 and 5:42, where Jesus said, “But I say, do not resist an evil person!” and “Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow from you.” As I reflected on these words, and spoke to friends, I felt stirred to pray, “Father, I pray for another opportunity to represent you better and to reflect your heart.” It wasn’t quite the Jabez prayer, but I felt it was the right thing to pray.
Fast forward a year after we had moved into Hillbrow. As I was driving home from work that morning, in God’s providence, I had once more been reading Matthew 5 and reflecting on my previous experience. My window was very slightly down and I was stopped at a traffic light with Kombi taxis all around me with nowhere to move. At this point I was approached by a man who demanded, “Give me your cellphone!” I couldn’t really hear at first, so, thinking he was a beggar, and knowing that I had no money on me, I wound my window completely down and turned to him and replied, “I am sorry, my friend, I have no money on me. I will have to come back later and bring you something.” The man brought a gun hidden in his jacket closer to me and said, “This is a gun, now give me your cellphone!” Still not registering what he said, I again turned to him and said for a second time, “I am sorry my friend, I really have no money on me—I will have to come back later and bring you something.” This time he responded by putting the gun to my forehead and said, “I’m going to kill you; give me your cellphone!” Suddenly I registered what he was saying. It was as if everything paused, and in that moment I was reminded of the same text from Matthew 5 where Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person” and “give to anyone who asks from you.” In response to this text, rather than in response to the gun, I reached out my cellphone and handed it to him. He ran away. The traffic light changed colour and the cars around me began to move and I drove about ten metres before I broke down in tears. Questions flooded me in that moment. Why had I moved? Had God really called me here? What about my family—we were walking here at this exact spot just yesterday—was I an irresponsible father?
I got home and told Trish all that had happened. We phoned a friend who immediately came out from Pretoria. As we debriefed together about what had happened, I realised that while my heart was “forgiveness-ready,” I did not know what to do with the fear I felt. My friend suggested we go outside and tell the story to some street vendors nearby, who were selling their goods on the side of the road. We did this, and as I told my story to them, I asked them if they would help me by walking to the spot where I’d been held up. About 15 street vendors agreed and we walked the block and a half to the spot where I’d been held up. I felt so empowered, like I was on a human rights march. When we got to the place where it had happened, I prayed for three things: 1) I prayed that God would keep my heart soft; 2) I prayed that God would keep the community safe; and 3) I prayed that God would rescue from his sin the young man who had stolen from me. The street vendors prayed with me.
Two days later, a group of church leaders, together with my family and me, went to the local fish shop and purchased boxes and boxes of fish n’ chips. We took these boxes and handed them out to homeless people, street vendors, and passersby. We decided that we would sow love where there had been violence.
Through this I felt God remind me of the Scripture in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This is a verse that is often quoted when reflecting on tragedy. As I reflected on this verse, I felt God speak to me about us being co-workers with him through tragedy and suffering to accomplish his purposes. We can utilise tragic events, and difficult things that happen, to shout out the glory and kindness of God. Our finest hour is when, in the midst of suffering, in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of all kinds of difficulties, we boldly proclaim the hope that we have. I am discovering, not just through this incident, but through many others over the year, that it is in times of suffering that our voice is amplified. As I have often reflected on being held up in the last year, I can honestly say that I am now grateful that it has happened, because through it all I’ve had the opportunity to declare that God’s love is more powerful than violence. I have also had the opportunity to sow love into my community. I am convinced that we cannot stop the crime or violence in Hillbrow with more violence. We will only be able to overcome it with love. Being held up has given me the opportunity to demonstrate this. When bad things happen to us, and they will, we need to explore how we can partner with God to make it work for the good.
The world is full of leaders, but not the kind the world needs. We need leaders with a vision of a new world based not on the values of consumerism, materialism, individualism, greed and self-advancement but rather upside-down, counter-culture servants who through humility and love bring about justice, liberation, equality, freedom and hope.
So many people go into service because they want to lead. It should be the other way round, we lead because we want to serve. Our service should always be rooted in love. The leaders the world needs most are those willing to be signposts of a new world. Those who dare to dream of the future (free from racism, exploitation, poverty and abuse) and live in a counter-culture way as if the future already exists.
These leaders are seeds of hope and evidence that a new world is possible because within them is the DNA of what they have become. This credible leadership comes not from having connections in high places who give you influence, but rather from having genuine, deep and equal relationships which seek to advance the cause of those who can do nothing for you.
Bring on a new breed of leaders!