Mr President: We shall err on the side of Caution

Cyril Ramaphosa facing upThe death of Jesus Christ facilitated the tearing of the temple curtain that served as a partition between the holy and the most holy place. This symbolic act represented a proclamation, a reformation and a shift into a new spiritual dispensation of direct and personal spiritual relationship with God. From this time onward, we would not need representatives and mediators between us and God. Jesus Christ had become our Mediator. We no longer needed representative spirituality that was centered around a physical building, activated on certain days or months and based upon a human representative. Instead, God was now indwelling our hearts, wherever we were. When the Gospel reached the shores of Africa, it interfaced with a culture in which spirituality was exercised in the context of the home and the household. European missionaries who sacrificed their lives to bring the Gospel to Africa, having themselves received it from the Middle East, missed a moment in understanding cultural leverage points that would make the Gospel even more powerful in the African context. The African needed a conversion of belief, but not a replacement of a platform of spirituality. That is, the African (just like any other people-group that received the Gospel) needed God in his heart and home first, before the public place of worship – of course the two have a mutual relationship. In saying that, we are forever thankful to God for the missionaries who brought the Gospel to Africa. There is nothing that surpasses the opportunity to hear about the saving grace of Jesus Christ!

In talking about a dispensation of direct and personal spirituality, we are not meaning that church leadership is now unnecessary. The God who saved us and who has established this new system or covenant in which we have direct personal relationship with Him, has equally established the structure of the church. This involves structures of leadership (pastors or elders), leadership gifts that edify the Body of Christ (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) and the continued practice of fellowship and constant gathering. Thus, the New Covenant is built on the foundation of direct personal spirituality that is exercised within a structured church community in which there are leaders. We cannot deny the one for the other. But equally, we must appreciate the foundation of direct and personal relationship with God upon which the structures of the church are built.

During the address by the President last Tuesday evening, he correctly outlined for us that South Africa is a spiritual nation. Growing up as young boy, I witnessed this very reality – we prayed when we were happy and we prayed when we were grieving. And this was not just in our family, but in the entire village and neighborhood. So, the President was correct in his statement. It was also clear in the President’s address that certain structures of the religious community in the main, and of church in particular, had lobbied the government to include the opening of church gatherings at alert Level 3 of the Lockdown, with a compromise of gatherings of 50 people. The word “lobby” defines a democratic process in which a groups of people engage the government to influence legislation and policy. “Lobbying” comes from the historical practice in which people met with legislators in hallways or lobbies of parliamentary buildings, to discuss laws. Thus, the word “lobby” reflects the ideals of advocacy, active citizenship and a healthy democracy. In other words, the mechanism of lobbying is absolutely necessary, but the agenda of lobbyists can sometimes be flawed, producing an undesirable legislative or policy outcome. Pontius Pilate experienced this firsthand. He was the governor who was handcuffed by the masses who were lobbying for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It was a difficult moment: Pilate had no legal basis to execute Jesus, his own wife was having nightmares and begging him not to get involved in what was clearly an unjust cause, religious leaders were lobbying powerfully and the masses were also demanding the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Eventually, the governor washed his hands and declared: “I am innocent of this man’s blood…it is your responsibility. All the people answered, “let his blood be on us and our children””. (Matt. 27:24-25). The outcome was that Judas Iscariot – the one who had betrayed his own Teacher, committed suicide and the religious leaders (known as Pharisees) slowly lost their authority in society. It therefore remains to be seen who will take responsibility in the possible winter outbreaks of Covid-19, within churches that decide to resume gatherings in June. Is it going to be the government that allowed churches to meet amid winter, or is it going to be church leaders who lobbied government? We would not want to take the approach of having to process figures of Covid-19 fatalities in relation to what we could have prevented.

In all of this, here is the issue before us: The President mentioned the fact that we are a spiritual nation – as his basis for the need to allow church gatherings of 50, under alert Level 3. I would assume that the religious lobby group equally applied this very same argument in making proposals to the government. This argument misses the mark! The first thing to consider is that believers are not experiencing religious persecution. On the contrary, they are permitted and well capable to worship God in their homes (that foundation of New Covenant spirituality has not been threatened, and so we should be taking advantage of it, for a time). Therefore, we should not have to lobby a Government that is trying its best to manage a public health-related lockdown, on the grounds of anything outside the perimeter of New Covenant spirituality. Secondly, in stating that South Africa is a spiritual nation, the President inevitably acknowledged the nation’s native ability to walk through this pandemic – yet in the same breath, perhaps compromised further delaying the untimely winter outbreak, by allowing church gatherings of a people that have a soul rich enough to carry the moment and hold the line, for a couple of months, at least until the fog of winter is over.

