Faith in South Africa is predominantly Christian faith, commanding a demographic majority of close to eighty percent of the population. Other religions are vastly outnumbered, thanks to centuries of Christian missions in South Africa. In this is both the advantage and disadvantage of the Christian presence in South Africa.
The advantage is that as a nation we can celebrate a broad cultural consensus that is indebted to the Christian faith. For example, if at some stage a politician were to get carried away and seek, in the name of the secular, post-Apartheid state, to banish Good Friday or Christmas, the nation’s strong trade union movement would more than likely march on the capital demanding “hands off Christmas!” In this way, we have a cultural addiction to the “perks” that come with a Christian empire.
The disadvantage is that the nation’s dominant religion cannot escape bearing the lion’s share of the blame in the scandalous Apartheid past—for Apartheid was spiritually nurtured and theologically rationalised in the Church.
It is useful to nuance discussions about Christianity in South Africa somewhat in order to be more true to the facts.
Fact #1: The theological justification of Apartheid was more pronounced in the white Afrikaans-speaking churches, while acquiescence with Apartheid was more a white English-speaking affair.
Fact #2: African Indigenous churches emerged mainly as a result of a black insistence upon separating the essence of the Christian message from its cultural and socio-political co-option by the state. This inevitably became a sword that divided Christian brothers/sisters from Christian brothers/sisters on the basis of how they lined up in respect to the sin of Apartheid. Instead of becoming a uniting influence, Christianity became a divisive factor.
Fact #3: Evangelicalism was not spared the raging divisions of life under Apartheid. The evangelical movement in South Africa owes its recent historical roots to Europe and North America, from whence it was transplanted onto the African soil. The transplant was not without serious challenges for a Euro-American mission movement forged in the context of the individualism of the West, looking to be at home in an African context in which community and relationships are strong.
At best, evangelicals kept a low profile in the raging ferments of the struggle for life and truth under Apartheid. They felt ill-prepared by a theological approach focussed more on inner piety than public morality. So it is that in the decade leading up to the demise of Apartheid, black evangelicals felt called upon to issue a theological pamphlet called “The Evangelical Witness in South Africa: Evangelicals Critique Their Theology and Practice.”
This introduced a strange phenomenon in the life of the Church in South Africa and in the nation. I recall a newspaper headline at the time of the publishing of this document that screamed out: “A right-wing group blasts Apartheid!” To be evangelical, as far as the media was concerned, was to be right wing. Such was the public image of evangelicalism, that in the public imagination, the message of the gospel was connected with oppression and siding with the rich against the poor.
Much has happened since then that hopefully has changed this perception. I recall years later when a gay lobby website analysed the stakes against them in their push to have same-sex marriage legalised in post-Apartheid South Africa. They noted that in most parts of the world Christian conservatives opposed them. In South Africa, the rarity was that “progressive” evangelicals like myself and Catholic Cardinal Wilfred Napier were opposed to their agenda.
Being a True Christian Witness
I came to faith at the height of anti-Apartheid struggle. As part of making sense of evangelical belief, I wrestled with such defining features of evangelicalism as personal conversion, salvation by faith in the sufficiency of the cross, the authority of the Bible, personal morality, the priority of evangelism, and faith in the work of the Holy Spirit.
Keeping the faith required the contextualisation of what was in many ways a religion co-opted to serve the interests of the Apartheid state, and allowing Jesus to proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are captive. Thankfully, this was made much easier by the publication of the Lausanne Covenant, which helped to widen the lens of evangelical missiology.
Being black and evangelical, therefore, meant a choice to be a witness in at least three respects.
First, the central message of Christianity is wrongly married to the apparatus of Apartheid repression. The Bible, largely used to justify repression, needed to be reclaimed as good news to the poor, as proclaimed by Jesus. At stake, by and large, was a South African questioning not the text of the Bible, but the messengers of the Bible. Their witness left much to be desired. The people of South Africa “read” the lived version of the Bible, and said “No thanks!”
Christianity was for them a religion of the oppressor. Rebelling against oppression included rebelling against the religion of that repression. It is for this reason that a prophetic Christian tradition emerged in South Africa, pointing to a different Christian practice where biblical faithfulness and rejecting Apartheid went together. The statement that God has not left himself without a witness in every age is true.
Second, being black and evangelical meant to witness that Jesus is relevant to the deepest questions posed by the black experience. To say this is to affirm that Africans can never be free until they are free in Christ. In a publication entitled Looking Back, Moving Forward: Reflections by South African Evangelicals, Lucas Ngoetjana writes,
There was a sense that those who had tasted the freedom which comes through the redemption of the blood of Jesus, who experienced the freedom of the spirit…want to be human and free in all spheres of life…1
Evangelical freedom opens the prison doors to which the human soul is caged and begins an unstoppable quest for wholeness in every area of life. This evangelical truth is an important insight to bear in mind in light of much revolutionary arrogance observable in Africa’s post-liberation politics.
Third, liberation of South Africa from the sin of Apartheid is a Christian duty. Evangelicalism believes in salvation by grace through faith, as opposed to works. This is at once a great relief, as well as a big problem for Christian witness. It is a relief because there is really nothing we can do to merit God’s love. When others find evangelicals cocky and overconfident, even childlike in their faith, if they boast at all, it is in Christ, not themselves. The sufficiency of the cross is an important part of evangelical confidence.
It is also a problem because this has accounted for the lack of evangelical enthusiasm for social responsibility. Evangelical practice in South Africa used the cross as an alibi that somehow absolved them from guilt and complicity with Apartheid. South African Baptists (the white) are on record as having said that: “The views and attitudes of an individual in racial matters do not enter into the realm of his being justified by faith.”2
It is for this reason that black evangelicals cut ties with white evangelicals during the struggle against Apartheid. As we saw it, proclaiming good news to the poor required choosing sides for the oppressed. We reached a historical moment where the push for justice seemed too much for the pull of unity and fellowship. It was a moment that posed a dilemma of something that was at once sinful and just.
Thankfully, by God’s grace, evangelicals had the familial resilience to regroup after the end of Apartheid, forming the non-racial Evangelical Alliance of South Africa.
1. Kretschmar, Louise and Moss Ntlha, eds. 2005. Looking Back, Moving Forward: Reflections by South African Evangelicals. Johannesburg: TEASA, 51.
2. Spong, Bernard and Cedric Mayson, 1993. Come Celebrate: 25 Years of the South African Council of Churches. Johannesburg: Edenvale Printers, 30.