The other argument that was put forward by the church, was that since funerals of 50 persons were allowed in Lockdown alert Levels 5 and 4, there was no basis for not allowing weekly church gatherings of 50, in alert Level 3. This argument is not quite convincing, for the following reasons: we never plan to have funerals weekly (that is a decision only God can take). And when we do have funerals, families play a significant role in administrating social distancing regulations, of course under the oversight of the officiating pastoral leader. Sunday morning gatherings and funerals simply have very different administrative processes – the family can plan who attends a funeral, whereas Sunday morning has an element of surprise in that you can have visitors (which is a good thing from a church point of view, under normal circumstances). In this argument, we effectively compared apples and oranges.

Well, the good thing that this lobby process reflects, is that we have a government that listens. This is what we have heard from the President and some cabinet ministers from time to time. Our government must be commended for this. And perhaps our President’s background in the Trade Union movement has come to his advantage in this moment, in the sense that he has consulted widely during this State of Disaster regime. This means that the lobby process between the church community and the government was reflective of a healthy democracy. Nonetheless, the agenda, content and outcome of lobbying missed the real need of the nation – the exercise of caution, in an effort to save lives until we’ve at least cleared the fog of winter. On the one hand, the government must listen, on the other hand, it must still lead. How do we open church gatherings in winter season, when people are going to be sneezing, coughing, and having all other flu related symptoms associated with winter? In my opinion, this is what the church community should have lobbied for. And perhaps this is what the Government should have then acceded to: opening up pastoral care and counselling (including church buildings and offices), as well as relief related church ministry, without worship congregations, until at least the fog of winter is clear. It seems to me that the church community presented two things to the government: (1) people’s need for spiritual worship, and (2) pastors’ need to care for the people. These conditions could have been met by allowing pastoral care while encouraging people to worship God from their homes, as a temporary condition.

To effectively engage this lobby process, church had to shake off the idea of putting its activities in the same basket as permitted economic activities. Essentially, church is neither an activity or a commodity; church is the spiritual consciousness of a people – their personal and collective faith in God. That is, in relaxing the lockdown, we have to navigate the two imperatives of LIVES and LIVELIHOODS. Instead of seeing itself as a third component to these two lockdown imperatives, church had to see itself as a steward of spirituality and spiritual consciousness of the nation. That is, as people go back to work, for the sake of their livelihoods (which should be the concern of the church, that people are able to work so they can eat), people do so driven by the principles of the faith. The easing of the lockdown for the sake of livelihoods, is in itself a spiritual principle and domain. The primary thing that church should be concerned about is that this whole process of establishing and easing the lockdown, is under-girded by spiritual principles and consciousness. This is a much more powerful leadership role in society by the church, than advancing limited interests.

When considering what the government strategy has been thus far – a gradual relaxation of the lockdown or the risk adjusted strategy, it is difficult to understand how we open up both the Schools and Church all at the same time, when we still have unresolved issues within the Education sector itself. After all, as we look around, it seems that some churches are deferring re-opening their worship congregations (and this includes the one I lead). A prevalent fault in the lobbying process, is that those who engage political power sometimes do so on behalf of segments of the constituencies they claim to represent. On the other hand, the government must ascertain and be fully satisfied of the representative nature of the lobbying process.

Let us remember, we are a constitutional democracy. This is the context within which all of this is happening – where “Law is King” and where our Citizenship is facilitated by the Rule of Law and not by the interests of the majority. Therefore, the idea of opening activities of the religious communities, on the grounds of them being the “dominant group”, potentially presents some constitutional challenge for those who are not necessarily integrated into religious life. For this reason, the religious community in the main and church in particular should view themselves alongside fellow South Africans, not because they are obligated by lockdown regulations, but because of the Gospel. Needless to say, we as Citizens, must continue to put our constitutional lenses, understanding the constitutional jurisprudence (or philosophical outlook) of democratic South Africa, which is to restore the injustices of the past while upholding the principle of equality. Our vantage point in this pandemic and the resultant lockdown should be the poor and the vulnerable. The vulnerable are most likely to be severely affected by this coronavirus. These people exist mostly in environments of spatial crisis, where there is lack of resources and space to observe social distancing. Are we not adding to the complexity and therefore putting them at unnecessary and untimely risk by this decision to open church gatherings at the start of winter? Is it not better to continue to sound the trumpet for the need for people to stay home and refrain from unnecessary movement? Wouldn’t it have been better for the church on the one side, and the government on the other, to use winter months for advocating and educating communities about what is going on? As we now talk about non pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) like social distancing and washing of hands, which hugely depend on behavioral change and cultural reform, are we convinced that we’ve done enough under the limited time to drive an educational campaign on this virus?

Essentially, opening up church gatherings whilst we are still advocating for “staying at home as much as you can” is to treat the church as a community that exists in a social island apart from the rest of the nation. This goes against the fundamental principle of the faith and of the Kingdom of God, which is “to love your neighbor as yourself”. This command does not only refer to fellow church members, it also includes fellow citizens. The word “neighbor” describes a member of the same human community, a fellow countryman or a person of the same country. It is difficult for the church to pursue its devotional life (captured in the command, “love your God”) without being considerate of its civil obligations (“love your neighbor”). Biblically, it is equally true that our love for God is displayed in our love for His people – we cannot claim to love God when we are inconsiderate of our fellow South Africans. That is, the Christian faith and the Kingdom of God is built on the foundations of spiritual devotion and civil obligation for public wellbeing. The two are not in conflict, and the two may not be separated. In this context, three issues must be considered: (1) in the undesired case of cross-infections in church gatherings during this winter, the church shall be the spreader of the virus back in communities (i.e. the risk of the spread of virus in church gatherings must be understood in the larger context of communities). (2) By choosing to overlook the conditions of her fellow South Africans, church is choosing to be that “selfish and self-absorbed priest and Levite”, instead of being the “Good Samaritan” who allows interruption of his life and program, in order to take care of his fellow country man (in this case, to minimize the untimely spread of the virus in this winter season). (3) When considering the twin principles of devotional faith and civil obligation for public wellbeing, then church should perhaps have lobbied on behalf of the wider community, especially the vulnerable.

It is difficult to think of any crisis that will be as severe as this coronavirus during the presidency of Ramaphosa. In other words, this presidency or administration shall be made or broken by how it manages this pandemic, the lockdown and related matters. Someone rightly said that initiating the lockdown is easier than relaxing it. It is understandable that we are now lifting our foot off the pedal as we return to “normality”, but the idea has been to do this cautiously and gradually, for obvious reasons. While we cannot underestimate the burden upon the shoulders of the president and the government, and while we understand the imperative for a consultative process, we continue to look to the president and the government to lead us. For this reason, we are praying for the president and the government. Not only so, but we are also advocating and sharing wisdom and insight, so that we exercise good judgment as a nation and secure peace and wellbeing in the land. Jeremiah 29 verse 7 says we must pray for the city (nation), but it also says we must seek the prosperity of the city. The word “seek” means to repeatedly research wisdom and insight in the administration of public life. That is, church is called to utilize both devotional faith and administrative wisdom to mitigate crisis in the land. We cannot choose the one over the other. The idea of “choosing” (life) and making good judgment is always put alongside devotional faith in the Bible. In fact, faith outworks itself in the very administration of life. By faith Noah built the ark – he established a system of immunity to preserve life. This is the heritage of church!

As church prays, engages and supports the government, there must be leadership from the government. If God has called our president to steward the nation in this pandemic, then history shall judge this presidency on how well this moment was administrated. For this reason, it continues to be better to err on the side of caution Mr President, than to lead the nation into the fog of winter, where it might be ambushed by coronavirus. In military context (which our Minister of Health has used a lot), the ambush is usually a risk and a probability based on the intelligence on the table. Where ambush is suspected, armies put measures to avoid it, because it is always better to err on the side of caution, Mr President.

We are praying for you, Mr President, we are praying for this government. And we are praying for our nation.

Robert Ntuli

Pastor – LivingStones Agency

Visionary Leader – Kingdom Humanity Fellowship


Please follow the links below to access other resources relevant to the current pandemic…

  1. On the Issue of Essentiality of Church
  2. The Lockdown Debate and the Issue of the Vantage Point
  3. The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 1
  4. The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 2
  5. Covid-19: A Prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 1)
  6. Covid-19: A prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 2)
  7. Restating the foundations of the New Covenant
  8. Drivers for effective life in the current season of the pandemic
  9. Doing church in the crisis of coronavirus

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